The Baptism of the Holy Spirit
Last week I spoke to you about the baptism of John the Baptist and how that baptism was a sign of the graciousness of God calling the people to repent and seek for the forgiveness of their sin. I also spoke to you about why Jesus was baptized by John as a sign that he too had sought the graciousness of God and had publicly declared that he had repented and was seeking for the forgiveness of sin. And even though he did not need to seek for that forgiveness, that baptism identified him with the people and opened the door for him to be able to move them even further on the path that their repentance in the water baptism had taken them. They could then have ears to hear, eyes to see and minds to understand what the kingdom of heaven was and how they as the people of that kingdom were called to live. The vision was that having been baptized in water, they would be willing to also be baptized by the Spirit of God and so not just be prepared to respond to God’s Word but truly seek to live it through the presence, power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The whole idea is that Jesus was bringing a new word from God. It is the culmination of everything that God had sought to share with the people of the world. It was the fulfilment of the prophecies that spoke of the coming of the Spirit of God upon the people and how the people would come to worship and believe in God not as some external presence with no intimate connection to their lives but as the One who was present with them in their deepest inmost being and whose will it was that they unite their wills with his. The vision was for such a unity in creation that Creator and creature, God and humanity could finally be at perfect peace with one another and with all of the created order. Only when people were prepared to respond to the world and the people around them with a heart and mind fully seeking to follow the word of God could perfect peace, full forgiveness and deep love be the guiding principles of life. Life was not created for envy, hate, prejudice, dissension, suffering and strife. Life was created to be a blessing. That full vision of blessing had been clouded by human desire to be something other than we were created to be. God came in Jesus to show us how to be fully human within the kingdom of God and still find the freedom to live not as puppets but as partners with God. The supremacy of God never limits our freedom. We limit our freedom when we fail to listen to the voice of the One who gave us life.
For all of us, the baptism by water is one that we have experienced and remember or have pictures and stories to remind us of that event. If we received our baptism later in life, we may have a more vivid memory of that moment. What did it mean to you to be baptised? If you were baptised as a child, it happened because of the faith of parents or other adults in your life, people who wanted you to be part of the faith that held so much meaning for them. If you were raised in a community of faith, you would encounter others who would teach you the history and the principles that were to guide you to the moment when you would take responsibility for the faith that was growing in you and lead you to confirm that faith for yourself. If you came as an adult, your baptism with water would symbolize your desire to follow God and to declare to others in the community that the life they sought to live in response to God was the life you had chosen as well. You see, the real basis for church membership is not to gain voting rights and privileges; it was and should be about our willingness to publicly support a community of faith by sharing our material and spiritual resources with others who share that faith. And we share that faith even more effectively when we seek to go beyond our water baptism, our initiation into the faith and ask God for a deeper baptism – the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Remember back to when I was speaking of the Celtic church and some of its guiding principles of faith. One thing that stands out concerns life in the Spirit. One theologian noted that the Spirit of God moves like the water in a river. If we stand on the shore, we are not engaged in life; we simply watch it pass. But if we stand in the water, the Spirit of God continually washes around us and we are immersed in life. Our baptism in water is a moment when we dip our feet in the water or when we allow the water to wash over us once. Our baptism in the Spirit is when we allow ourselves to walk in the water and so let the water touch our senses and penetrate our bodies, our minds, our hearts and our spirits. The very prescription which comes from the Old Testament and was meant to be the primary principle by which the people of God were ever to live says this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength, with all your understanding. In other words, commitment to God and to the faith we hold in and with God is not just for part of us or part of our living; it is to be our whole life.
So often we speak of different baptisms and somehow convince ourselves that one is superior to the other. But in reality what is happening in our lives is like with every other part of our lives; we grow in stature, in wisdom and – hopefully – in grace. Rather than seeing the baptism in the Holy Spirit as a superior baptism and believing the marks of that baptism to be a sign of spiritual superiority, we need to see the baptism as a sign of God’s gracious response to our desire to grow in our faith. If we focus solely on what gifts we have received from the Spirit of God – which are often associated with the baptism in the Holy Spirit – we will miss the fact that the presence of the Holy Spirit is to be for us a sign of our identification with Christ in his life, his suffering, his death and his resurrection. When we focus on gifts, we become absorbed with ourselves and our talents rather than focused on the new life promised to us by God through the sacrifice and resurrection of our Lord.
True enough, we are to seek for the baptism of the Holy Spirit but we are also to seek for a greater understanding of what it means to suffer as Christ suffered, to realize that the death of Christ and his descent to the place of the dead and his resurrection from there have opened to us a way to eternal life that never existed before. But also to realize that that new and eternal life is not a prize to be grasped but a blessing to be thankful for.
Years ago in Morrisburg, people from the Presbyterian, Anglican and Roman Catholic congregations gathered for a course on the Holy Spirit leading to the laying on of hands and the baptism in the Holy Spirit. As hands were laid by those who prayed over each of us, some of us received the gift of speaking in tongues, others didn’t. Yet it was clear that everyone there felt that they had been touched by the presence of God and were moved in their hearts, minds and spirits to a place of deeper faith and commitment.
The Spirit of God is ever present with us even before we recognize or acknowledge its presence. It has held us from the beginning of our lives and will hold us at the end. Whenever we commit ourselves to going deeper with God, whether it is openly celebrated by a laying on of hands, a sprinkling or immersion in water or the granting of gifts, we receive a baptism from God.
And so I encourage each and every one to consider where you are in your life with God and pray that you may seek to go deeper that you may experience the presence of the Spirit of God drawing you more and more into that place where you sense a unity of life with the One who calls us into the kingdom.