A sermon preached on Baptism of the Lord Sunday at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
January 11, 2015
This story in Acts reminds me of an unfortunate encounter I once had with people I love. These particular people don’t believe women should be preachers. Because you, the Presbyterian Church, seem to be encouraging people like me to “disobey” God’s word, they are also, more generally, skeptical about the Presbyterian Church.
They cornered me.
“Have you received the Holy Spirit?”
I knew it was a trap.
If I said yes, I knew the next question was “well then, what spiritual gift did you receive?”
If I said no, it would validate their belief that the Presbyterian Church was morally bankrupt and couldn’t even appropriately deliver the Holy Spirit and her magical box of gifts.
I said “yes, but I can’t tell you about the moment it happened because I was baptized as an infant and I don’t remember much about that day.”
That was not the right answer, of course, even if it was the truest answer I could give.
“Well, what gift did you receive?” he asked, as I knew he would.
“The gift of preaching”.
I’d not really preached at this point in my life. I was doing youth ministry in the church and preparing for seminary, but I hadn’t spent much time in a pulpit, and certainly not enough to boldly use the word “gift” to describe it.
The conversation went on, of course, until I could make an escape. They helpfully pointed out to me that women are instructed to be silent in church. Yada yada yada.
I told them they’d have to take that up with the Holy Spirit.
Nobody left the conversation satisfied.
And, to be clear, that’s not what Paul is going for in this story in Acts. He doesn’t want us to receive gifts of the Spirit and then use them to show people how we’re better than they are.
This story drops us down into the middle of a story about growing pains in the early church. Before the church ever had buildings or doctrine or creeds. There were followers of the Way. And they heard about Jesus from traveling preachers, not from TV shows, books, or the internet.
But, much like today, not all preachers had the same conclusions about Jesus, or even the same information about him. Apollos knew about John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance. Apollos apparently didn’t know about the Holy Spirit.
It’s an interesting story. You get a sense of the difficulty of maintaining “orthodoxy” in a new faith. You get a sense of how history is written by the victors. We don’t have any letters from Apollos in the New Testament, for example. Even though accounts of his preaching suggest he was a compelling figure.
You hear Paul complain about that pretty boy Apollos in some of his letters.
This is part turf war and part faith-is-on-the-line-really-important moment.
Because baptism is important. As far as I’m concerned, baptism is where all of our words about who God is come into visible focus.
Whether we are welcoming an infant into the family or baptizing an adult who is new to the faith, baptism is the visible sign of being born anew, washed clean in the water of life, and joined with Christ by participating in a ritual in which he also participated.
Baptizing infants, we are reminded that God chose us before we could choose God. Baptizing adult believers, we are reminded of the importance of our response to God.
My comment to my loved ones who wanted to know about when I’d gotten the gift of the Holy Spirit was a declaration of faith for me, even if they probably thought I was being smart.
In baptism, we are joined with Jesus in his baptism, and God’s voice saying, “you are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased”, is said for us.
And so I get why it mattered enough to Paul that he was going around and double checking the theology and the practice of his colleague in ministry.
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” he asks, and then corrects Apollos’ error. And I wonder if Paul’s act was less about re-baptizing, and more about making sure people knew the gifts of baptism.
Whatever Paul’s original context, people today use stories like this one in Acts to justify their particular brand of awesome, super-Jesus following credentials.
“Jesus really loves me! Look at my spiritual gift! It’s better than yours!”
Nobody really says that, of course, but it is there, between the lines.
“Our congregation is super faithful because we’re growing and expanding to a second campus. (And yours isn’t)”.
“If only she’d prayed harder, her health would have returned”.
And here’s an actual quote from popular pastor Joel Osteen:
“God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas and creativity”.
This notion that visible signs of success are equated to God’s favor, God’s blessing, God’s Holy Spirit is insidious in American Christianity.
And it is unscriptural hogwash.
Let’s look at the story of Jesus’ baptism to compare.
It’s a beautiful scene. All of Judea and all of Jerusalem have come to be baptized by John at the Jordan. It’s a gorgeous day. The birds are singing. The sun is shining and the inversion has lifted.
Jesus takes his place in line and wades into the water to be baptized by John.
As he is baptized, the heavens are ripped open, shredded apart, never to be closed again, and the Holy Spirit descends like a dive bombing pigeon, and God says, “you are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased.”
And then, immediately, this same Holy Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness, where he is with the wild beasts, tempted by Satan.
So, if my friends had asked Jesus if he’d received the Holy Spirit, and then asked him what gift he’d received from the Spirit, Jesus would, presumably, have answered, “being tempted by Satan in the wilderness”.
While I’m not a fan of people acting as if the gifts of the Spirit they received at baptism were the gifts of “self righteousness” or “sanctimony”, as some do, I do think the church could do a better job tending to each other’s gifts.
Do you know what your own gifts are?
Do you spend time in recognizing and calling out the gifts of others?
These are baptismal questions.
If we believe baptism is more than a nice thing to do with a baby when grandparents are in town, we should attend to what it means to us.
You may or may not have received the gift of tongues or prophecy when you were baptized, but you did receive gifts of the Spirit.
And gifts of the Spirit are given to build up the Body of Christ, to make God’s love more manifest in the world.
Some days it might be easier to recognize gifts in anyone but ourselves. If baptism is more than a cute ritual, if baptism is really that moment when the heavens split apart and God claims us and names us as beloved children, then we have to believe it is true.
I guarantee I would not be standing in this pulpit today had people not pointed out my own gifts to me.
My childhood pastor allowed me to skip senior high Sunday School and sit in the adult Bible class in the sanctuary.
My college pastor directed me to a summer camp job and a Mission Volunteer summer experience, when I had no idea how to move into the future.
During my difficult year of challenge in college, one of my professors told me to apply to be a Resident Assistant of a residence hall. I’m certain at that moment in my life, I didn’t have the confidence in my own gifts or in my own self to have applied for that position. It was such a blessing to be told my gifts were needed, especially when I was in the midst of such doubt, fear, and loss.
So many moments when people have seen me more clearly than I can see myself. What a gift that they were willing to tell me what they saw.
Paul told the church in Corinth:
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” (1 Cor 12:4-6)
Your gifts are not mine. And my gifts are not yours. But don’t think for a minute that you haven’t been uniquely gifted and that your gifts don’t matter to the world.
This is a baptismal claim.
Herman Travis was interviewed by his neighbor Robert Cochran for Story Corps. I heard their story a few weeks ago. “Every Tuesday, Travis fills a shopping cart with groceries from a local food bank and makes home deliveries to his elderly and disabled neighbors. He started doing it in 2007 and says when he first started, people were skeptical.
“When I first started doing it. People was cautious. They didn’t let me in their house, but after they got to really know me they would just be happy to see me,” says Travis.
Cochran, a neighbor of Travis who receives deliveries from him, says he loves the joy Travis gets out of making his rounds.
“I sometimes sit back and watch you,” he told Travis. “And I seen the way you handle yourself with the residents. They know they treated with respect when they see you coming.”
And it doesn’t look like Herman Travis will stop delivering groceries any time soon.
“I’m doing something that people really need. And that makes me feel really good. So long as I have breath in my body I’m going to continue doing it. I sleep good at night,” says Travis.
That’s one way to use our gifts.
In a few minutes, we’ll be remembering our baptisms. I was a few months old, so I don’t actually remember the day of mine. But I’ve been living into it ever since. Whether we remember the actual day or not, we remember its claim on our lives.
If you haven’t been baptized yet, you are still invited to come forward as we remember God’s claim on our lives in community, to be with and for each other, making God’s voice from heaven easier for the world to hear.
You are God’s beloved child, in whom God is pleased. Go and live into that truth.