St. Augustine of Hippo


Episcopal Church

 


“Into What Then Were You Baptized?”


by

The Rev. Nathanael Saint-Pierre

(Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, Mark1:4-11)


January 10, 2021


Have you ever questioned your baptism? Either in light of the practices of other Christian confessions or in light of what is written in the Bible, most specifically in Acts 19?


The Book of Acts reports that Paul questioned the disciples he found in Ephesus. He 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." Then he said to them: "Into what then were you baptized?" They answered: "Into John's baptism." Paul said: "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, in Jesus."


Does that mean that there are several baptisms? As we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, how should we understand our own?


In the Gospel of Mark read today, we are presented with two characters: John and Jesus. The first received the bright projector, foretelling the coming of the second who appeared a bit dim until the crescendo at the end of the text. It is John the Baptist that Mark told us was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is to John that people went to be baptized in the River Jordan (baptism in water). It is of the same John that Mark described the clothing, the food, and the preaching. John hadn't yet proclaimed that "I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit", when Jesus showed up to be baptized himself. Differently from other synoptic writers who created a dialogue between John and Jesus to ensure a smooth transition, Mark told us Jesus came and was baptized by John. "And just as he was coming out of the water" the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him, a voice came from heaven saying: "You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased." Although Jesus seemed to have come to be baptized with water, he left the water being baptized with the Holy Spirit, not imposed on him by John or another human being, but by God Godself.


This leaves us with the question, why do we as a community of faith baptize people with water, then confirm people by the imposition of the hands of a bishop on them as a conduit of the Holy Spirit? What about those other denominations in which there are no bishops, but people still express the gifts described by Paul as the gifts of the Holy Spirit? Very bizarrely, in those Christian confessions, the speaking in tongues, the healing of incurable diseases, exorcisms, and trances seem to be rather more common than in those denominations that identify themselves as mainline Catholic. How should we define baptism with the Holy Spirit? Is the Holy Spirit absent from the baptism we confer on children? If, based on what Paul is reported to have said, disciples must be baptized with the Holy Spirit, should baptism with water be excluded? Are they not mutually exclusive?


According to Melinda Quivik, Liturgical and Homiletical Scholar, St. Paul, Minnesota, “If John’s baptism is our focus, we may forget that we have been “immersed” in God’s gracious welcome and “transformed” by the Holy Spirit. We can be caught up in our participation in the work of the Church, failing to acknowledge the mystery itself. We may forget that the mystery, which is God’s defeat of death in the resurrection of Jesus, is the reason we come together to care about the world. The work we do may seem to be the goal rather than the life that grows out from gratitude.”


She went on to add, “In Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit has the central role. It is the Spirit rather than the washing that affects the transformation of the baptized. The Spirit creates a profound change in us because, at least in most Christian traditions, we receive faith that does not result from our fulfilling John’s requirement to repent. We baptize infants who have no words of repentance.”


Thinking of our own baptism today, we are reminded that to be children of God is much more important than the form our traditions follow. Baptism is how we become children of God by adoption and we are marked as Christ's own forever. If baptism is the door by which we enter the Jesus Movement, we can only perform the objective God intended through Christ who restored our dignity and made us worthy to be called children of God.


Every time I am called to perform a baptism, I am reminded that I am opening someone's heart to the grace of God. I am preparing someone to be a channel through which the Holy Spirit will go from generation to generation. Not that that step is necessary, but in our human lives so much in need of an anchor, it is an event we must look back to, to remember our entrance into the story of salvation of humanity. It is also a reminder of a commitment not to hold onto that grace as if it were an individual gift, but to share it as a gift from heaven to earth that must be passed on from generation to generation. Today, as I picture myself being baptized, at the baptismal font at Holy Trinity Cathedral, in Port au Prince, by the Rev. Raoul Moreau, on May 13, 1972, I am reminded of the last wall standing of the Cathedral after the earthquake of 2010. It was the wall with the fresco of the baptism of our Lord, rendered by a local artist. I am reminded of my commitment to renounce Satan and all spiritual forces that rebel against God, to renounce the evil powers of this world which call to violence and corrupt and destroy the creatures and the creations of God, to do my best to walk away from sinful desires that draw me from the love of God. I am also reminded to turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as my savior as I put my whole trust in his grace and love.


Into what then were you baptized? I pray that your baptism was not just an occasion to gather a few friends, have a drink, and eat some cake. Because what makes it meaningful is not what eyes can see; it is the inner transformation that makes you a born-again human being. It is the transformation that brings you back to the creature God intended in Christ Jesus. Amen