Sunday: The Baptism of Christ
This story is the main Epiphany story in the Orthodox church and is very direct using these words attributed to God "You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased".
Both Karen and I are at St. Peter's in the morning and the service time is changed to 11am. This is because at this service we say an official farewell to James McAdam and the service will lead into a celebratory meal.
Isaiah 43: 1-7. This prophesy talks about gathering the people "from far away to the end of the earth", emphasising the universal significance and application of God's will. It also mentions fire. Significant because John the Baptist says Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit and "fire". Fire is associated with refining and purging but as Isaiah says " you shall not be burned or consumed"
Acts 8:14-17. You cannot come to any coherent systematic doctrine of Baptism from reading the N.T. texts. Here people are baptised in the name of Jesus but had not received the Holy Spirit until hands were laid on them.
Sometimes it happens the other way around.
Luke 3:15, 21-22. In Luke's version of the story there appears to be a time lag between Jesus' baptism and the Holy Spirit descending on him in bodily form, whereas in Mark and Matthew's version it is almost concurrent. Also, Luke retains Mark's wording which infers an inner conviction for Jesus alone ("You" are my son) while Matthew says ("This" is my son) a more public pronouncement for the ears of the crowd.
John announces that Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire.
The gospel is good news but Luke makes it sound, at first reading, like anything but good news for most people with talk of winnowing forks, threshing floors and chaff being burned with unquenchable fire.
There is a natural sifting of course based on the result of people’s reaction to Jesus – his word and ministry.
Some are naturally drawn to Him while others reject Him so a sifting happens as a result of our reaction to Jesus. There is a sorting out according to how we respond to the gospel.
Now I confess I didn’t really know what winnowing was, or what a winnowing fork was so I had to look it up.
Winnowing is the ancient agricultural practice or throwing both grain and the chaff up in the air so that the chaff is blown away, and the grain falls back into your basket.
A winnowing fork is like a shovel used for throwing the grain and chaff up into the air.
In this analogy, people are the grain and chaff and Jesus throws us all up in the air that separates the responders from the non-responders.
The ones that are left are the useful grain who are then baptised with the Holy Spirit and “with fire”
John the Baptist adds this new addition – baptised with fire! What does the fire indicate?
Well, in the new testament fire is associated with refining and purging, the making pure of something or someone – who has impurities.
But the fire doesn’t destroy, as Isaiah affirms – it purifies.
When you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, God is working within you and you are being changed; growing into the likeness of Christ.
It is our own chaff that is being separated from the good grain, in an internal sifting.
Being touched by the Spirit of God is not a completely comfortable experience.
If we take the life of Jesus Himself, after He had this life changing experience of being baptised, it was the Holy Spirit that led Him into the wilderness to be tempted by evil
Having the Spirit of God in your life entails a process, where through our lived experience and spiritual practice, we become ever more Christ-like in our attitudes, our lives and our actions.
You can’t get a systematic doctrine of Baptism and its relationship with the Holy Spirit from the Bible either.
Sometimes Baptism comes first and the Spirit afterwards like in the story from Acts today. Sometimes the Spirit comes first and then people are Baptised because of it like when Peter encounters the gentiles in Cornelius’ house and sometimes it happens at the same time.
For me, evidence of the Spirit’s presence isn’t speaking in tongues or words of wisdom, the evidence is expressed in terms of the quality of our relationships to God and each other and the growth of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.
Some of that fruit is named by Paul in his letter to the Galatians – love, joy, peace, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Purging all the spite, cynicism, aggression, self-centredness, wantonness, that we harbour within us is a longer-term process and can be uncomfortable.
In Baptism you are baptised into Christ and are brought into a relationship to God through Jesus Christ, but you are also baptised into a community. Baptism has both a vertical and horizontal relational dimension and when those two things are expressed, then you know the Spirit is working.
In the Baptism of Jesus His relationship with the Father is expressed in the words;
“You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased”.
Those words heard by Jesus were both a comfort and a blessing to Jesus and bolstered by that blessing He was propelled into His earthly ministry by God’s Spirit.
One of the tragedies of the world is that so many people never feel so affirmed and blessed.
No-one has ever taken delight in them in a non-exploitative way. They have never known the love and affirmation that God offers to all people.
I firmly believe that Christians never fully realise their potential or grow in their discipleship until they have heard those words said to us and take them to our heart.
“Martin, Louise, Iris, Alison, John, Clifton, Paul, Eileen, David……say your own name;
“You are my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.
Then go and flourish and reach your full potential in the knowledge and strength and everlasting presence of God in your life. Amen