Signed by the Spirit
Baptism of Jesus - Year A
Sunday, January 13, 2008
Baptism of Jesus - Year A
Sunday, January 13, 2008
Let us pray: Mighty God, fill us with the blessings of new life in you. Open our hearts and minds to receive your bountiful Spirit as our companion, directing our steps as we move into the world as witnesses to Christ’s power and love. Amen.
Whenever we have baptism, there is a preparation session with the parents of the children being baptised, and a congregation member. In that session we talk about the meaning of baptism and we talk about the history of baptism. The story of Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan river is always cited as the prototype for Christian baptism. The point is made, however, that baptism is not unique to the Christian faith. It only makes sense that such a universal symbol as water - the source of life for every living thing, and the means by which we are purified both literally and figuratively, should be important to many different faith traditions. In fact, as the baptism preparation conversation is clear to point out - Jesus’ baptism was not Christian baptism at all. Of course at the time there was no such thing as Christian baptism. Jesus was Jewish, and the baptism that John offered was a baptism grounded in the Jewish faith - a baptism of repentance. John invited people to look at the lives they had led, by turning around - which is what repentance means - to see the road they had traveled to that point in their lives. He then invited them to make changes in their lives that would have them leading lives that were more faithful to the call of God and to signify that new life by washing themselves clean in the Jordan river.
It is into this situation that Jesus comes - to enact a symbolic event that would signify the beginning of his public ministry. But, according to Matthew’s gospel, this is different. Jesus is not coming for baptism based on repentance. John protests that he is not worthy to participate in this baptism - presumably because John does not think that baptism is necessary for Jesus - no repentance needed here and because John already sees in Jesus the kind of life he had been advocating for others - a life based on faithfulness to the call of God.
Well, you heard the story a few moments ago. Despite the protests, Jesus insists that John should baptise him, and when he does, something cosmic happens. The skies opened up and the spirit appeared, looking like a dove, and God’s voice was heard, affirming this event as confirmation of God’s blessing on Jesus, and giving divine permission for the ministry that was set to begin.
It is this difficult to describe appearance by the spirit that determines the model for Christian baptism. The book of Acts makes this clear. Peter encounters many members of the Christian faith who had been baptised with water, but baptism was not complete until they were also baptised by the Spirit. Thus, Christian baptism requires at least two elements - water and the spirit - one symbol that is visible and tactile - deep in meaning, but easy to grasp - you saw that a few moments ago with the children as we touched and mixed the water together, and the other symbol that can only be described with words of cause and effect. None of us can see the spirit - like the wind, we only see signs of its presence, we only see the result of the spirit at work. Even in baptism, we pray for the spirit to be present, our faith tells us that it is, but we cannot see it, except by effect. We feel it in our hearts. Our heads are left to interpret the presence of the spirit by the signs it leaves behind.
The account of Jesus’ baptism describes this very well - the spirit was present, but when it comes to describing what the spirit looked like - it could only be described as being like a dove. Such is the spirit - the spirit that is part of our lives and the holy spirit - that characteristic of God which is determined only by feel and effect.
And yet, it is the holy spirit which forms an equal share of the three-fold description of the divine presence that we call the trinity - a description which I want to see as permission giving for naming many different ways in which God is present in our lives and in the world. In other words, I see the trinity not as a confined way of limiting the description of God to a simple three-in-one summary of who and what God is, but rather as an example that shows that God can be described in so many different ways. If God can be described in three such ways, then surely this is a path to seeing and describing God in many other ways as well.
In fact, the holy spirit - seen only by the effect of its presence, and therefore described only by metaphor, is a perfect example of the indescribable nature of God’s presence. Who among us can say that we’ve seen the spirit, and yet, who among us cannot say that we’ve experienced surely and certainly that the spirit has been present for us. Who among us can say with the same sureness and certainty that the spirit was present earlier in this time of worship when Ida and Harvey were baptised! I know from past experiences that the spirit is present - because even if it has not been immediately apparent to me, the emotions and expressions of others around me have been evidence of the presence of the spirit in our midst.
That’s how the holy spirit works in us and others - we see signs of her presence, we hear about her from the experience of others, we experience her presence bringing light and insight, warmth and encouragement, comfort and re-commitment to our lives. We are taken by the spirit to places deep within us, to places beyond the limits of time and space, to moments of blessing that defy description.
And so, on this day, when the spirit is present for us, in sacrament and song, in prayer and story, in metaphor and mystery we are invited to delight in her presence. We, like Harvey and Ida, in our baptism and by our presence here in worship are signed by the spirit. How is the spirit at work in you? Where have you seen signs of her presence? Amen.