10 January 2016
The Baptism of Christ
Readings: Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Heavenly Father, as we travel through this season of Epiphany we pray that Christ may become manifest in our hearts and so become manifest in our lives. Amen.
Do you remember that old car sticker, I think it was from the RSPCA, which said “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas”?
I used to be really naughty and say that if you got a big enough one then it should last until Boxing Day, but I wouldn’t say that now of course.
But the point is that today’s readings should remind us of two things: firstly that the Holy Spirit is for life and not just for Pentecost or Trinity and secondly that the Holy Spirit is intimately connected with our baptism and that our baptism is also for life.
I know that I have said before but I think it bears saying again that many Anglicans just are not very good at thinking about or talking about the Holy Spirit. We can imagine God as a Patriarchal Father, bearded and robed and being all paternal and, I suspect, that when most people, most of the time, talk about God they are actually meaning to talk about God the Father.
And I also suspect that when most people, most of the time, talk about the person of Jesus they often don’t think about him as being in the same category as God at all. God and Jesus are, for many, in different mental boxes. When one of the prominent atheists was undertaking an attack of faith, I cannot now remember whether it was Hitchens, Dawkins or Pullman but it was one of them, they said that, if he was real, God must be a sadist because he sent Jesus to be tortured and killed. They accused God, essentially, of child abuse. But, of course, that is making the same mistake and forgetting that God the Father and God the Son are both still God. So, as we have been reflecting over Christmas, when Jesus came to the world God wasn’t just choosing an innocent person to be a scapegoat for the sins of the world rather it was God himself, by which I mean God the Son, who scapegoated himself by taking on the sins of the world.
So the way we use language is important and when we are talking about God and Jesus it is important to remember that we are really talking about God the Father and God the Son – different persons but of the same Godly substance.
Whilst that can sometimes mentally trip us up on the whole I think that we can cope with that.
But many English Anglicans seem much less able to cope with the work and identity of the Holy Sprit. And I don’t know whether it is because Anglicans are a bit suspicious of the type of Churches which do place a lot of emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit or whether it is because, in our Englishness, we are so buttoned up and repressed that we are actually rather afraid of what would happen to us personally if we asked the Holy Spirit to become an active part of our faith. And are we so wedded to getting worship exactly right that we leave no room for the Holy Spirit to empower the church and perhaps lead us in unexpected directions?
If the latter is the case then that is hugely ironic given that when we do speak about the Holy Spirit it is usually at Pentecost and the one thing we know is that the Spirit created and empowered the church and led it in new and unexpected directions.
And if we are slightly worried about the work of the Holy Spirit then this is probably also related to us forgetting the identity of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not a messenger of God, in the way that the Angels are portrayed, and the Holy Spirit is not an optional errand runner for God but we should remember always that the Holy Spirit is completely and utterly God – that the Holy Spirit is no less God than God the Father or God the Son. And so we should never be afraid or embarrassed about inviting the Holy Spirit into our lives or into our worship because when we do so we are inviting no less than God himself into our lives and our worship and God the Holy Spirit wants to do nothing other than to empower us and point us always towards God the Son and God the Father. Any spiritual thing which points you in a different direction is not God the Holy Spirit.
Both our readings today link the Holy Spirit to Christian baptism – to the Baptism of Christ which we celebrate today as part of this season of Epiphany but also to the baptism of the early members of the church and, of course, ulitimately to our own Baptism.
I preached on the work of John the Baptist a few weeks ago during Advent and I made a comment along the lines that the immersion or baptism that John was offering the crowds who came out to him was not a Christian baptism in the sense that we would understand it, and in today’s Gospel John himself says why this is the case:
“I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
Interestingly John mentions both the Holy Spirit and fire, going on to say that the wheat shall be gathered into the granary whilst the chaff is burned with unquenchable fire.
But we know from Pentecost that the Holy Spirit is not a separate thing from fire but is portrayed on that occasion as coming down like tongues of fire so this talk of wheat and chaff is not necessarily an end-times division and judgement between the good and the bad but it may also be a recognition that when we invite God the Holy Spirit into our lives the holiness of God cannot abide with sin and so burns up the chaff of sin.
The baptism offered by John was a ritual or symbolic cleansing with water in which people demonstrated their desire to change their way of life and their direction of travel but the baptism which is inaugurated by Christ is an an immersion not just in water but an immersion in God the Holy Spirit and that immersion burns up our sin.
Although we know that Jesus was without sin, because Jesus is God the Son and sin cannot exist in God, and although we know that John felt himself unworthy to baptise him nonetheless Jesus insisted on going down into the water and when he emerged the Holy Spirit came down, not this time as a flame perhaps because Jesus had no sin to burn, but as a dove and God the Father proclaimed that Jesus was his beloved son. Sometimes people try to tell me that the Trinity cannot be found in the bible and I love to point them not only to this wonderful image but also to the words of Jesus at the end of Matthew which are also, as it happens, distinctly linked to baptism:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptising them in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
And this takes us to the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, because it seems that some new believers in the land of Samaria had been baptised but not using this full Trinitarian formula and had therefore not properly received the Holy Spirit into their lives.
Although the details are scant It seems that the people of Samaria had accepted that Jesus was the one sent from God and that someone, we know not who, had baptised the Samaritan believers in the name of Jesus only. Doubtless a well intentioned, enthusiastic and very Jesus centred event but, nonetheless, incomplete. When the Spirit-empowered church in Jerusalem heard about this they sent two apostles to the region to specifically pray that the Samaritan Christians may also receive the Holy Spirit into their lives. This speaks to me absolute volumes about the need for all believers to have a balanced and entire view of the work of God. Let me repeat that the Samaritans knew about Jesus and had been baptised in his name and yet the apostles knew that this was not enough. And they knew this from their own recent experience – they had been baptised or immersed in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and they knew the difference this made and so they prayed for the same Spirit to come into these new believers. And through prayer and the laying on of hands it did.
I have the enormous privilege as a priest of baptising many young and sometimes not so young people using the words that Jesus commanded us to use. And when I baptise I explain that we do this because Jesus led us by his example when he was baptised, because also that he told us his church to baptise others but also that when we baptise we do invite the Holy Spirit into our lives and that God himself comes to dwell within us. At Christmas we celebrated Jesus as ‘Emmanuel’ which means God with us, but through the power of baptism we can also celebrate God the Holy Spirit not only with us in body but actually within us.
The baptism of Jesus, God the Son, reminds us that when we were baptised God the Holy Spirit came to dwell within us. The more you contemplate that, and I mean really contemplate that, the more awesome that reality becomes. God is not just ‘out there’ somewhere ultimately distant from us but God is actually amongst and within his people.
The same Holy Spirit, the breath of God, who hovered over the waters at the time of creation, the same Holy Spirit who brought the life of Jesus into the life of Mary, the same Holy Spirit who again hovered over the face of the waters at the baptism of Jesus, the same Holy Spirit who fell like a fire at the baptism of the Church at Pentecost is the same Holy Spirit who came into your life at Baptism and who dwells within you now.
And I believe that when we listen to the small voice of God the Holy Spirit that is within us it is that which prompts us to come into the body of Christ which is the Church and to receive the Body of Christ which is the Eucharist. How about that as food for contemplation – when you come to the rail this morning that God the Holy Spirit is within you doubtless rejoicing as you receive God the Son and, if we let them, that both together lift us up to God the Father.
But although that moment of holiness can become an Epiphany for each of us the really important lesson from today is this. When you leave Church this morning and when you go about your normal business this afternoon and start your week tomorrow never forget that as baptised members of his Church that God the Holy Spirit is still dwelling within you and not just waiting for you to return here next week. Although personal and corporate change can be scary, and perhaps even un-English, I suspect that if we each acknowledged that we are vessels of God at every moment in our lives and said ‘yes’ to him more often then we would really move from maintenance into mission and that the Kingdom of God would really grow in this place.