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06.17.12 Baptism and the Holy Spirit, Luke 3-4, Sermon Summary

by on June 18, 2012

Only a few people I know have deeply held opinions about baptism, and one of the reasons is that most people haven’t thought enough about it to care so deeply. This message could change that.

Summary Points

  • Four foundational New Testament stories about baptism
  • Three interpretations regarding baptism and the Holy Spirit
  • Whether people can experience the Holy Spirit without baptism
  • Three sets of challenging questions

The church’s practice and teaching regarding baptism is based on an amalgam of stories. Some of the Older Testament stories, like the flooding of the earth, figure prominently in our understanding of baptism (see, for example, 1 Peter 3:19-22). But the foundational stories guiding our baptismal theology are the Newer Testament accounts of baptism.

John the Baptist gives us the paradigm. Probably based on ritual cleansing rites within Judaism, John came, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). He baptized in water, which is important for the recognition of “proclamation” including both words and actions, involving both our minds and our bodies.

It is this bodily element that John actually emphasized in proclaiming repentance. Repentance is a change of both mind and behavior—it is actually a change of behavior based on a change of mind. Or to use another dichotomy, there is a public transformation (behavior) following a private one (change of mind). Paul explains this dynamic well in Romans 12:1-2 and following.

Anyway, this affirmation of both word and rite (what we will eventually call word and sacrament) is the basis for John’s withering critique of those coming to be baptized. He calls them a “brood of vipers” and exhorts them to bear fruit worthy of repentance. All this, the Gospels tell us, is part of the “good news” or “gospel” John preached.

And this kind of preaching caused many to wonder if John might be the Messiah. Repentance, forgiveness, a life lived in alignment with God’s values—all of these evoke messianic hope. But John redirects people’s inquiry to someone who is to come, who will baptize not in water, but in the Holy Spirit.

Enter Jesus, who is baptized by John. Luke tells us very specifically that Jesus emerges from the water in prayer, and that in conjunction with this prayer, the Holy Spirit becomes manifest. A voice from heaven proclaims Jesus’ identity to him (“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” Luke 3:21-22). With identity comes vocation, and with vocation comes testing. So Jesus is driven by the Spirit to the wilderness to be tempted, but these temptations are archetypes for the kinds of temptations that will accompany him throughout his life.

These two events, John’s ministry of baptism and Jesus’ own baptism, form the basis for the church’s thinking on baptism. But two more passages are important also.

In the first, Peter and John are sent from Jerusalem to pray with some Samaritan converts that they might receive the Holy Spirit, which they did upon a hand laying by Peter and John. In the second, Paul discovers some “disciples” who had not ever received or even heard of the Holy Spirit because they were “baptized into John’s baptism.” After being baptized in the name of Jesus, and after Paul lays hands on them, they receive the Holy Spirit, evidenced by their speaking in tongues and prophesying.

The church has dealt with these passages in a number of ways. (1) Some churches find a necessary second rite in addition to water baptism. They teach that the Holy Spirit is dependent upon this rite (namely, hand laying). Historically speaking, the rite or sacrament of confirmation finds its origins here. My tradition rejects this interpretation.

(2) Other churches believe this is really what it’s all about—the baptism in the Holy Spirit, manifest in various gifts, but especially speaking in tongues. Some churches argue that water baptism is unnecessary on this basis, and don’t observe the ritual of water baptism at all. My tradition rejects this interpretation as well.

What most churches recognize in these stories is that (3) the Holy Spirit is essential to Christian baptism. John’s baptism in water is affirmed—repentance for the forgiveness of sins and living a life of repentance—but insufficient without the baptism in the Holy Spirit that comes in Christ. What Acts 8 and 19 do is correct irregularities in the first church’s practice and experience of baptism. In Acts 8, the inclusion of Samaritans occasioned the Jerusalem apostles to verify, and the disciples in Acts 19 needed the complete Christian baptism in the Holy Spirit by Jesus.

This is the interpretation, the essential presence of the Holy Spirit in baptism, my tradition affirms. Calvin talks about it this way: “The sacraments properly fulfill their office only when the Spirit, that inward teacher, comes to them, by whose power alone hearts are penetrated and affections moved and our souls opened for the sacraments to enter in. If the Spirit be lacking, the sacraments can accomplish nothing more in our minds than the splendor of the sun shining upon blind eyes, or a voice sounding in deaf ears.” (Institutes 4.14.9)

So the question arises, Can someone experience the Holy Spirit without being baptized? If the Holy Spirit is essential to Christian baptism, and if baptism is essential to Christianity (a point I’ve not felt the need to prove here given the biblical testimony of baptism), is it possible to experience the Holy Spirit outside of baptism, outside of the church, and outside of Christianity?

I would say the answer is yes, both for non-Christians and for Christians. Non-Christians, just like we do, bear the fruit of the Spirit (search this blog for messages on each of the fruit). They may not recognize or acknowledge them as such, but they are loving, joyful, patient, etc. And non-Christians just like we do, evidence the gifts of the Spirit (again, search this blog). Though they would not attribute them to the Spirit, non-Christians can govern, show mercy, be generous, etc. And non-Christians just like we are, are religious—again without labeling it as such. And they also suffer the same fundamental flaw that we do, namely that we are all idolaters.

But the ultimate reason I would argue that one can experience the Holy Spirit apart from baptism and the church is that God is free. Because God is free, God can do whatever God wants whenever God wants to, wherever, with whomever—you get the picture. And if God wants to send the Spirit apart from baptism (which is indeed exactly what happened in Acts 10:44-48), God is free to do so.

So for Christians, as with non-Christians, the answer to the question whether one can experience the Spirit apart from baptism is also yes. But think about this. God is free, but God has freely chosen us. And in choosing us, God has chosen creatureliness. God did not choose to remain distant, but to be near, loving, and relational. In choosing creatureliness, to be involved, God has also chosen the sacraments as vehicles for proclaiming the good news (remember John!). The Book of Confessions expresses it this way: “Inwardly we are regenerated, purified, and renewed by God through the Holy Spirit; and outwardly we receive the assurance of the greatest gifts in the water, by which also those great benefits are represented, and, as it were, set before our eyes to be beheld.” (5.187)

These reflections generate a number of questions for us to consider personally. First, are we living according to our baptism? Or from the perspective of John the Baptist’s proclamation, are we practicing repentance backwards and forwards—that is, not just repenting for things done, but living into the future bearing fruit worthy of repentance?

Also, how can not only our lives, but our prayers align more closely with our baptismal theology? Can we pray to become more the “beloved child of God with whom God is so pleased?” Can we pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit to manifest itself in and through our baptism as we continue to live the baptismal life? In other words, how can we realize our identity, vocation, and faithfulness in trials throughout our lives?

Third, do we want to renew our baptismal vows, or to be baptized for the first time? If not, why not? If God has made himself and the Holy Spirit available through such concrete and historic means as water, why would we deny ourselves these means?

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