Sprinkle on the Head or Full Plunge?
Preached January 11, 2015
Scripture: Mark 1:4-11, Acts 19: 1-7
I’m going to start my sermon with a basic question today. With what are we baptized? Water! Yes! Water!
When we think of baptism we think of water. Sometimes we sprinkle water on the heads of infants, then confirm this baptism when they are teens, and some traditions wait until the infant is grown up enough to make a decision of their own, and usually then takes the full plunge into Christianity, in a pool or a lake or river or pond ocean- whatever body of water is around.
Some of you know this about me, but for those who don’t, I was dunked in a lake 20 minutes from here, in my early 20s, as my parents left the baptism decision up to me. This was before I had any twinkle in my eye about First Church, before I even knew much about Connecticut. I was in seminary and it became clear that beyond studying religion, I needed to explore going into ministry. So I did, and baptized I was dunked under water 4 times, “In the name of the father, the son, the holy spirit, one God, Mother of us all.” I wore red.
The word for baptize in Greek has watery connotations beyond the religious ones that we know- it was the same word used for when a ship capsized, tipped over into water, and for dying fabric, when you dip it in the liquid dye, and it changes color. Do we change color when we are baptized? Do we dangerously tip over into something mysterious and deep that we can’t see and understand, when we are baptized?
Both texts today are from the New Testament, usually we have one from the Hebrew Bible, before Jesus came around, but today because we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, we chose to focus on these two New testament texts. And upon reading these two texts closely, we notice there is another element of baptism, that is often over looked. Does anyone know what this is?
“The Holy Spirit doesn’t get enough press,” someone commented to me this week. The Holy Spirit is the activator of Spiritual experiences- The third person of the trinity, the spirit that Jesus leaves us, that is with us always, that enlivens us, inspires us, confounds us, moves us. Both our texts today speak of baptism, and remind us, that those who are baptized, are baptized with the Holy Spirit.
According to Acts 19:1-7, We have company in the forgetting of the Holy Spirit around baptism. Paul said to Appolos and some disciples of Jesus, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “Uhhh… Holy Spirit? We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
“Then into what were you baptized!” Paul said.
“John’s baptism! John’s baptism. John the baptizer, the one by the river, calling for repentance of sins, that one!”
Paul laid hands on them, and the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.
Spoke in tongues and prophesied? Well we can’t relate to that. Those things are for those Christians. Who pick up snakes. Who take the bible literally. Who ‘pray the gay away,’ or at least those are our stereotypes. What those Christians also have, is the lived experience of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus. Often their initiation into Christianity is welcoming Jesus into your heart, and being saved by this experience, and seeking to live every element of life differently because of it. And I can understand that. I am a Holy Spirit sympathizer, and more than sympathizer, a Holy Spirit lover.
Baptism is sometimes considered the Initiation into Christian experience, and we seek to welcome all people who desire it. And often, what follows theologically, is the partaking in the holy supper, communion, the other ritual that we observe as sacrament. Protestant traditions argue over whether baptism is important before communion or not, and the answers differ.
In an article in Christian Century titled, “Who is communion for? The debate over the open table,” Charles Hefling sites, “The restriction (of the communion table) is ancient. It goes back as far as the Apostolic Fathers. “You must not let anyone eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who are baptized in the Lord’s name.” So says the Didachē, the oldest catechism there is.
I understand the impulse to put a fence around the communion table and baptism. We want these sacraments to have integrity. To reflect our commitment to the path of Jesus. We want those who partake to take these things seriously. We want people to come to the communion table prepared for the gift they are about to receive. To approach with reverence. I understand that.
Baptism is powerful. And when the Holy Spirit goes into forgotten land, we inadvertently try to control the experiences that are uncontrollable, and know the experiences that are at their essence unknowable and mysterious. The free gift of Grace, the blessing by the Holy Spirit, and symbolic unification with Jesus, through baptism, is one of these experiences. Of course we want to put a fence around this, to mediate this experience.
To make rules around baptism and communion means though, that we fully understand what happens, that we can control how people received the Holy Spirit.
I believe strongly in open table communion, meaning all people, no matter if they are doubters, believers, baptized or un baptized, sinners are saints, are welcome at God’s table. Because it is just that, God’s table, and it is a version of idolatry to think that we can decide who gets to partake. First Church practices Open Communion, and did before I got here. But like many Christian churches, this is not, and has not always been the case. Who are we to say, if someone is feeling Christian in their heart that day, or if they need renewal in Christ, and this is their first time? Or if there was a lapse of faith, and there is a return, or a need for strength.
All someone needs is the desire, all someone needs is to be hungry for the grace of God. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, and when we put fences around the table, we are claiming that we understand there to be limits to the amazing grace of God.
“If God has given such grace and given love so abundantly and so broadly (Acts 11:22), then who am I to stand in God’s way (11:17)? The best any of us can do is to back up what is already and obviously happening.” Richard Rohr Immortal Diamond
Rev. Dr. Bruce Epperly writes, “While baptism is not necessary for salvation, it is a sign of God’s grace and opens the door for experiencing a greater impact of God’s energy of love in our lives and communities. Baptism is a type of spiritual vortex, an axis of graceful energy that attracts other graceful energies into our lives and expands our ability to share grace with others. The promise of God in baptism serves to remind us body, mind, and spirit that we are always recipients of grace: grace does not depend on our perfection, although turning away from God may impede its flow into our lives; grace is a constant, dependable, and faithful act of God that comes to us personally and corporately in all the seasons of life.”
If we are baptized, it doesn’t make us any better than anyone else, and doesn’t give us any privileges that other people don’t have access to. There are many ways that Grace and the Holy Spirit come to people, this is just the way that we recognize as Christians, in imitation of the baptism of Jesus.
The symbolic quality of being baptized means that through the Holy Spirit, at any time, we can have renewal into new life, through capsizing into death, and through the resurrection of Christ. In Christian language, the significance of baptism shows the importance of lived spiritual experiences- and I want to emphasize this- lived spiritual experiences. In Progressive Christianity, people seek the spirit outside of the church, “spiritual but not religious,” or in charismatic or evangelical churches. We don’t have great language or tradition for cultivating lived, personal experiences with the Holy Spirit, and I think this is going to be key for our thriving into the coming years. We are working on it right now in Deacons on our Lenten series which will focus on lived embodied spiritual experience, on spiritual practice. Many of us do this already, but don’t really talk about it in the context of church. I want us to start thinking about this now-what kind of lived spiritual experiences do we want to have?
Let us not be afraid of the Holy Spirit- something beyond our knowing, beyond our intellect, beyond our ability to see or explain it. Remembering that the Holy Spirit is central to our baptism is an entry point to think about what it means to be spiritual, to have lived spiritual experience. When we allow space for the Holy Spirit, our lives can change. When we engage in spiritual practice, we invite the presence of the Holy Spirit.
It probably doesn’t matter how much water goes on your head. Whether you took the full plunge into baptism, or whether you had some sprinkled water on you as a baby, or if you are baptized at all. But this ritual act that marks our ability to have blessing by the Holy Spirit, totally undeserved, unexpected blessing, that gives us new life in Christ. For John the Baptist says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” We are invited to imitate Jesus, and make spaces for the Holy Spirit to descend on us like a dove, or for the heavens to rip open and reveal God. Let it be so. Amen.