Today is the feast of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, one of four feast days in the liturgical calendar reserved for baptisms. On these days, if there are no baptisms, it is recommended that the congregation renew their baptismal vows instead. So, at the 8 o’clock service we renew our vows. But at the 10 o’clock service, we are blessed to have three baptisms. And I do mean blessed! For we are both blessed and privileged to participate in the incorporation of three new members into the Body of Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit.
We learn something about the working of the Holy Spirit from today’s readings from Luke and Acts. In the Gospel of Luke, we have the story of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. John the Baptist is preaching repentance to the people of Judea and inviting them to be cleansed of their sins through a baptism of water. But he freely admits that one greater than he is coming who will offer a greater baptism, a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. That greater one is, of course, Jesus Christ. And that greater baptism is baptism in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Few of us here would shrink from receiving a baptism with the Holy Spirit, but if we’re honest, we have to admit that a baptism with fire sounds just a little dangerous and more than a little painful. And so we ask, “What exactly does John mean by ‘baptism with Holy Spirit and fire’?” Well, I suspect that what he means is that the action of the Holy Spirit in this new baptism will be like fire in some ways. Like fire, it will keep us warm and preserve our lives in a cold and alien world. It will provide us spiritual light to see God’s Truth. And last but not least, it will burn up our sins and purify our hearts. This last bit, the incineration of our sins, necessarily means that we must endure some degree of suffering. Turning to God requires that we practice repentance, that we regularly take stock of our faults and seek to transform our way of being in the world. And such spiritual transformation is always painful! I am surprised that the State of California doesn’t require every church to post a warning sign above the doors stating: “Some practices of this faith community are known to the State of California to cause painful spiritual transformation.”
The story from Luke’s Gospel continues with the baptism of Jesus, presumably at the hands of John the Baptist. The Bible tells us that Jesus was like us in every way except one: he did not sin. So why then did Jesus submit to John’s baptism for the repentance of sin? I can think of only one reason—as an act of solidarity. It was an act of solidarity with his cousin John, endorsing the validity of John’s ministry. But more importantly, it was an act of solidarity with the sinners standing in line by the banks of the Jordan, and more generally, with all of sinful humanity as it moves step by step towards God’s all-forgiving love. Jesus, the Incarnate Word, submitted to baptism for the same reason that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, as a divine act of solidarity and compassion.
What Jesus then did after his baptism is most significant: he prayed. And the result of his prayer was a theophany, a manifestation of the Divine. The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus, and a voice came down from heaven proclaiming, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” I suspect that when any man, woman, or child is baptized, the Spirit descends upon that person and God likewise proclaims, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And I’ll go even further! I suspect that every time we open our heart to God in prayer, he proclaims that same word of approval. If only we had ears to hear!
Turning now to the Acts of the Apostles, we find a story that serves as a warning to every liturgical leader. It seems that Philip, in his mission to Samaria, botched the baptisms. He somehow neglected to invite the Holy Spirit. Now, in other places in Acts, the Holy Spirit is not so shy; he shows up unasked before baptism in some cases and at baptism in others. But here the Spirit for reasons unknown waits for an explicit invitation. The apostles Peter and John visit the new converts in Samaria and are undoubtedly shocked to find that something is wrong. The new converts are lacking in spiritual gifts. So they remedy this situation by the laying on of hands, explicitly invoking God’s Holy Spirit to fill the new converts with every spiritual grace. Since the time of St. Philip the Deacon, the Church has learned its lesson. You will note that in the service of Holy Baptism found in the Book of Common Prayer, we are careful to invite the Spirit—repeatedly! We invite the Holy Spirit to bless the water of baptism. We invite him in the words said as that water is poured on the candidates. We invite him again in the prayer after baptism. And we invite him a fourth time, as we anoint the newly baptized with holy oil, sealing them by the Holy Spirit and marking them as Christ’s own forever. I have no doubt that the three children being baptized today will effectually receive the gifts of the Spirit: an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.
But as Luke tells us later in his Gospel, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” There is a cost to becoming a Christian. There is a cost to being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. And that cost cannot be paid in cash! From the moment that we are baptized, we are dedicated to God’s full and express use. Paradoxically, we become both his beloved children and his willing servants. As God’s children, we owe him love. As God’s servants, we owe him faithful service. And that service is to spread God’s love to a hurting and broken world that all too often turns away from God. We are each, in our own way, asked to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, to witness to the faith that is in us by word and by deed, to work unstintingly for the building up of the Kingdom of God on earth. We are people with a mission, a mission that begins the moment we are baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Now, how we do our part in this mission depends upon our circumstances. Children can do their part by being loving and caring towards others, especially those weaker than they are. They can do their part by praying before meals and before bedtime in gratitude. They can do their part by helping out those who need help. They can do their part by learning about God from the Bible and by attending church as regularly as possible. They can do their part by saying they’re sorry when they have hurt someone or when they think they might have offended God. Even little children can do these things. And frankly, if most adults in the Church did these very same things, they would be better Christians for it!
The Church promises us that all who are baptized in the Name of the Triune God have become children of God, members of Christ’s Body, and inheritors of the Kingdom. Clearly, such elevated status is beyond our ability to earn or to buy. And if it were for sale, not even Donald Trump or Bill Gates could afford the manufacturer’s suggested retail price! Fortunately for us, that price has already been paid by Jesus Christ. We need only accept the gift of salvation and then show our gratitude by loving God and our neighbor. It’s just that simple…and just that hard.
May the Holy Spirit, who graces each of us at our baptism, inspire us continually to walk in love. Amen.