Baptism: by Water and by Spirit
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
January 8, 2006
Scriptures: Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1: 4-11
“After me comes he who is mightier than I…I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” –Mark 1:7-8
The Christian calendar celebrates the events of Jesus’ life, beginning with the Advent anticipation of his coming and the Christmas celebration of his birth. According to that calendar we are now at the surprising event of his baptism by John. It is surprising because our faith holds that Jesus is without sin and John’s baptism is called “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (vs.4).” How could he who has no sin submit to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?
Before we take up that question let us notice again how our faith is not only a body of wise words and teachings, but also a narrative remembrance of things that happened and deeds that were done. Faith is not only a matter of words and ideas but also a matter of deeds and events. We learn faith not only by listening to Christ’s teaching but also by observing his deeds and interpreting both kinds of material in terms of its claim on our lives. So the truth of what we believe comes to us not only as discourse but also as narrative, and both kinds of communicative material have to be interpreted.
The Bible as a whole is perhaps unique among founding books of religion, compared for instance with the Koran, in the quantity of narrative material it contains, and this has led theologians to speak emphatically about the ‘mighty acts” of the biblical God, and to orient believers to the actions of God in the world, beyond the ideas, feelings and fantasies of the religious mind. “What is God doing?” we ask, “and how might I “get with” God’s program in the world at this time?”
So now we ask, “What is God doing, when He submits His sinless self to the baptism of repentance?” Of the evangelists only Matthew tries to deal explicitly with this implicit question. When Jesus presents himself, Matthew says, “John would have prevented him saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘ Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 4:14-15).’ ”
This means that initially God discloses His divine salvation within the already existing structures of religion. He enters with all believers into the rite of repentance and thus he confirms what is true in the existing order.
But his experience in the water of existing baptism is not one of cleansing and forgiveness but of affirmation and congratulation. It is as if Jesus hears his true self, saying in him, “You are the beloved, the perfection of beauty, the warmth of the divine love, the effulgence of the God’s Glory. Where we go for healing, cleansing and recreation Jesus went for affirmation and congratulation. Matthew implies this newness, and so do all the evangelists, but Matthew also explains what is going on. God is entering the old order for the time being.
All the evangelists imply this newness by means of the voice from heaven that called Jesus, “Beloved Son,” and assured him of the divine pleasure, but Mark adds something quite remarkable (please pardon the pun). John has just finished warning us of the one to come, who is so much mightier than he that he is not worthy to stoop before him and tie his shoelace, when the mighty one comes as a humble pilgrim seeking baptism, just one of the many seeking God that day. Thus Mark tells us that the might of God’s will is humble love, thus the narrative of what Jesus did instructs us vividly and draws indelibly on our memories a surprising picture of divine power.
The narrative of Jesus’ baptism is therefore rich with instruction for us. What does it teach us? We have already learned two profound lessons: firstly that the new revelation of God’s self begins within the structures of the institutions and rituals of the old. There is a specificity and continuity in God’s action in the world; God reveals himself in and through the people of Israel, their kings and prophets, and God’s new revelation in Jesus the Jew begins within the heart and soul of Jewish practice. Secondly we have learned that there is a new dimension to the revelation of God, expressed in the unprecedented divine affirmation of Jesus as he entered that old baptism.
So the power of the divine son ship begins within the confines of the old. It begins there, but it does not end there, rather the new initiative of the divine in -the-human bursts over the boundaries of Judaism and encompasses the world. This new initiative is aimed not only at the Jews, nor at any other ethnic group but at humanity as a whole. That is why Matthew carefully limits Jesus’ subjection to John’s baptism; it is “for now,” for the present time and circumstance, but “now” will not last long before the power that acts in this baptism bursts the bounds of such baptisms of repentance and overwhelms all religion and ethnicity with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. “I have baptized you with water but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This baptism of the Holy Spirit is nothing less than the “whole enchilada.” It is a summary term for the Christian faith, truth and experience. If there is any spiritual power in the Christian faith it is this baptism with the Holy Spirit. So what do we know about it from today’s lessons?
Our Gospel tells us that it is different from, greater than the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and our lesson from Acts 19 illustrates, by another narrative, what this difference looks like. Paul finds in Ephesus a group of twelve people who have been baptized with the baptism of John but had not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit. Paul tells them, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is Jesus.” “On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied (Acts 19:4-6).”
Clearly Paul considered John’s baptism as a ritual of cleansing in preparation for the coming of God Himself into our lives, a sort of taking out the garbage, putting away things lying around, and cleaning the house in preparation for the coming of an important guest. The baptism of the Spirit was, on the other hand, the arrival of that guest and the immense impact of that arrival on the home of our hearts. And what form does this divine arrival take? It speaks to our hearts from within the old water, “You are my child, my beloved! Who hears that voice experiences the baptism of the Spirit.
From a matter-of-fact point of view we must admit that all this fastidiousness about who pours water on or dunks whom is ludicrous, especially when historic and enduring separations occur among those who believe and practice the love of Jesus over these matters. But the matter-of-fact point of view as usual misses the point. This discourse is not about water and bathing, it is about our relationship with God, and water is an effective symbol in this regard because it is literally the agent that cleanses us when we are dirty and makes us presentable to the important guest we are expecting.
I often marvel when I drink water at its miraculous quality, two gases in liquid form. St Francis calls her, “sister water that is very humble and gentle.” (I daresay the victims of Katrina have other attitudes towards water right now, but St Francis was not wrong). Water is a life-giver; our bodies are mostly water, our blood like seawater, and our survival dependent on having water to drink. And water falls randomly as rain making all life generously possible.
Perhaps we can use two kinds of our experience of water to represent the two kinds of baptism in our scripture lessons and the two kinds of spiritual experience that correspond to these symbols. To get clean you must take a bath, and bathwater is captive water, cunningly trapped in reservoirs and made prisoner in pipes and tubs. It is hard working water. Rain, on the other hand is free; we cannot control it. It just falls on us in its abundance.
The former water is the water of the Law, of John’s baptism of repentance; the latter rain is the Gospel, the baptism of Holy Spirit and life in the name of Jesus. I believe the Gospel is like the rain in at least this essential regard: It falls on everyone without exception, and gives life to all without reserve. This is the baptism of Jesus, of the Spirit. It happens in that moment when we hear God say to us, “You are my child; you are my beloved; I am delighted in you! Come to me!”
Acts tells us that when the 12 in Ephesus received this baptism they spoke in tongues and prophesied. I can’t say I blame them. We might not speak in tongues but at least we can sing, or shout Whoopee! Absolute love and eternal life have come upon us like the rain!