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Baptism in the Spirit

Sermon - 1/11/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Acts 19:1-7

Traditionally, this Sunday after Epiphany we use the text that we read earlier (Mark 1:4-11), but I'm not sure, however, as we reflect on our own baptismal experiences, how helpful that text is.  I mean, I have baptized well over 100 people and not once have I seen a descending dove!  Not once have I heard a voice from the heavens "This is my son for whom I am well pleased".  I haven't even heard a voice said "This is Dick with whom I'm really ticked off" J

So I'm not sure if Mark 1:4-11 is the right story.  And that's not to say that the baptisms that we perform here are not sacred, holy moments.  Powerful experiences for our baptismal candidates.  It's just that the story of Jesus' baptism, as told in the gospels, is far removed, I think, from most of our experiences.

So, it might be helpful for us, from time to time, to consider one of the many other baptism stories in the New Testament as we reflect on our own experiences, and stories of our own.  So, I want to look at the story in the 18th and 19th chapter of Acts.

In the 18th chapter of Acts, we meet Priscilla and Aquila for the first time.  Two Jews from Rome who have been expelled by Emperor Claudius.  One of the expulsions that happened during the history of Rome, that Jews experienced many times, not just in Rome, but elsewhere, as part of that anti-Semitism they have experienced.  So the Jews had been expelled from Rome, and Priscilla and Aquila come to Corinth.  There, because they are tent-makers, they meet Paul, who is also a tent-maker.  And they become acquainted.  And they learn this story of Jesus from Paul, they become very close to him, work closely with him, travel with him, and are important in the gospel story (we see their names in several different places).

Paul takes them with him when he goes across the Aegean Sea to Ephesus.  Paul then journeys on to Jerusalem, Priscilla and Aquila remain in Ephesus where they meet Apollos.  Apollos is a Jew from Alexandria in Egypt.  Alexandria was a very important center for Jewish life and then later in the Christian story becomes a very important center for Christian life. 

Apollos is a gifted speaker, trained in Greek rhetoric, very knowledgeable about the scriptures, meaning the Hebrew scriptures.  And, a follower of Jesus.  But the text says, in chapter 18, that "while he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, he knew only the baptism of John".  In other words, the story is not complete.

And so Priscilla and Aquila take him aside and teach him the rest of the story as they learned it from Paul.  And Apollos heads on to Corinth and we pick up more of that story later.

The point of all this is to explain why, when Paul returns to Ephesus a few months later, he finds followers of Jesus ("Disciples" as they are called in the text) who only know the baptism of John, having been taught by Apollos before he was educated by Priscilla and Aquila.  So now we pick up the text for this morning in the 19th chapter of Acts:

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ 3Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ 4Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— 7altogether there were about twelve of them.


Now, before I go any further, I'd like to make one observation about the role of Priscilla in this whole story.  One of the things about which Paul is often criticized is his supposed views of the role of women in the church.  For instance, he tells women to be subservient to their husbands in the letter to the Ephesians, in 1 Corinthians he tells women to remain silent in the church, to keep their heads covered as a symbol of male authority.  Which of course is why women were hats to church. . . . . . .well, we have 1!  J

And yet, here is Paul working alongside Priscilla and her husband, both in the marketplace and in the church.  Furthermore, Priscilla is clearly engaged in teaching a man in the church with the full approval, if not of Paul, at least of Luke, the author of Acts.  And, Paul praises Priscilla and Aquila equally in Romans 16 for their work with him in Christ.

Nowhere in Acts or in any of Paul's letters is their a suggestion or even a hint that Priscilla in any way is subservient to any man.  Neither her husband or Paul.  And she is most certainly not silent in the church.

Which is why many scholars today conclude that Paul has gotten a bad rap regarding women in ministry, and that his practice was fully consistent with his teaching in Galatians 3:28 that their is 'neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, as all are one in Christ Jesus'.

And this equality is something our church has always taken seriously.  This will come as no surprise to you, given that women have been ordained in this congregation for over 50 years.  And in our denomination since 1874.  But I do think it's important to remind ourselves from time to time not just how progressive we are on such issues, but how Biblical we are.  In fact, it's precisely because we do take the Bible seriously that we are progressive on not just the role of women but many other issues.

But if I go further on that topic it will be a whole other sermon and we'll never get back to the text at hand.

So, back to the baptism of these 12 by Paul and to the question of the day, namely, how does this story relate to our experience?

And each person would have to answer that question for themselves.  But let me suggest 4 possible points of contact that I see, and hopefully at least one or two will resonate with you:

First of all, consider the incremental steps in the conversion of these 12, how their faith developed.  In Corinth, the situation was reversed.  Paul writes to the Corinthians 'I planted, Apollos watered, God gives the growth', right?  Here in Ephesus, it's Apollos who planted, and Paul who waters, and still God gives the growth.  The point is that there wasn't for these new Christians a single conversion experience, but rather a series of experiences under at least two different teachers. 

There is no 1 correct way for coming to faith in Christ.  Whether it be that sudden, blinding experience that Paul had on the road to Damascus, or in more gradual, step-by-step kinds of experiences that these 12 had.  All are equally valid.  And I say that because many times I have encountered people who feel like somehow their faith is inadequate because they didn't have that kind of dramatic experience like Paul had, or they didn't feel called like the Disciples on the Sea of Galilee.  But have had the more gradual experience of growing up in the church, I think you probably know what I mean.

Secondly, also note the role of education plays in this story.  First there is Apollos, who, the story says, taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.  And then Paul adds to that teaching.  We can safely assume that the story here doesn't give us everything that Paul taught, this is just a brief summation of what he taught.  But it does indicate that Paul does not rebuke what they learned from Apollos, or even correct it, rather he builds on the teaching of Apollos.  And that's precisely what good education does -- it lays a foundation for more learning to occur.  And when we look at the long arc of the gospel story we can see that that learning never stops.  Therefore, we should be leery of those that have all the answers, all the solutions, everything in one nice neat package.  Our experience is that life is a life-long learning process in the gospel.

So we have plans for a regular core curriculum of classes on such things as how we read the Bible in our tradition, what is important to know about our history, our beliefs and practices, how do we go about sharing our faith with others, how do we deepen our faith using spiritual disciplines?  And you'll be hearing more about these offerings in the weeks and months ahead.

Education is a key in faith development in the Christian Church Disciples of Christ.  And it's one of the reasons we call ourselves Disciples, that our founders chose that name, because we are students of Jesus.  It's also one of the reasons why, when surveys are done, consistently it is the Disciples of Christ ranked at the top in terms of the level of education of the members of the church among all denominations in the United States. 

Third, that high level of education, however, has not always served us well.  We tend to be a church, most Disciple congregations -- including our own -- that relies more on reason than emotion.  More on logic than experience.  More on intellect than the spirit.  Case in point:  I think you've noticed our brothers and sisters using our Chapel at this hour, an African-American congregation, Power House Ministries, Pastor is Carl Stuggs.  Wonderful group of folk.  And if you've ever walked down the hallway after our service, you can't miss them.  When they worship, it is a loud experience!  They're praising Jesus, they're shouting "Hallelujah!", they're jumping up & down, they're raising their hands, they're getting down on their knees.  The whole body is in their worship experience.

I know we've got the spirit when I see a few heads nodding J.  If I see 5 heads nodding, I think, wow!, the spirit is really moving among the congregation!  I'm not suggesting that we suddenly become Pentecostal, but that there's a difference between our staid ways as a church where the spirit is palpable (and you feel it when you enter in) and one where the only thing you feel is icy cold.  And it's not the thermostat on the wall that makes the difference, it's the expression on our faces.  It's not the warmth of the air, it's the warmth of the handshakes and the smiles.  It's not the sound of the instruments, it's the sound of our voices.

And that is what this text calls the "holy spirit".  Which in this case is manifested in tongues and prophecy.  This is not anything weird.  It's really nothing more than verbalization of the faith with enthusiasm.  Something I think we all can use in our faith.  And Paul makes very clear that there are a variety of such gifts that are unique to everyone, and no gift is greater than any other, save for the gift of love.  The gift of love is the greatest -- 1 Corinthians 13.  That is the greatest gift of all.  That is the gift of the spirit.  It is the outpouring of that gift more than any other that makes a church vibrant and inviting.

Baptism, you see, is being washed in the flood of God's love and sharing the spirit of that love with others is what baptism and the spirit is all about.

Fourth, that brings me to my last point of contact with this story, and that is that relationships trump doctrine every time. 

Paul's concern is not that they have been taught the wrong things, or even that they have not been baptized correctly, but that their relationship with Christ is not yet complete.  They know some things about Jesus, but do not yet fully know Jesus.  And that relationship is the key to everything else.

When Judy and I were in seminary, there was a lot of of excitement about a new document issued by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.  It was called "Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry".  It was something that had been in development for 20 or 30 years as all of these different traditions -- Orthodox, Evangelical, Mainline Protestants -- all trying to work out their differences on key issues.  Baptism, Eucharist (the Lord's Table), and Ministry.  These differences have been the source of great division within the church for centuries.  So there was a lot of excitement, we've come to this common understanding in these 3 areas.

And one of those agreements was that baptism, as a sign of God's grace, is a non-repeatable act.  That is to say, because it is not about what we do, it's what God does, baptism is the outward sign of that gift of grace and therefore it does not matter if you were baptized as an infant or as an adult, once is enough.  You don't have to keep doing it.  And for Disciples, that was pushing the envelope, because we were all taught that you had to be baptized as a believer when you come of age.

And so I was so dutifully trained, and in my first church when someone was baptized as an infant and would come to me and say they wanted to be re-baptized, I would explain to them this long theological explanation that baptism was an unrepeatable act, a sign of God's grace, you don't need to do it again, we could do a confirmation service of your baptism, or something else, does that make sense?  And they'd say "Yes".  And I'd ask if they have any questions.  And they'd say "when can I be re-baptized?". J

And so I learned from them, they taught me.  You see, it's not about doctrine, it's about that relationship.  So I don't worry about doctrinal purity anymore, I see baptism as an affirmation and expression of that relationship, of dying and rising with Christ into a new life.  And when that relationship becomes a powerful presence in your life regardless of what may have transpired before, regardless of what your parents did for you as an infant or what you did yourself as a youth, you want to have that experience of being baptized, of making that statement and that witness.

In her work "Unbinding the Gospel", Grace Reese says "We had this great idea in the mainline evangelism project.  We asked almost 1,000 people interviewed and over 400 people who sent in written surveys, for the best piece of advice they could give someone who was trying to help people become Christian.  One of the most frequent answers suggests that our relationships with God are the foundation stone of who we are as Christians".

And noting then that that relationship is lived out in our relationship with others in the church and in our relationships with those outside the church, Grace makes this sort of trinity of relationships with God, the church, and those outside the church.  She says: 

"Vibrant congregations contain people who are attending to spiritual disciplines and alive in Christ.  Live congregations where relationships within the church are nurtured, and where the congregation tries to work together in the spirit, changing people's lives.  Church is no longer just a place to go, it isn't just for Sunday mornings, it isn't the ticket you punch to get new clients and make useful contacts.  Church isn't even the place you go weekly to get a little encouragement to get you through the rest of the week.  Church is an igniter of faith, an instigator of growth that affects your whole life".

You see, that's the experience that the author of Acts is writing about.  A group of people whose relationship with Christ creates a spiritual church that is an igniter of faith, an instigator of growth that affects your whole life.

That is the kind of church, if that we are not already, certainly that we seek to be.

Nod your heads J.


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