Saturday, January 7, 2012

Baptism: it’s not about the how; it’s about the Holy Spirit

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
A young Lutheran woman named Ann became active in a church which practiced full immersion baptism. The church also stressed the gift of speaking in tongues as the only valid sign that the believer had received the Holy Spirit in her baptism. Ann got to know the church members and decided she wanted to be baptized. She joined several others that summer day in a swimming pool-turned-baptismal font. Following the baptism she was encouraged to let the Spirit speak through her. She finally mumbled a few sounds, and the church members promised her more would come as she grew in faith.
A church in Iowa has a small font similar to ours, a bowl on a stand. Many of the children who grew up in that church now live hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles away. The congregation’s pastor is frequently asked to baptize their babies when they are in town visiting Grandma. After the baptism, the record of the baptism is transferred to the family’s local congregation. The tradition of baptizing the children at the same font in the same church is strong in many places.
Last year, when I was teaching the confirmation class about baptism, I found a video on the internet. It showed a pastor standing waist deep in water in the middle of a baptismal font. As he blessed one boy and sent him on his way, the next boy arrived at the edge of the font. He tucked up his knees, held his nose, and did a cannonball dive into the font. The whole congregation gasped and the pastor wiped the water off his face. The pastor baptized the youth, and then promised that such an event would never happen again.
In America, and all around the world, baptismal practices vary from denomination to denomination and town to town. We sometimes think this variety is a new thing, but even the New Testament reflects a variety of practices and theologies. The Book of Acts relates several instances of entire households being baptized immediately after the family heard what Peter had to say about Jesus, although we are not told how the baptism took place. Acts tells us that Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch in a stream near the road.
The records of the early church show a wide variety of practices as well. In some places, new believers spent a year or two, or even three, in the catechumenate, in preparation for baptism. Often, on Holy Saturday – the day before Easter – men and women were separated, bathed, oiled, immersed for baptism, and clothed in a new white robe. They then attended the Easter Vigil worship service and received Holy Communion for the first time.  
In our story from Acts, Paul encounters a group of people who were followers of John the Baptist. We often think that John’s disciples all became disciples of Jesus, but that’s not so. The practice of John’s baptism for repentance and forgiveness continued for many years, even after John was killed. That’s why all four gospel writers stress that John was clearly inferior to Jesus, and that John always pointed the way to Jesus. When Jesus is baptized by John, it’s Jesus, not John, who hears God saying, “You are my beloved Son.”
Paul has a conversation with these folks to learn more about what the people believe. Like all good evangelists, Paul starts with where the people are. When he learns that they practice John’s baptism of repentance, Paul teaches them about Jesus and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The group agrees that this is even better than what they have been doing and ask to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. The Holy Spirit descends upon them and they speak in tongues and prophesy, a clear sign of the presence of the Spirit within them.
Paul does not ask if they were immersed or sprinkled, infants or adults, if they had years of training or were baptized as soon as they said they wanted to be baptized. Paul simply wants to know if they have the Holy Spirit through their baptism, and therefore what work the Spirit is doing through these believers.
We can learn two things from this. First, we can learn that those practices that work in one place may simply not work in another. Where it is practical, immersion for baptism is a good thing. Where it is not practical, pouring a small amount of water is just as effective, because it is God’s Holy Spirit combined with the water that makes the baptism effective. ... I will add that a seminary professor once said that if we ever had a chance to replace the font, we should put in a hot tub.
Second, we learn that it’s the gift and power of the Holy Spirit that is really important. Through baptism we acknowledge the presence of God’s Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. In this passage, the newly-baptized demonstrate the gift of speaking in tongues and prophesying. However, not everyone who is baptized has the gift of speaking in tongues. In his letters Paul lists many other gifts including hospitality, teaching, healing, and service.
A quick scan of our readings today shows us many gifts. Of course, God has all sorts of gifts, but in today’s reading, we see the gift of creativity and of calling chaos into order. We see the gifts of preaching and teaching in Paul – and apparently also in John. John’s gift of calling people to repentance lasted long after his death. We see the gifts of faithful discipleship and adaptability in this group of disciples, as well the gift of speaking in tongues. In the psalmist, we see the gift of praise and of writing poetry. In Jesus, as he is baptized, and then driven into the wilderness immediately after the baptism, we see the gift of obedience to God’s plan.  
 We are baptized children of God, and have Holy Spirit-given gifts. What gifts do you have? How do you use them? What gifts do you have that you never use? I know from experience that many of you will say, I don’t have any gifts, but I know that is not true.
In this congregation, many folks have the more obvious and frequently celebrated gifts of music, healing, teaching, and leadership. In addition, there are many folks with less celebrated gifts.
In this congregation, we have many, many folks with the gift of hospitality. Just think about the way we greet visitors and make sure they are made welcome and included. Just think about the importance of greeting so many others as we share Christ’s peace with one another.
In this congregation, we have many, many folks with the gift of service. Just think about the dozens of shoeboxes and quilts we give away each year. Just think about the number of hours given by the members of the property committee, and by the financial secretary and the treasurer.
In this congregation, many folks have the gift of generosity. Just think about the way we take care of our adopted families all year, and especially at Christmas.
In this congregation, many folks have the gift of evangelism. Just think about the folks who have brought a friend to worship or another event. Just think about the folks who have spent a few hours at the booth in Dunnellon sharing water and coffee with passers-by. Just think about the folks who have the vision for inviting our neighbors to come and see, by offering them a free meal from our new kitchen.
 In this congregation, many folks have the gift of prayer. Just think about how much time we spend lifting up names and concerns each week in prayer.
The gifts of God are often obvious, but just as often, we don’t think of them as gifts. They are just what we do. Let’s recognize those big and little gifts as coming from God and use them for God’s purposes.  Your challenge this week is to identify the gifts God has given to you. Try this: start a list – maybe on your refrigerator along with your grocery list. On this list, write everything you notice that you do well; and write everything you notice that you enjoy doing. Those might be the same, or they may be very different. For example, you might do a great job cleaning your house, but it’s not something you enjoy doing. But the gift of cleanliness and orderliness comes from God. So, write on your list as many gifts as possible. Next week, I’ll ask you how you did, so don’t forget! God gives us gifts so we can use them. Let’s not fail to use what we have been given!
Please pray with me. Gracious and giving God, we give you thanks for all your gifts to us, both big and small. Help us to recognize our gifts and use them for your purposes. Help us also to encourage others to discover and use their own gifts. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen