Baptism of the Holy Spirit

Isaiah 43:1-7

Psalm 29


Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Today is the first Sunday after Epiphany in the Church calendar and it celebrates Jesus’ baptism when, according to Luke, he was blessed by the Holy Spirit and the voice from Heaven said to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” My own baptism was not half so spectacular, I can tell you. I was nine and remember vividly going to the chancel rail with my parents in the Methodist Church in St. Louis where I grew up. The minister was saying words I didn’t understand, and when he dipped his hand in the bowl of water and pressed it down on my head, the brittle Stay-Comb hair fixer my mother had slathered on my unruly mop shattered and crackled with a most upsetting sensation of something breaking. That was not an epiphany, although I wish I still had the hair.

The text from Luke actually makes reference to three baptisms. First, John the Baptist was conducting a revival with mass baptisms for repentance and cleansing from sin. Second, Jesus, who came to John for that Baptism, was uniquely revealed by the Spirit and Word to be the Son of God. And third, although first in our text, John says that Jesus himself will bring a baptism not of water but of Spirit and fire. These three different references to baptism all have significant meanings as they have been developed within the Christian tradition. Christian baptism, of course, is not literally any of these, except perhaps the last; rather it is the ceremony of initiation into the Christian life, into membership in the Church. I believe that we need a new awakening of the meaning of our baptism, not that those who have been baptized need to be baptized again, but that we need to catch the Spirit and fire of what it has meant all along.

The first meaning of baptism is obvious from the symbolism, namely a washing away of our sins. Sin is symbolized as dirt, uncleanness. Many Christians, especially those called “Baptists” (not unexpectedly) believe that a person needs to be totally immersed. Like John the Baptist who called upon people to repent of their sins, and baptized them in the Jordan only after they had repented as a symbolic act of making them clean, many Baptists and others today believe that only people old enough to understand what they are doing and genuinely repent should be baptized, a custom called “believer’s baptism.” Other Christians, however, note that the cleansing from sin is an act of God and not a reward for repentance. So they baptize infants who are presented by their parents. Whatever kind of original sin a baby might have inherited, and there are many conflicting beliefs about that, it is washed away with the ritual and the child is incorporated as a full member of the Christian community. The parents, godparents, and the whole household of God are charged with the education of the child in Christian piety. Whether of infants, nine-year olds, or hardened repentant sinners, baptism means that the baptized people ever after are members of the Christian church, for whom other Christians have a responsibility, regardless of whether they carry on congregational membership, moral seriousness, or Christian belief. No one ever needs to be baptized twice.

Let me tell you then that if you have been baptized, and yet you feel burdened by guilt, that burden is unnecessary. You might well be guilty and something should be done about that. But you should not be burdened by the guilt or let it keep you from God. The author of Colossians wrote “And when you were dead in trespasses . . . God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col. 2:12-14) Remember the verse from Horatio Spafford’s hymn “It is Well with My Soul”: “My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.” If you feel such a burden, then take your baptism seriously, renew the baptismal vows that you made or that were made for you at your baptism and participate in the full grace of the Christian community. If you have not been baptized, enter into the process of becoming so. At Marsh Chapel our Easter Vigil service will include the baptism of new members of the Body of Christ and the renewal of baptismal vows of those who would like that. Please talk with one of the deans of the Chapel if you want to participate. The second sense of baptism is deeper in meaning, if such a thing is possible. In this sense, baptism is going down with Jesus into the waters of death, and then rising from those waters in resurrection. The author of Colossians wrote to the people of that congregation, “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through the faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” When John the Baptist put Jesus under the waters of the Jordan, like returning to the primeval chaos before creation, that prefigured Jesus’ death. When Jesus rose from the waters and the Holy Spirit descended, like the divine wind in the beginning, that prefigured Jesus’ resurrection. When we Christians are baptized we die with Jesus to the old life of sin and rise with Jesus to the new life, the new creation, in which we are already embraced eternally with God. The author of Colossians went on to say, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:1-3) I pray that you have a musical ear for these wonderful symbols of the Christian faith.

Of course the resurrection of life in baptism, enjoyed by all Christians, does not mean the end of daily life and its problems. The author of Colossians goes on to say that resurrected Christians should put to death the old patterns of sin and put on the new ways of God: “But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with a new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all in all!” (Col. 3:8-11) As baptized Christians, dead to sin and raised to new life in Christ we don’t have to worry about sin’s burdens or the fear of death. Our only concerns now are sanctification and holiness. We have the Holy Spirit, God’s creative power present throughout all creation, to discipline and guide us.

The third meaning of baptism follows precisely from this. John the Baptist said Jesus would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire. I suspect from other things he said that John thought that Jesus would be an even fiercer judge than he himself had been. But the subsequent Christian understanding of Jesus’ baptism in the Holy Spirit is more complicated than moral judgment. It means at least four things, I believe.

First, baptism in the Holy Spirit means that God is with us in the process of sanctification in which we put aside our old bad habits one by one and take up the habits of new life, as described in the las
t Colossians passage. What does this mean in practice? It means that the creative power of God is all around us, in the renewing powers of nature, in our bodies’ natural healing processes, in the natural desire of people to help, and in our own love of life. Many things hold us back, especially feelings of guilty unworthiness. But we have died to those things and are free for God’s renewing power to run through us like a river.

Second, baptism in the Holy Spirit is in all the things of religion, especially the Church, which provides patterns of good life, symbols to connect us with redeeming powers, congregations of people with whom life builds up all who participate, scriptures to read, theology to contemplate, service to render others, songs to sing, dances to dance, and messages to preach to witness the Spirit in our lives. What does this mean in practice? It means we need constantly to be alert to the discernment of the true Holy Spirit in contrast to the tempting spirits of evil, for we all know that religion can be harmful, the Church sometimes advocates destructive patterns of life, symbols can be used demonically, congregations can be dysfunctional, theologies can lie, service can be manipulative, songs can destroy the spirit, dances can become marches, and testimony can preach hate. The Christian life collectively and individually is a constant critical discernment of spirits, measuring their claims by the fruits of the Holy Spirit. With our own spirits alert, the Holy Spirit can be discerned in the incredibly rich resources of the Body of Christ such that our new lives have powers to heal the world as well as ourselves.

Third, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in which Christ baptizes us manifests the love of God toward us, patient, kind, and lovely. When Jesus was baptized, the divine voice called him “My Son, my beloved” and, as we are grafted onto Christ as branches of the true vine, we become aware of being beloved children of God. This is celebrated in our public worship. In the ancient Church the communal enjoyment of the blessings of God’s love in the Holy Spirit was expressed sometimes through ecstatic speaking in tongues, and many Christian congregations experience that today. Even more God’s love can be felt in the depths of our hearts as our spiritual discipline teaches us to be silent and still. The life of prayer, meditation, and contemplation in private, often guided by a spiritual director, can lead to profound experiences of God’s loving, correcting, comforting spiritual vitality. As Augustine said, when you go deep enough within your own soul you find not yourself but God. Divine ecstasy means being beside yourself, which can take place in charismatic worship as well as in profound contemplation.

The fourth meaning of Christ’s baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire is the genuine ecstasy of turning from glorying in God’s love for us to our loving God as our beloved. If we are truly created in God’s image, and God is the great lover who creates the world and redeems creation, then it is not enough for us to receive God’s love. We fulfill God’s image by loving as God loves. We can love the creator in all things created, for which the shorthand expression is loving our neighbors. And we can love the Creator God as our beloved. Loving God is not exactly like loving another being, because God is the depths of our own hearts, the ground of our being. But loving God is not loving only the God in us. Through the Holy Spirit, which is God in us, we can love the Creator of the entire cosmos. This is not easy, because that Creator gives us suffering and death as well as all the graces of life. Probably we have to hate God before we can love God seriously. When we do take God as our lover, our beloved, our own sense of self sinks to insignificance. The fire of sexual ecstasy has long been the best symbol for the ecstasy of loving God. When the Holy Spirit brings us to love God, who can say whether it is we giving ourselves to God in the Spirit loving us, or we in the Spirit loving God, or God loving God in us, or we loving the creation in God? Please groan in the Spirit to be God’s lover, for it is part of baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire.

I have represented these four meanings of being baptized in the Holy Spirit and fire as if they were separate, yet they are intimately connected and grow into one another. Personal sanctification, communal holiness, personal and communal experience of God’s love, and the ecstasy of loving God are integral parts of the one fire of Christian life. The light that came into the world in Christ brings our misdeeds to life and cleanses them: it leads us through the death of our old selves to new life of holiness: it sets us aglow with the power of sanctification, communal holiness, the experience of God’s love, and the ecstasy of loving God. In that light we can turn from our self-concerns and live for others as free friends and lovers of God. The appearance of Jesus makes all this possible.

If you are a Christian whose sense of your baptism has fallen asleep, I invite you to wake up. Do you long for cleansing from sin, for going through death to true life, for sanctification, holy community, the knowledge of God’s love for you, and the ecstasy of loving God? Then become a Christian in a serious way. It’s time for a Great Awakening of the Holy Spirit in us and in our land. Do not settle for being what John Wesley called an “almost Christian.” Like Jesus, come to the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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