Good Shepherd Morning Prayer
11/1/2009 (Baptism of Christ)
Acts 19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11
'Into what were you baptised?' Paul asked the disciples at Ephesus.
It is clear that from the very beginnings of the church, different people have been baptised in different ways. There's the baptism of water, and the baptism of the spirit. And there's the baptism of water and the spirit.
It all goes back to the first believers' understandings of the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus; which are described in our readings today.
John's was a baptism of water. 'John baptised with the baptism of repentance,' said Paul. Those who went down under the water in the safe hands of John went down conscious of the wrong things in their life, and wanting to get right with God. When they came up out of the water they believed - as John had taught them - that God had cleansed them, that God had made them new.
The baptism of John was like a believers' baptism. It was something which grown-up people did when they had reached a decision in their minds and their hearts, to turn to God.
This sort of baptism is practiced in many of our churches today. Some of you know that I was brought up in a Baptist church, which practiced believers' baptism, and that I was baptised at the age of 17 on a cold November morning by full immersion in a pool of pretty chilly water, in a special Baptism service at the same time as one or two other people.
The Baptist Churches say that
Baptism is a very special moment on the journey of faith. It is a moment when God's presence and blessing meets us, and it is a moment when we make our personal commitment of faith in Jesus as Lord. It signifies the end of our old life and of being born again to new life in Christ. It speaks of repentance and cleansing, of being united with Christ in his death and resurrection, and of witnessing to the call of God upon our lives. As the Apostle Paul says, 'We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.' (Romans 6:3,4) Going under the water is a sign of being buried with Jesus through baptism. Coming back up out of the water a sign of the new life we have begun. It all happens because we have come to the waters, to make that commitment. This is how it is with the churches who emphasise believers' baptism.
Interestingly though the Baptist churches also acknowledge that
Baptism is also about receiving God's Spirit for service in the church and in the world. It is often accompanied by the laying on of hands as a sign of commissioning, and by being received into membership of the church. John told those who came to be baptised by him, 'I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.' When Paul baptised the believers in Ephesus in the name of Jesus by laying his hands on them, 'the Holy Spirit came upon them'. And so we could say that the baptism of Jesus is a baptism of the spirit.
Some Christian groups today assert that Spirit baptism is more important in the life of a believer than 'an outward symbol with water'.
The Society of Friends (the proper name for Quakers) are not so much opposed to water-baptism as indifferent to it. They say it is irrelevant because they continually seek to practise 'a sacramental life through the living presence of Christ'. The Quaker baptism affirms the life of the Spirit in the heart of a person. It is not concerned with ceremony but with the words of Jesus (in John 4.24), that "God is Spirit. And those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth."
Other churches - particularly the pentecostal and charismatic ones - value the baptism by water but also insist on a baptism in the spirit. They go back to passages about the early church like the one we heard this morning when Paul asked the Ephesian believers, 'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?' They said no to Paul, so he laid hands on them and they received the Spirit in Jesus' name.
Notice that they were already believers - they had received the believers' baptism from John. But Paul insisted that they must have the baptism from Jesus too - the baptism in the Holy Spirit. And this is the understanding of our brothers and sisters who worship in the pentecostal or charismatic churches today.
So we have thought about the the baptism of water, and the baptism of the spirit. Now let's consider the baptism of water and the spirit. Jesus went to John for the baptism of water because (as Matthew's gospel records) (Matt. 3.15) he said it was the right thing to do. And when he did that, at the very moment of his baptism, the Spirit came. In John 3:5 Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit."
I suspect that most people here have been baptised in the Anglican way, the Church of England way, and so will have been baptised by water and the Spirit.
For some, this will have been a believer's baptism; having come into the church later in life and made a decision to be baptised as a sign of faith, a decision to live a new life in Christ, and receiving the sign of the Holy Spirit to help and strengthen you to do that.
For others, this will have happened at birth. Maybe it was more of a Christening, the baby getting their Christian name. It was still a believers' baptism: the belief of the parents, the belief of the family was what what brought the young one to the church. And it was still a baptism in the Spirit; because in our churches baptism is seen as God's ceremony, God's opportunity to touch the baptised person with the blessing and the presence of that Spirit who will never leave that person throughout their lives.
Jesus himself was baptised by water and the Spirit when he stood in the River Jordan with John. Mark describes what happened very dramatically.
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.One other time in Mark's gospel something was torn apart - when on the cross Jesus gave a loud cry and died, at that moment 'the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom' (Mark 15.38). At his death and at his baptism it was like the film which separates earth and heaven was being ripped open - heaven poured into earth ... earth touched heaven ... the Spirit poured in and poured out.
Our baptism services don't seem as dramatic as that, but the same drama is in fact taking place each and every time - heaven is opened to those taking part, God comes to us in the person of the Holy Spirit, the world unalterably changes.
And this is the sign of a baptised person - a person whose life is different, a person whose life has changed, a person who God has come to and will not let go, a person who permits God, by his ever-present Spirit, to keep making a difference, to keep making a change.
'Into what were you baptised?' Paul asked the disciples at Ephesus. However you may have come to it - whatever tradition or belief has led you or your family to a particular sort of baptism - these things are at the heart of it. In baptism we reach out to God and God comes close to us. Something to remember, to celebrate and to hold in our hearts as we start a new year in faith and hope in God.
 Baptist Union of Great Britain website, What is Baptism?
 Baptist Union of Great Britain website, What is Baptism?
 Gordon Kuhrt, Believing in Baptism : Christian Baptism, Its Theology and Practice, p.98, quoting Max Thurian, Ecumenical perspectives on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, p.161