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"
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
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
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
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
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?".
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:
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