Baptism, Take 2

Baptism, Take 2

January 13, 2013

Each year we celebrate the baptism of Jesus some time during the beginning of the new year. It is one of the traditional times for us to have baptism in the church, along with the Easter Vigil, Pentecost, All Saints, and whenever the bishop comes. Clearly, the baptism of Jesus is important, but why?

Let us start by looking at the Luke passage (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22) and then go on to the Acts passage (Acts 8:14-17). In Luke, John the Baptist is down at the Jordan River, telling these good Jewish people that they need to be baptized. We don’t realize what a radical thing this was. Jews didn’t get baptized. Baptism was something that converts to Judaism did, not anyone who was born Jewish. But people were coming down to the Jordan and being baptized by John. What was going on?
If we listen to what John said, we realize that he was tapping into the people’s unease about their current lives. He named the pain of knowing that things were not right, that they had not done the things they ought to have done, and they most certainly had done the things they ought not to have done! But then he went one step further. He invited people to make things right. By coming to John and being baptized, in public – and this would have been a very public thing to do – they were proclaiming a new beginning, just as if they were a convert from another religion.

So a quick note here: should we consider being baptized again when we feel the need to proclaim a new beginning? No, and here’s why. We have changed the meaning of baptism slightly, so that while there is still the aspect of renouncing one’s former life, the focus of it is on the recognition of joining the Christian family. At the same time, we clearly want to have some kind of mechanism to meet the need for those times when we want to speak the truth about what has been going on and to proclaim a new beginning. There are two typical ways of doing that in the Episcopal Church. The private way is to do the rite of confession and reconciliation with the priest. The public way is to do the rite of reaffirmation of baptismal vows. So, for instance, when someone came back to the church after being gone for 20 years, she talked to me about should she get baptized again. I said no, but she might want to do a reaffirmation of vows. She had been baptized, which is a little like being adopted. Once it’s done, it’s done. And sometimes it is appropriate to do something. For us, it is not re-baptism, it is a reaffirmation.

And now a second note: John is definitely chastising them, telling them they have done wrong. But look carefully at this! He does not tell them to hang their heads and beat their breasts. He does not push them into shame. He says they are guilty, not that they are shameful. There is a huge difference, one we need to pay close attention to. What is the difference between shame and guilt? Guilt is the acknowledgement that you have done something wrong. You did a bad thing, and you agree, yes, that was a bad thing. The question is: now what? There are two responses here. You can feel upset about what you have done, and then make amends and be done with it, or you can feel bad and hold that bad feeling. Holding that bad feeling is shame. It is not a good thing. We say things like: he should be ashamed of himself, but if we think about it, what we really want is for him to admit his guilt, admit that he did something wrong, and do something about it, not just wallow in shamefulness. Shame is stagnant. Acknowledgement of guilt can lead us to amendment of life and to reconciliation of relationships, which is what John is doing.

So now back to our lesson. John is chastising the population, many of whom seem to listen and respond, and they are all rather excited about what is going on. We also have to remember that there was an expectation that the messiah was going to come and rid the country of the oppressors. Having an expectation in the air is powerful. The one about the world ending this December fizzled at the end, but do you remember when we were waiting to see what was going to happen when we moved to the year 2000 and no one was quite sure whether the computers would be able to handle it, and what would happen if they couldn’t? It seems silly now, but I remember the anxiety about that was in the air. It didn’t take much for anything to set off a buzz. My younger son was in Japan at the end of December, 1999, coming back in January, and all of a sudden I got very worried about whether he would be able to get back! Well, back when John was preaching, people were actively looking for the messiah, and here was someone who was beginning to sound like one.

But John says, “no, I am not the One. I am not worthy to be the servant to the One who is coming. But you better get ready.” Why? This is the really important piece here. John says: “I baptize with water, but he will baptize with fire, with the Spirit.” This is a new concept. Remember, John is a prophet with a foot in both covenants, the Jewish and Christian. Most of the concepts we hold in the Christian church come from Judaism, but there are a few new and important twists. This is one of them. Fundamentally, what John is saying here is that there are two baptisms. One is the water baptism, which signifies death to the old life and being reborn as a new person. The other is the spirit baptism, which gives you the power to do what needs to be done in this new life.

This makes sense out of the Acts passage. Remember that when we talk about Jerusalem and Samaria, it would be like talking about Japan and Korea 50 years ago. They were not friendly, in fact, they hated each other intensely. Jews would walk miles out of their way not to go through Samaria. Remember Jesus tells a story about the “good” Samaritan, because no one could imagine that a Samaritan could be good. But here, we see that things have changed. The apostles in Jerusalem hear that people in Samaria have accepted the word of God about Jesus, so they send their top people, Peter and John. The Samaritans have already been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. The apostles say, great, now you need the power. So they prayed, and laid hands on the Samaritans, and then the Samaritans also received the Holy Spirit.

What does it mean to receive the Holy Spirit? Doesn’t that happen when we get baptized? Good questions! The answers are not simple. Imagine that you have a big bushy Christmas tree with lots of presents all around, but someone has hidden the most beautiful one up in the tree itself (we used to do that when we were children). Because there are other presents and because the tree has hidden it, even though it’s there, you don’t see the present, and so you don’t open it. If you don’t open it, you can’t “receive” it.

The other thing that happens is that sometimes we are offered a gift, but we don’t “recognize” it for the gift it is, and so we say “thank you” politely, and then set it aside. This reminds me of a story of a missionary family. They were extremely poor, as missionary families tend to be, and every year they waited eagerly for the box of goodies that came from a rich relative at Christmas. There were warm coats for the children and so on, but this year, in addition to the usual, the present for the mother of the family was a nice purse. When she took the wrapping off of the purse and saw what it was, she almost sat down and cried, because she did not need a new purse, and she could see that it was a very nice purse. What she could have done with the money that the purse cost! But she did not cry, and, terribly important, she also did not set it aside. She took a deep breath, and she admired the purse, and she opened it and looked at all of the wonderful pockets inside the purse, and there, folded very small, was a check for a large amount of money that would pay for the groceries for quite a while.

In our service of baptism, we explicitly ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit to come down upon this person. If we were baptized as children, then there is an adult confirmation of the vows our parents and sponsors took on our behalf, and again, the bishop asks that the Holy Spirit be renewed and strengthened. The gift is there. It has been given. But it must be opened and received if we are to receive the power to do what God wants us to do. Have you opened your gift?