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Mark 1:4-11 & Acts 19:1-7
The texts this morning are about baptism…one of the central marks of Christian faith…one of two sacraments that are almost universally practiced among the variations of Christianity that exist, baptism and communion. We tend to think of baptism, or even communion, as singular events…things we do only once, or maybe once a month, or once a week. They are rituals to us, part of the flow of worship. But that’s not what they were to the disciples. Baptism, for instance, was a literal change of direction, even an act of resistance, a “rebirth”, if you will, new life, with new values, new assumptions, a defiance of the “normals” of culture. It has become much more about membership today, a sign of belonging to a Christianity that is much more in line with the cultural normals rather than resistant to them. This water is not something dangerous and discontented anymore, but more an act of association that often has as much meaning and transformational energy as joining Sam’s club.
Perhaps this is why Mark’s gospel has no birth narrative, nothing about mangers or shepherds, but instead we get our first glimpse of Jesus in the Jordan, with John, who is there, both Mark and Paul remind us, baptizing people with, the text emphasizes, a baptism of repentance. The writer apparently needs to make that distinction, like there’s more than one kind of baptism on the menu. This isn’t a number 7, that’s the baptism of forgiveness, this is a number 3, the baptism of repentance. It’s a “turn around” baptism ritual, at a time in which the circumstances were dire, the future seemed troubled and leadership was not only bleak, but downright hostile. And John’s solution to this crisis was not to recruit people to the rebel forces amassing in the desert or to encourage people to flee into isolation. No, his solution is this – look inward. Turn YOUR life around. For God, he says waist-deep in the muddy water, God is still speaking and waiting for us to listen…and God is sending someone whose baptism will be a baptism of the Holy Breath of Life itself.
That’s where we first encounter Jesus in Mark’s gospel…as he joins John in the water and the Spirit descends on him like a dove and a voice from the heavens announces Jesus as God’s son, in whom God takes delight. It’s his baptism, not really done by John as much as by God. But it is John’s acknowledgment that God has yet more to say…in the person of Jesus, and the baptism announces it, enacts it, if you will. It marks the start of a ministry that will be all about transformation, full of revelation and revolution, re-visioning God and God’s love in the world as if everyone were being covered in water with a baptism of change, despite any ritual at all. For Jesus leaves the river Jordan to begin his ministry and never baptizes a single person…at least with water, at least in any sort of ritual, at least in any form that we seem to still recognize. His baptism, John tells us plainly, is a different kind that John’s. That is, baptism of the Holy Spirit looks very different than a baptism of repentance.
By the time we get to Paul, there is something important to note. In our snippet today, Paul encounters converts in Ephesus and asks them about receiving the Holy Spirit when they “became believers.” They reply that they don’t even know what the Holy Spirit is, and Paul’s response to that seemingly outlandish claim from professed followers of Jesus is to baptize them again, an act that we might think of as strange in the church today. TWO baptisms? But, as Paul reveals time and time again, God is still speaking and God’s new revelation in the world often takes us into uncharted territory.
The distinction does not seem to bother Paul at all. In fact, it is emphasized with the little note at the end of the reading, there were about twelve of them, the book of Acts says, drawing a direct comparison to the disciples, suggesting that perhaps there were multiple baptisms there, too. Baptism, according to many accounts in our Bible, is a multi-faceted journey, not a single event. It is the process of becoming something new rather than a single act designed to completely change us into a fully self-actualized, non-judgmental, completely compassionate “mini-Jesus” with a simple dunk or a sprinkle…an event we know never happens. I hate to break it to you if you’ve never been baptized, but after the water you still get ticked off at people, and you still judge others…you still say mean things and you still hold hate in your heart. The idea is that we start noticing those things and turning away from them…as many times as necessary.
Baptism, I think, needs a revival. But it needs a re-visioning first. Here on this Sunday after Epiphany, the day on the Christian calendar when we celebrate the realization of the Christ-Child, the sudden awareness of what the star is pointing towards and what the impact of this baby will be, we turn immediately to the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. Why? Is it because his growing up years weren’t important? I mean I’d like to know how one copes with middle school being God in the flesh. And how do you yell at the “son of God” to clean up his room? But we don’t get those stories, at least not in our Bible…we get an immediate turn to baptism. And it is Jesus – Jesus, mind you – who goes into that river for a baptism of repentance, defying all that we now say about his “sinlessness” and perfection to engage in the process of turning around, which is what repentance really means.
The wonder of the star revealed, the realization of the dream of a baby and the next move is to turn around. And this, we’re told, is met with a voice from heaven saying, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased”, as the Spirit descends upon him. It seems its a one-stop shop for Jesus. His repentance and his receiving of the Holy Spirit are the same event. I can’t speak for you, but there were no doves to be seen at my baptism. No, the Holy Spirit part has come much later…and it seems to be coming in stages, for just when I think that I’ve got a good handle on holiness in the world, the Spirit comes to scramble my certainty…as much an agitator as a comforter…a reminder that God is still speaking and that I’d be best served by focusing not on what I’ve already heard but instead my skill at listening for the voice that still has something to tell me.
As we begin a new year, which is really a rather arbitrary distinction…a flip of a calendar page…a week or two of re-writing checks or trying to turn a “7” into an “8”, I have some hopes for us as a church. I do hope that we continue to engage the many, many injustices and social issues that face us in our city, state, nation and world. But I also hope – perhaps hope even more – that we remember our baptisms, not as a chance to think about membership or ritual, but as an acceptance of the baptismal lives into which we are called. For we have not been called to repent, but to live repentance. We have not been called to have a single encounter with the Holy Spirit, but to look for Her, to wait on Her, to expect and, sometimes, even lament Her presence, comforting and agitating us with the voice of a still-speaking God who is still creating, always making all things new.
Arise, Fellowship. Your light has come. Ready for another baptism?