Epiphany 1 RCL
Rev. Adam T. Trambley
January 7, 2018, St. John’s Sharon
I think there is a reason why John the Baptist shows up every January in our lectionary readings. He at least wants to challenge us, but I think he also may be mocking us just a little bit. Right about now, going out into the desert, stepping into a nice warm river in the sunshine sounds pretty good – whether to swim, be baptized, or just play Marco Polo, I don’t really care, as long as I don’t need to shovel snow off the sidewalk to get there. Usually about a week or two into January is also when New Year’s resolutions are dropping off. We’ve skipped the gym, eaten the last few of our favorite Christmas cookies, snuck a cigarette, and spent an evening scrolling through Facebook instead of cleaning the house or reading that New York Times bestselling self-help volume. Here comes John with a call to repent, to make us all perhaps feel just a little bit guiltier. At least this year, Mark’s gospel doesn’t recount John calling anyone a brood of vipers.
Yet, if we turn to the reading from Acts of the Apostles this morning, we hear a very different perspective on John’s baptism. Paul has gone to Ephesus, where he spends a number of years in his ministry and then later he leaves and writes them a letter. Ephesus is an important early Christian place. We have traditions that put John the Evangelist and possible even Jesus’ mother in Ephesus later in their lives. But when Paul shows up, the disciples there have only experienced the baptism of repentance that John offered. They have never been baptized in the name of Jesus, and have never even heard of the Holy Spirit.
This omission might not be surprising. John the Baptist was a big deal in the ancient world. He was a religious gadfly to some pretty important government leaders, and all sorts of people, even those not fleeing cold climates, came out in the desert to hear him preach and to be baptized by him. However these disciples got to Ephesus, which is a city in Asia Minor in present-day Turkey, they had experienced John’s baptism. They knew what John had instructed, even if their understanding of Jesus message was much less developed.
Saint Paul is never shy about telling people the full gospel, however, so he lets the Ephesians know that there are two more steps in this process of becoming a believer. John’s baptism of repentance can come first, but then there is the baptism in the name of Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit. Saint Paul also reminds them that even John said that there was one coming after him who was more important than he was, and that one was Jesus. The Ephesians, then, waste no time in being baptized in the name of Jesus and then are prayed over and receive the Holy Spirit. Like many in Acts who receive the Holy Spirit, they begin to speak in tongues and to prophesy.
Let’s look at these three steps into Christian discipleship, and what they mean for us. First, John’s baptism of repentance. Second, baptism in the name of Jesus. Third, receiving the Holy Spirit, called in some circles baptism in the Holy Spirit, although it doesn’t always occur in a dramatically expressive way.
First is John’s baptism of repentance. As Christians, we are called to repent of our sins, but this is, at best, a small part of our baptism. We can understand a piece of baptism, especially in adults, as washing away our sins, but the rest of what happens through baptism is much more important.
Let’s just talk about repentance a minute. Repentance is vitally important in our walk of faith, and we need to take the time regularly to examine our consciences and turn away from our sins. We do need to remember that repentance is about us, and, as such, is a small offering to God in light of what he is going to offer to us. On the one hand, repentance is something we do. We certainly need God’s grace to do it, but repentance is our action. God does not do it on our behalf. On the other hand, repentance benefits us. When we stop sinning, our lives get better. Sin is not some list of good behaviors that God puts off limits so he can catch us being bad and punish us. Sins are those things we do that hurt us and the people around us. Repenting of our sins means that we can start to have the life we want for ourselves and our families and our communities. Certainly, we sometimes have to take the advice of more mature people to know how and where we may be hurting others, but repentance is the first step to the joyful life God wants us to live. He is thrilled for us when we repent, and draws all of us in that direction.
The second step that Paul talks about, and often the first one in our Christian journeys, is baptism in the name of Jesus, or, today, usually in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This baptism is baptism into the death of Jesus so that we are also baptized into his resurrection. Here the water imagery is not of cleansing, but of drowning. We are literally dying to our old selves so that we can be born again as new people in Jesus Christ.
Obviously, infant baptisms have softened some of this language. For good reason, those aren’t the images we want with our children. Plus, when we have babies being born and raised in a Christian home, their dedication, while still a baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus, is another step in the life of faith of being raised in the Body of Christ. Ideally, they have never been outside of the community of faith. As infant baptisms have replaced adult baptisms, we have also domesticated baptism with our liturgical furnishings. The art deco baptismal font we have at St. John’s is beautiful, but doesn’t feel very threatening. No one is likely to drown in it. Yet baptism in the name of Jesus should be threatening to us. We are letting go of everything to be born again into a new and eternal life.
On New Year’s Eve, a few of us from St. John’s joined some African-American churches for a watch night service. Watch night is a yearly service in the African-American community remembering December 31, 1862 when slaves went to church all night to pray and worship as they watched for the Emancipation Proclamation to declare them free persons on January 1, 1863. At Second Missionary Baptist in Farrell this year, Pastor McKeathon from Second Baptist Sharpsville preached, and he talked about what we need to leave behind as we enter the new year. He had a longish list of things like fear, and criticizing people, and running off our mouths, and holding onto too much stuff that we all need to leave behind. But baptism in the name of Jesus goes beyond even that. Baptism in the name of Jesus is leaving everything behind. We really don’t want anything going into the water with us, because we are getting dunked and we need to be free to come up again as new people. John’s baptism of repentance is letting go of the bad stuff we need to leave behind for our own good. Baptism in the name of Jesus is letting go of everything, to die to self and to status and to stuff, and letting God bring us out of the water again to live for him.
Once we have died to self and come out of the water for Christ, then we can receive the Holy Spirit. We pray for this at baptisms when we anoint people with chrism immediately after baptism, and pray, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Being filled with the Holy Spirit allows us to unlock the gifts we have and be used powerfully for God’s purpose. The Holy Spirit offers us a sense of closeness with God, and discernment, and whatever else we need to do the work that God has given us to do. For some people, the Holy Spirit manifests in exuberant signs such as praying in tongues or incredibly joyful singing and extended praying. For others, the Holy Spirit manifests in much quieter, but equally intense and effective ways. Part of receiving this fullness of the Holy Spirit is wanting it so that we can love and serve God and our neighbors more fully and completely. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are meant for the building up of the Body of Christ, and all of us have different gifts but they serve the same purpose.
Now these distinctions were very important to the disciples in Ephesus who had not yet been baptized in the name of Jesus or in the Holy Spirit. Most of us, however, have been. So why does this matter for us?
Well, we aren’t going to be baptized again. Once we have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have brought into the fullness of eternal life. We don’t have to worry about that. But even with the Holy Spirit filling us, we aren’t perfect. We fall back into sin after we repent. We accumulate various stuff and status and situations that we find very hard to give up to jump in the water and swim with Jesus. We slip into using our resources for our own benefit instead of offering ourselves to be used by the Holy Spirit. These failings are easy and all too human. So we read John the Baptist every January to shake us out of ourselves and recommit again wherever we are.
When I was in Hong Kong at a missions conference in 2015, one of the presenters was an incredible missionary in Southeast Asia, probably in his 40’s or 50’s. He had planted churches and preached the gospel in places that were incredibly dangerous to evangelize. He had seen friends persecuted and even die for their faith. He was working in a new area and not getting any traction. He felt a tug to go and evangelize at a local college. He didn’t want to do it. He didn’t see how it could be effective at that point, and it was sort of “been there, done that” feeling. Then he described having an encounter with God where he felt convicted that he had to offer everything back to God again. He said, I’ve already given you everything, God. And he heard God reply that he had to give everything again. He told us that he realized that after he had set out on his Christian life, at some point he had started to value the comfort and ease his life was taking on. But God still wanted him to give up everything so he could receive everything from God and the Holy Spirit. So he made the decision to hand everything over to God again. And he went to the college, and he quickly planted a new church that developed great energy and joy beyond his wildest expectations.
We aren’t all going to be missionaries to Southeast Asia, but God probably does have a ministry with the college students in our community he is calling someone to take on. I don’t know if that call is for someone here today, but I do know that God does have something in mind for each and every one of us. If we don’t feel like we are doing it, we should look at ourselves closely. We might find that we have become one of the barriers to achieving what God has in store for us. Maybe we have decided to let our fear, or our comfort, or our convenience, or our desire to look good or sensible or sane in the eyes of those around us, or our security, or our attachment to our own favorite sins to be our first priority, and let God and his will for us slip down the list a ways. We all fall into that trap at some point. But John the Baptist and Paul remind us of the way out. Just follow Paul’s early baptism instruction. Repent of our sins. Remember our baptism in Jesus’ name when we died and rose with him, and let everything that gets in the way of that float down the river without us. Then ask the Holy Spirit to give us whatever we need to do the work God gives us to do, because God will never call us to something without equipping us to do the work. The twelve disciples at Ephesus became the core of a church that changed the world. Who knows what God has in mind for us.