Sermon preached at Queen Anne Christian Church, January 13, 2013
Acts 8:14-17 14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16(for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17Then Peter and John* laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
Luke 3:15-22 15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler,* who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and 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.’
As I was reading the many different stories of Jesus’ baptism this past week I was reminded of my own baptism and the story surrounding it. I was 10 years old when I attended the class that would prepare me, and my entire Sunday school class, for baptism. While I had attended church all my young life, for me, this baptism was more about how cool it would be to suddenly become “Holy” and have all my sins forgiven. I mean my thoughts were, “Wow all of my sins were going to be forgiven, even the ones mom and dad didn’t know about, how cool was that.”
I wasn’t disappointed when the sky didn’t open up and I didn’t hear a voice or see a dove, but I was disappointed that I didn’t “feel” any different. I didn’t feel as if I had been forgiven. However, knowing, at the wise age of 10, that I should feel something I was afraid to say anything because everyone else seemed so darned happy. It would be another 20 years before I felt I was beginning to understand what baptism meant and felt a tug to renew that commitment and asked to be re-baptized. This time I knew that something was different; I just didn’t know what it was. It would take another 20 years of trying to live a good life, failing most times, but, sometimes coming close before I experienced what I call an intervention by the Holy Spirit and had a new enlightenment about what it meant to be part of a faith community.
At the time this happened I was at a very difficult place in my life and my “ah-ha” moment was the most dramatic event to ever happen to me. It changed how I viewed myself and everyone and everything around me in relation to how I envisioned my life with God, Spirit and Christ. Now, events like that do not happen every day or for every person. But, I am grateful for what I experienced and feel blessed to have been given something I feel is special and I try to live into the promise given me that day.
You are probably calculating in your mind “let see 10+20+20=50, she was fifty when baptism finally made sense!” All I can say is I’m a really slow learner. But yes, I didn’t I understand what it meant to be baptized until I was well into my adult years. Your own stories may say you understood before, during or right after you entered and exited the waters of baptism. Every person is different and the Spirit picks the time it will act, we don’t tell the Holy Spirit. Nor do we pick the moment when all of it comes together. In my tradition of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Baptism is believer’s baptism by immersion, just as it was for Jesus. That means we are supposed to know why we do it and for most part I think most of us do, for some of us it just takes a little longer. As Luke tells the story it didn’t come together even for Jesus until after he was baptized and in prayer.
You know we have heard the stories of Jesus’ baptism so often we don’t actually ‘hear’ it when it is read. It is actually only in Mark and Matthew where we have a retelling of John baptizing Jesus. How many of you unconsciously substituted Mark’s or Matthew’s story in the above Luke scripture when you read it and missed the focus of Luke’s telling of the story?
First of all Luke does tell us Jesus was baptized. He doesn’t actually say it was John the Baptist, although most likely it was. But in Verse 3:21, Luke’s story of Jesus’ baptism is almost an afterthought. Jesus was baptized with all of those who came to the Jordan River. He was baptized just like any other person seeking repentance and forgiveness. Nothing special, it was an act of commitment and faith just like every person coming to John at the Jordan River. What is highlighted is that sometime after the baptism when Jesus was in prayer the Spirit descends upon him “like a dove” and he hears God’s voice say “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Luke doesn’t focus much on the commitment, repentance and forgiveness of the act of baptism. Instead his focus is on the baptism of the Spirit, just as John tells his audience in Verse 16; “… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Jesus’ baptism is with the Holy Spirit and the Spirit decides when that will happen, and, for Luke prayer plays a huge role in when the Holy Spirit comes.
In the first scripture reading from Acts we read that a Samaritan Community had been baptized but “the Spirit had not yet come upon … them,” so Peter and John travel to Samaria pray for the Holy Spirit and lay “their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” Jesus was in prayer, Peter and John prayed and the Holy Spirit came. Does this mean that the Spirit will always come in response to prayer … ah … probably not? As I said the Spirit picks the moment when it gives enlightenment, not us.
But Luke’s focus on the act of prayer is the key to our spiritual doors; prayer has a special place in Luke’s Gospel. The Evangelist tells us Jesus is constantly going away to be in prayer, he prays with his disciples, he prays for the sick, the lame, and the possessed. Jesus prays in the garden and on the cross. Jesus’ entire life is a model of a life lived in prayer and the relationship with his Abba that prayer fostered. For Luke the most important thing Jesus taught his disciples was prayer. The way to talk to and build relationship with God is in prayer.
Luke continues his theme of prayer in his second book, the Acts of the Apostles. Following Jesus’ ascension the disciples returned to Jerusalem and devoted their time to prayer. They prayed when they replaced Judas with Matthias. When the Holy Spirit descends on them they were all sitting together, my guess is they were praying, as that would have been their practice. The first converts were taught by the Apostles to pray and when the community became too great to lead by themselves, they appointed Stephen and Philip to do community management, so they, the Apostles, could devote themselves to teaching, baptizing and prayer.
I am not saying that Luke ranked baptism as second to prayer, for he doesn’t. Baptism is and will always be the first sacrament. For us Disciples baptism is one of only two sacraments we have, the other being the Lord’s Supper. However, Luke is explaining to his community of Gentile converts that it takes the two together, baptism plus prayer, to fully understand the commitment made in Christ’s name. He is also trying to explain to his community that the Holy Spirit does not always come in direct response to baptism. Sometimes it comes before or after baptism, it is the Spirits choice. Paul experiences Christ and the Spirit on the road to Damascus and is baptized after that dramatic event. As Luke describes Paul and as Paul writes in his letters the act of prayer is an important part of being in a Christian Faith Community. Baptism is the commitment to God and community often in response to prayer. Baptism plus prayer is the key that opens the door of our heart, into that inner place of the Spirit and shows us the way to live a life that is Christ filled, God filled and Spirit filled.
One isn’t more important than the other, in fact, we need both for the key to work, but some of us have locks where the Spirit connects with us first and then we are baptized, sometimes it’s the other way around and sometimes it’s all at the same moment. It is a little like an analogy I picked up from my biologist research days using DNA, RNA and enzymes in comparing how they work in our bodies to how our spiritual DNA, RNA and enzymes might work in our spiritual bodies.
Our Spiritual DNA determines the shape of the RNA and how it will fit together with the enzymes in our bodies. Each has to be a specific shape in order for both to fit together like a lock and key. The enzyme only fits one way in each person and when it does the two together create something new and important to keep us living. I don’t know which of the two, baptism or pray, is the RNA and which the enzyme. I do know that how they fit together in each of us is a specific characteristic for each individual. Both parts are needed in order for the spiritual life to come awake.
Luke knows baptism is important; everyone who comes to Christ is baptized. Everyone who is baptized will have their own experience of Spirit, often whether they recognize it as such or not. The Holy Spirit often speaks so quietly that only a quiet new awareness begins to guide us without our knowing why. Prayer is the tool used by the Spirit to teach us the meaning of baptism and how to be in relationship with God, Christ and Holy Spirit.
How we respond to baptism will be an individual act, how the Spirit guides us is the result of prayer. We can’t have one without the other if we are to live into a Faith Filled Community of God. Baptism is the recognition of our humanness, our humanity and our commitment to something greater than who we are. Prayer is the part that leads to our understanding of what our humanity and commitment means. The two together are the Key that unlocks the door to the Kingdom.
Ruth Jewell, ©January 13, 2013