Yesterday was the Day of Epiphany, which marked the end of the Christmas season for both east and west. Yesterday was the appropriate day to sing “We Three Kings” to remember the visit of the magi to the home of the Holy Family. Yes, if we still had our creche scene out, yesterday would have been the appropriate day to add the “three wise men.” Of course, if we follow scripture the Holy Family would have taken residence in a house, and the shepherds and the sheep would have gone back to their fields.
That was yesterday. Today we gather on the First Sunday after Epiphany, which is a season of light and revelation. On this day we remember the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan at the hands of John the Baptist, who declared that while he baptized with the water, someone would come who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:4-11). It’s appropriate on this first Sunday after Epiphany, as we remember the baptism of Jesus, to remember our own baptisms, and recommit ourselves to being disciples of Jesus.
Baptism is an important sacrament in the Disciples tradition, and we often look to Acts 2 for guidance in our baptismal practice. Disciples traditionally baptize people by immersion upon a profession of faith, because it seems to fit the biblical testimony and the practice of the earliest Christians. Our Disciples founders took to heart Peter’s response to the crowd on that first Pentecost Sunday. When the people asked “what must we do to be saved?”, Peter responded by inviting them to repent and be baptized, so that they might receive forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Walter Scott turned that text into a nice evangelistic formula, which came to be known as the “five-fingered Exercise.” He told inquiring minds that if you want to experience salvation, then believe in Jesus, repent of your sins, and be baptized, so that you might receive forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. That seems fairly cut and dry, and it might provide a solid foundation for normal patterns of church life.
While I fully embrace our Disciple tradition of baptism by immersion on a profession of faith, I recognize that Holy Spirit isn’t limited by my beliefs, practices, or formulas. When we go to the book of Acts, we see a variety of practices. Right off the bat, we find Philip baptizing the Samaritan believers in the name of Jesus, but it takes a visit from Peter and John, who lay hands on these new disciples, for them to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8). After that, Philip swoops in and baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch after he professes faith in Jesus (Acts 8:26-39), and no mention is made of laying of hands. Apparently, in this case the Spirit acted without further intervention. Then we come to Cornelius, who is a Roman military officer, who was known for his piety and support for the Jewish community. Peter followed the leading of the Spirit to Cornelius’ house, where he shared the gospel with this household, not sure what God had in mind. In this case, the Spirit falls on Cornelius and his household before Peter could administer baptism. In fact, Peter didn’t even get a chance to issue the altar call (Acts 10:34-44). That leads us to Paul’s visit to Ephesus, where he encounters a group of disciples, who had only received the baptism of John (Acts 19:1-7).
Here in Acts 19 we run into Paul, who is traveling back to Jerusalem from Corinth, where he had spent considerable time, planting a church, along with Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18). On the way home, Paul stops in Ephesus, where he encounters this group of twelve “disciples” who had received the baptism of John. He arrives in Ephesus at about the same time that Apollos left Ephesus for Corinth. Apollos was a powerful preacher, who had received the baptism of John, but will gain instruction in Corinth from Priscilla and Aquila.
When Paul meets this group of twelve disciples, he asks them about the Holy Spirit. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They answered Paul by saying: “we have not heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” In other words, they seem to have missed a central piece of discipleship, and Paul will take steps to rectify the situation. Since they professed not to know about the Spirit and had been baptized only into John’s baptism, Paul baptized them in the name of Jesus. Then, he laid hands on them, prayed for them, so that they might receive the Holy Spirit. There are similarities here between this experience and that in Samaria, except that Paul both did the baptizing and the laying on of hands.
While this is one of the stranger stories in Scripture, it does suggest that the Holy Spirit can’t be controlled. That’s why I titled my book about spiritual gifts Unfettered Spirit. The Spirit moves as the Spirit wills. Since the Holy Spirit is the primary actor in the Book of Acts, moving the mission of God forward, it’s wise for us to pay attention to the way that the Spirit moves. We may like to have things nailed down, at least I do, but the Spirit has been known to upset the apple cart.
This takes us back to Baptism of Jesus Sunday. The image on the cover of the bulletin pictures John baptizing Jesus, with the Spirit resting above Jesus in the form of a dove. I liked this particular image in part because it’s very contemporary, but I also liked it because seems to picture Jesus having been fully immersed in the waters of the Jordan. In other words, it fits my vision of what happened that day when Jesus came to the Jordan to receive John’s baptism, the same baptism that these disciples in Ephesus received before they were rebaptized by Paul, and had hands laid on them to impart to them the Holy Spirit. Their experience with baptism, their seeming knowledge of Jesus, but not of the Holy Spirit, leads me to believe that they came to know Jesus before Pentecost, but didn’t experience Pentecost.
But, if they had heard John speak of Jesus, they should have heard that someone was coming who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. That person, according to John, as we see in both Luke and Mark, was Jesus. Had they been there on the day Jesus was baptized, at least according to Luke’s account, they might have seen that the “heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:15-22).
Ultimately the story of Jesus’ baptism, and this story in Acts 19, aren’t about the form that baptism takes, as much as I’d like to nail down the form. It’s about the Holy Spirit. In his baptism, Jesus becomes the bearer of the Holy Spirit. In our own baptisms, we become bearers of the Spirit as well. Sometimes the Spirit might fall before the water comes upon us. Sometimes the Spirit will come with the waters. Sometimes it’ll take an extra step, like the laying on of hands to get the job done. Ultimately, this is all up to the Spirit, who moves upon us, gifting and empowering us, so that we might be a blessing to our neighbors. As Willie James Jennings puts it: “Paul wants the disciples to baptize their discipleship in Jesus; and thereby join their lives to his in such a way that they will lose their life in the waters of baptism only to find it again in the resurrected one” (Acts, p. 184). This occurs as the Spirit takes hold in their lives, and our lives. That is, when they become baptized with the Holy Spirit.
In a moment we’ll have the opportunity to reaffirm our own baptisms, and if someone hasn’t been baptized and is ready to baptize their discipleship in Jesus, then we can make arrangements for that to happen. Again, this is about the Spirit, who works as the Spirit wills, not as we will.
Picture Attribution: Zelenka, Dave. Baptism of Christ, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56385 [retrieved January 6, 2018]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Baptism-of-Christ.jpg.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
January 7, 2018
Baptism of Jesus Sunday