Does Baptism Matter?
January 13, 2013
Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Pastor Mary Blessing,
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Scotts Valley, CA
Baptism. There is so much we could say about Baptism. But we rarely talk about it unless we are actually engaged in the baptism ritual. Today I want to offer a “teaching” sermon on Baptism. I do this because throughout all Christian denominations there are varying understandings of what is important, or not, in Baptism. Here at St. Philip’s we have people from many different backgrounds. It would benefit us to give serious consideration to what scripture says about Jesus’ baptism. Once we have learned what scripture says about Jesus’ baptism, we will consider what our baptism means for us.
I will first examine the stories of Jesus’ baptism, using not only our reading from Luke, but also comparing the other three gospels. The key is to find a common element which shows the essence of Jesus’ baptism.
What happened at Jesus’ baptism is remembered differently in each of the 4 Gospels.
The story as told by Mark and Matthew sounds the most familiar. These 2 gospels come close to giving the same account; Matthew just gives extra details. Jesus chooses his Baptism. Mark and Matthew both make it clear that it is John the Baptist who does this ritualistic washing. As Jesus rises from the water, the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice from heaven says: “This is my beloved Son.”
The Gospel of John is quite different. It does not even have Jesus in the River, or being baptized by John the Baptist. The Baptist’s role is merely to identify Jesus as the one on whom the Holy Spirit has descended—as if Jesus was baptized only by the Spirit and not also water. John’s gospel says nothing here of a heavenly voice speaking.
Luke’s story is sort of in between the extremes of represented by Matthew & Mark vs. John. You can’t tell from today’s reading from Luke, but if you read the unedited story, Luke actually places Jesus’ baptism AFTER John the Baptist is already in prison. So who did this ritualistic washing of Jesus? Luke doesn’t say. Luke simply states: “after all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and had been praying…” then The Holy Spirit came upon Jesus, “descending like a dove in bodily form”. Luke also tells of a heavenly voice claiming Jesus as “my beloved Son.” What seems to be the most important element for Luke is the Holy Spirit coming while Jesus prays.
To summarize: The only element common to all 4 Gospels is the Spirit coming upon Jesus, descending like a dove. Mark and Matthew have connected the Spirit to immersion in water. Luke describes the Holy Spirit as coming during Jesus’ time of prayer following his baptism. John simply has noticed that the Spirit had descended upon Jesus, and John’s role is to identify Jesus as he walks through the crowd toward the Baptist. Jesus is not in the water.
In other words, the intangible but powerful presence of the Holy Spirit is the one element in common in all 4 gospels. The Spirit comes upon Jesus in the context of ritualistic washing, but not necessarily tied to water itself.
All 4 Gospels intend to let the reader know that the “Coming of the Spirit” is the commissioning of Jesus—it is the Holy Spirit that empowers him for ministry. The Rabbis of Jesus’ day taught that the Spirit had departed from the earth with the last prophets of Israel. (New Interpreter’s Bible, v. IX, p. 91) Now, all 4 Gospels tell us that God’s Holy Spirit is returning, filling Jesus with this spiritual power from on high. The new indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Jesus leads him to ministry.
Jesus’ baptism was a sacred moment in salvation history; marking the return of the Holy Spirit. The Christian church very quickly understood that Baptism and the receiving of the Holy Spirit was a fundamental sacrament. It is the primary initiation rite into Christianity. Remember what we heard from the Book of Acts today, about the importance of the new Christian converts in Samaria. While they had received a washing with water in the name of Jesus, they didn’t receive the Holy Spirit until the laying on of hands of Peter and John. By the beginning of the 2nd Century Christians had developed a full liturgy of prayer and ritual, created a Baptismal covenant, and were well on the way to fulfilling Matthew’s Great Commission to “baptize all nations in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Matt 28:19)
Now, what does this say about OUR Baptism? Baptism is foundational to our faith, yet is not well understood even by Christians, much less our world of skepticism and doubt. One threat to understanding the value of Baptism is the fact that various denominations believe slightly different things about baptism, just as the 4 gospels report it differently. Denominations are tempted to say their interpretation is the only valid way. In the Episcopal/Anglican tradition we say there is ONE BAPTISM into the Body of Christ—which is to say, where ever you have been baptized in another tradition of the church, it is still a valid baptism.
Another problem Christians have is that many of us take our own baptisms for granted. It was something “done to us” as infants, we had no choice. How meaningful could it be? Many who have been baptized as children reject the promises given by their parents and Christian community, so where has that Holy Spirit gone? And then there are those people we know who have never been baptized, yet they seem to have a charism, a holy presence. Does that mean they have been baptized directly by the Holy Spirit, no water, no ritual?
I’d like to ask you a question: Do you remember YOUR baptism? Do you care to share your memory with us?
Does Baptism matter? It certainly did to Jesus and early Christians, and I believe it does for us. But not in a way that judges others as unworthy. It matters in that it makes a difference in how we understand our relationship to God and each other in Christ.
Our baptism is a sacrament that forms a bond between God and us. A sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” (BCP, p. 857). When we are baptized in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, we engage in a very tangible ritual, to bring to our awareness the inward grace God gives us. Our ritual draws upon all 4 of the Gospels stories of Baptism. We also have retained the early church understanding that those who have received the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands are eligible to be the ones to perform this ritual, as Peter and John did in Acts. Additionally, we incorporate the Baptismal Covenant and words of examination so that we can make promises to respond to God’s invitation to be in loving, covenant relationship with God and each other through Christ. This ritual offers us God’s promise to be in loving relationship with us, and we are invited to respond by loving God in return. Each time we participate in a Baptismal service, which we will do here at St. Philip’s in 2 weeks, we have the opportunity to renew our Baptismal Covenant.
[I wrote this, but ended up not saying it in the sermon: To paraphrase Calvin, Christians understand that all sacraments first have God’s promise, which is attached to us, in a kind of holy bonding “in order to confirm and seal the promise.” (quoted from Owen C. Thomas, Introduction to Theology, p.253) The Sacrament also holds our future, as in Baptism, when we read in Ephesians that “the gift of the Spirit in baptism is the earnest and guarantee of the fullness of salvation.” (Thomas, p. 253) In other words, by your baptism, you will have eternal life.]
Now, let me ask you something else about your Baptism. Have you ever taken it for granted? Has it ever been challenged as valid?
Have you ever had a time when you felt as if your baptism was being denied? I spoke with a young adult recently who gave me permission to share her experience of feeling as if her baptism was being denied. While in college, as many young people do, she explored other churches than the one where she grew up. She had some friends who belonged to an unusual Christian sect who held strictly to the notion as described in the Gospel of John that Baptism was ONLY understood as a Holy Spirit event. There is no leader who says prayers over you, or washes you with water, or anoints you with chrism oil. It is only that kind of “momentary presence of the Holy Spirit” which is somehow known to those around you, and you yourself know that “ah ha, this is the moment the Holy Spirit came to me”. John’s gospel is where we get the language of being “born again”, or “born from above”, when Jesus speaks to Nicodemus. This sect expected people to have that specific kind of “Holy Spirit Baptism”. Because this young woman had not had an experience of the Holy Spirit in the way they judged was THE WAY, her baptism with water was denied, and she was not allowed to fully participate, not allowed to take Holy Communion in this congregation. This was quite disturbing to this young woman, as she had lived her life as a very faithful Christian, baptized as a baby, and confirmed by choice as a teen—another moment in which we hold that the Holy Spirit comes during this ritual of adult affirmation of faith. Week after week she had proclaimed the creed, “acknowledging ONE BAPTISM for the forgiveness of sins…” (BCP, p. 359) yet here she was judged unworthy of Christ’s Holy Communion.
Having others attempt to deny her baptism actually had the effect of calling her to value her baptism more. The promises made by God, her parents and her church in during the sacramental moment now became HER living promises.
In summary, we have seen that the Bible stories of Jesus’ baptism emphasize different aspects of the event, but each agree that it was during the time of Baptism at the beginning of his public ministry, that Jesus received the Holy Spirit. We have also made the claim that Christians quickly learned that all who are baptized in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as Matthew commissioned the Apostles to do, allows a person to fully receive the Holy Spirit.
If you are someone who has not fully experienced the joy of knowing you have received the Holy Spirit, you may wish to follow Jesus’ example as we heard in the Gospel of Luke today—take time to pray. In your quiet prayer with God, let God know you accept the offer of his promise in your baptism. This may lead you to a more complete sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
And what will you do in response to your Baptism and the receiving of the Holy Spirit? As our opening prayer stated, we are to “keep the covenant we have made, and boldly confess Jesus as Lord and Savior”. We are to acknowledge that when we were baptized a covenant was made: God offered us his Holy Spirit, we didn’t have to earn this gift. His Holy Spirit gives each of us at least one spiritual gift to be used for the good of the Body of Christ. Next week we will hear some specifics regarding spiritual gifts, but for today it is enough to boldly proclaim that you have received God’s Holy Spirit, and that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior.
Collect: Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.