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Receiving the Holy Spirit

Rev. Karen McArthur & Terry McKinney
Sun, Jan 08

The First Sunday after Epiphany: Baptism of Jesus
Lessons: Mark 1:4-11, Acts 19: 1-7

Terry and I have had a great week working together in preparation for our worship today.  It’s been a joy to get to know him and his story a bit better – although I have to say, there was one significant difficulty.  It turns out that Terry is an early-in-the-week sermon writer, and was a bit panicked when it wasn’t all done by Thursday.  I, on the other hand, have always been a Saturday night sermon-writer, and haven’t ever been able to get much onto paper during the week.  So we ended up compromising on Friday.  We should have been preaching on the ten bridesmaids … you know that story, where there were five who planned way ahead and five who were a bit more, shall we say, spontaneous?

Why is it that the texts often pit one thing against another?  One thing measured against another, one thing better than the other?  The wise and the foolish maidens.  John’s baptism for repentance or Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit.  Is there a difference for us?  This week, Terry and I have been reflecting on the topic of baptism – thinking about what it means, for individuals and for the community, reflecting on our roles as the baptized and the baptizers, wondering what it means to receive the Holy Spirit.

Each year, the texts for this first Sunday after Epiphany are about baptism – when the 29-year-old Jesus goes out to the wilderness to be baptized by the famous John the Baptizer.  Between Epiphany and Easter, from the Baptism of Jesus Sunday to Maundy Thursday, we will journey from Jesus’ baptism to his Last Supper, from one sacrament to the other.  As Protestant Christians, these are our two sacraments, whittled down from the Catholic seven.  Washing and breaking bread.  Two very ordinary every-day things that become sacred in this place, where we celebrate communion regularly and recognize baptism as a once-in-a-lifetime initiation into the life of the church.

Does it matter how you get baptized or how old you are when it happens?  Is one form more effectual than another?  There's not much to go on biblically; in our passage we have John baptizing people for repentance in the River Jordan, but it makes no mention whether he was immersing them fully in the water or covering their heads with it.  It doesn’t mention whether there were only adults there, or maybe there were some children too young to understand what was going on involved, and maybe some infants brought by their parents, not so much thinking the baby had much to repent about, but thinking that at least that it couldn't hurt.

I (Terry) remember my own baptism well. I was about ten years old. My sister, our cousins and I all had received a few weeks of instruction before the big day.  I confess I didn't understand what predestination was about, but don't tell my Presbyterian family that.  The big day came.  For us, baptism and confirmation were conflated into one event.  We and our parents were all gathered in the pastor's office.  There was no congregation and no baptismal font.  The pastor went down our little role with a chalice filled with water.  He asked each one of us in turn whether we believed Jesus to be God's son, sent to save us from our sins, and whether we were willing to uphold the teachings of the church.  Then after an affirmative answer, each was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  When it got to me, I crossed my fingers behind my back when I thought about the predestination part, but otherwise had a clean conscience and felt willing.  I can't tell you why or how, but immediately after my baptism, I felt changed.  The best way I can describe it was that I felt a sense of Jesus' nearness that I wanted never to end.  To my mind and experience, this is simply what baptism was.  Neither infant baptism nor baptism by immersion ever occurred to me.

I had my eyes opened wide however when I witnessed a baptism at a friend's church.  I was invited by his Evangelical parents for a Sunday morning,  and it was like nothing I'd ever seen.  Behind the pulpit were several rows for the choir.  Above the last row was a large curtain.  I was very lucky that day because at a certain point, the curtain above the choir was drawn back to reveal a large pool of water, the front wall of which was glass so that you could see into the pool from your pew.  The person being baptized wore a robe and went down a few steps into the pool with the pastor, who would hold the baptizee's nose and dunk them three times, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

On the way home, I learned that they considered this the only acceptable form of baptism. No little sprinkling for them.  In fact, if I decided to join their church, I'd have to do the same myself, that is, be re-baptized.  For some reason this made me feel defensive about my own baptism experience which I considered genuine and meaningful, and decided they were wrong.  And yet here in our passage from Acts today, we have Paul re-baptizing the disciples.

I (Karen) thought the same thing … aren’t we only supposed to be baptized once?  Early in my ministry, a young woman came to me wanting to be re-baptized.  She had grown up in Texas and had been baptized as a teenager in a church that had some specific beliefs.  That was no longer fitting her experience of God, and she wanted to be baptized again and start over in our New England congregational church.  We talked about it – and I remember suggesting that baptism was less about the baptizer (in her case the Texas church) and more about God, and about the promises she made as a teenager, to continue to grow in her faith and to follow Jesus.  She was doing exactly that – staying true to those baptismal promises.  We decided instead to hike up to a ledge overlooking our town and to renew and reclaim our baptismal vows.

I remember asking her what water would be most meaningful for her.  Would it be water from the brook below the covered bridge?  Crystal clear mountain spring water?  Or water from the church kitchen, holy in its own special way?  Or even water from the actual Jordan River that a woman from our church had brought back for us?  We decided on the brook water – and a group of us hiked up to the ledges on a Sunday afternoon and renewed and reclaimed our own baptismal vows.

I think that one of the reasons I enjoy baptisms so much is that I don’t remember mine at all.  I was six months old, and my parents dutifully took me to the church, where they made promises to teach me about God and Jesus and to raise me in the church.  I was baptized, likely one among many babies that September morning.  I grew up in that church – Sunday School, Cherub Choir, Crusader Choir, Confirmation, Pilgrim Fellowship.  At times, I’ve wished I had the opportunity to make those promises as an adult, but instead I grew up always knowing that I was a part of my church.

In many traditions, baptism at infancy is the norm.  Why is that?  In part it’s simply tradition. In part it’s symbolic of the infant being brought into the life of the congregation of believers.  And for some people, in part it might be from the belief that entrance to Heaven is dependent on their having been baptized.

This idea was a part of our 10am discussion today – in early New England, babies were taken to the church to be baptized as soon as possible.   However, if the women attending a birth felt that the baby might not survive long enough to be baptized in the church, then the midwife was authorized to baptize the baby.

I (Terry) was once called in for a baptism at a hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for a baby who had been born very prematurely.  She was so tiny. I’d never seen a baby so small. You could have held her gently in one hand. She was lying in a medical sort of crib, a beautiful, pink and precious child of God, eyes closed, fingers and toes so tiny, a baby so fragile that one’s only instinct could be to protect and heal her.  We gathered around the crib: me, the parents, and the baby’s deeply caring nurse. Despite the very medical feel of the room with several such cribs, beeps chirping and monitors everywhere, it was such a very intimate moment. A holy one.  I asked for a bottle of sterile water and performed baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – one God and mother of us all.  Her skin was so fragile I worried that I might tear it.  This was not a baptism where the parents and godparents were prepared by a minister, given orientation to its sacramental meaning.  So in this case, was there a “function” or desire of the baptism? If we’re meant to baptized by water and Spirit, where did the Spirit come in here?

What does it mean to receive the Holy Spirit?  I remember once trying to describe our church to a young woman in the Caribbean.  I was on vacation – my first and only time beyond the borders of the US and Canada.  I had gone to their church, which (as you can imagine) was a very different experience than what I was used to, even though we sang the same hymns.  You know how small-town New England congregational churches sing – All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.  And they sang it the way you would expect a Caribbean island church to sing, with steel drums, a steady beat, and warm breezes blowing through the congregation.  I explained to her that we had the same scripture, the same beliefs, the same hymns.  However, my sermons were … more thoughtful, calmer than her pastor’s sermons.  The congregation was quieter, more reserved.  She thought about that for a moment, clearly puzzled.  “But do they want the Holy Spirit?”  she asked.

What would it mean to really want that Holy Spirit?  Is it simply a matter of our choosing to accept the Spirit?  In baptism we say that the person being baptized is marked as “Christ’s own forever.”   So the parents of the tiny baby were desirous of the same thing Paul was for the disciples he found at Ephesus, that the child not simply be baptized by water, but done so in the name of Jesus, to be “marked as Christ’s own forever.”  Baptism in the name of Jesus and the Spirit, as well as the hopes of the worried parents, ensured that the baptism of the child was not only one of water and repentance but of Spirit and fullness of life in Jesus.

So do we seek the Spirit?  Or perhaps, is it also the other way around?  Does the Spirit seek us out?  It seems to me that our lives of faith are a combination of startling unexpected Road-to-Damascus moments of the Spirit chasing us down, along with slow dawning insights as we realize that the Spirit has been there with us, all along the way.

Our experience of God is varied, just like the water of baptism comes in many varieties: sterile water in a hospital, brook water, water from the River Jordan or from the kitchen sink.  In whatever way, we invite the Spirit, only to find that the Spirit has been accompanying us all along: In the Spirit of care that knit us together in our mother’s womb, or cradled us in our infancy and sustained our young parents in their sleepless nights.

The Spirit is present in the pure joy that fills a young child with delight and compassion, or the in the genuineness that leads a ten-year-old to take every word so literally that he takes no chances about that predestination that he wasn’t so sure about, or in the spirit of conviction that leads us, with Jesus, into our young adult wildernesses as we search for our own way in the world and in our faith.  It’s the sustaining spirit that knows our every thought and hears our every confession, giving us the chance to repent, to believe the good news, and to begin again.  And it’s the healing spirit, that knows our deepest pains and promises never to leave us alone, the spirit that was with us before we were born, and will sustain us on our journey from this world to the next.

We believe that the spirit that accompanies us through every age and stage of our lives, is indeed the Holy Spirit, changing our lives, empowering us to love and be loved, to understand and to be understood, to be blessed and to bless … in the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen!

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