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01.11.15 The Sacrament of Baptism Acts 19:1-7 Sermon Summary

by on January 12, 2015

Like many pastors, Apollos was a gifted speaker. But like many pastors, his understanding of baptism was incomplete. Fortunately Paul came along and sets us straight.

Summary

  • An example of diversity in early Christianity
  • Christianity according to Apollos and Paul
  • The meaning of baptism
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

baptism

Our passage today evidences a truth about early Christianity that makes some people uncomfortable. It is that there was diversity. And the even more uncomfortable truth for some is that there is diversity even today.

Acts 19 depicts two versions of Christianity—an Apollos version and a Paul version.

Apollos was a gifted teacher and debater. His skills were recognized by Pricilla and Aquila, who also noticed that he needed some further instruction. He preceded Paul and started a Christian fellowship in Ephesus.

Apollos’ Christianity was Jesus-centered and Scripture-oriented. As an eloquent speaker and convincing debater, Apollos’ Christianity had a very cognitive flavor, disproportionately so such that it ended up a distortion of Christianity.

Paul apparently observed this. The disciples he saw in Ephesus were saying all the right things, but they were not doing any right things. They were more about talk and ideas than transformation and action. This realization prompts his question, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”

Now Paul also was a learned and skilled debater. But in contrast to Apollos, Paul had a transformative experience with the Spirit of God in the risen Christ. As the story goes, Paul even lost and regained his sight. In this encounter he received power. And it all related to his baptism.

You can see the negative effects of too much Apollos Christianity all around us. Christians who think Christianity is matter of “just believing” are Apollos in their Christianity. They reduce Christian faith to accepting as true something dubious in its common sense assertion. Apollos Christianity often leads to a sense of having “special knowledge”—there are those who get it and those who don’t.

When Paul baptized the disciples of Apollos, he taught us that Christianity is a matter of word and sacrament, of thought and action.

Paul corrected Apollos’ Christianity’s emphasis on the “baptism of repentance.” This emphasis deceives us into trusting the exercise and experience of our own will: “I repented, therefore I qualify for baptism.” This attitude leads to pride at first, but later to despair when the initial exuberant strength of will fails to maintain us in a repentant life.

By contrast, for Paul baptism is just the beginning of the Christian faith, not its end. Paul teaches in Romans 5 that from the baptismal waters we rise to “newness of life.” This approach leads the Presbyterian tradition to speak of “improving one’s baptism.” (See the Westminster Confession of Faith) It is as if Paul has in mind the opening verses of Genesis, where God’s Spirit hovers over the primordial waters which are formless, void, and covered in darkness. There God’s Word and Spirit creates. And just as God took a chance creating out that watery chaos, so in baptism God takes a chance on us. God’s Word and Spirit create something new, a new beginning, a new genesis in our lives.

When Jesus was baptized he received the Holy Spirit. He also received God’s Word: “You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” This is his baptismal identity. Word and Spirit gave him the courage and power to live as a child of God. This was his baptismal life. This is why in the funeral liturgy we talk about one’s baptism being “completed in death.” Only in death is our baptismal calling perfected, after we have lived by the power of God’s Spirit and according to God’s Word.

So it is also when we are baptized in Jesus, (and not just in John, as in Apollos’ Christianity). We receive the Spirit. We are declared children of God. We are given a baptismal identity and life, completed only in our death.

This is what it means to be baptized, what it means to be a child of God. It means being united with Christ, to be filled with the Spirit, and to follow Christ’s example as a child of God.

As we remember Christ’s baptism this day, let us also remember Christianity is more than words and rituals–it is a way of life.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • When were you baptized? Even if as an infant, what do you know about your baptism? What words were said, passages read, promises made? How faithfully are you living into and according to your baptism?
  • Is your Christianity more Apollos or more Paul? How well balanced is your knowledge of the scriptures by actually living according to God’s Spirit and Word?
  • Jesus lived his baptismal identity in his unique way. As a child of God yourself, how is God calling you to live in your own unique way in the world?
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