Today is the day that we remember the Baptism of Jesus, and what baptism can mean to us today. We’ll take a look at the way baptism included previously excluded or unimportant people in the Book of Acts. In the light of recent events in the USA — and the kid-gloves way white supremacists are treated — we need to emphasise the way Scripture includes those who have been marginalised.
The gift of the Spirit in baptism sweeps people up into the dynamic of the Spirit and its expansive Way. It drives believers to participate in the church’s expansive mission. It empowers them to witness in word and in deed to a universally inclusive reality. And so by the Spirit they are empowered to witness to a truth that many in today’s terrorised and war-torn world may need to hear. Now that the Way is come to all, we no longer need be Jews or Greeks or Egyptians or Romans or Arabs in order to be God’s people. — Douglas F Ottati, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 1
Baptism has been the source of some of the greatest debates of the Christian church through the years. How much water should we use? We baptise with water, but should we pour, sprinkle or immerse people? Who can be baptised? Can infants and children be baptised, or just adults? What are the limits of baptism?
The Sunday after Epiphany (6 January) is the day we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. Jesus is baptised as our representative. So who does Jesus represent? He was a male Jew who spoke Aramaic. No one suggests that only male, Jewish Aramaic speakers can be baptised. Then who does Jesus represent? Jesus represents all of us, young, old, white, black, gay or straight. In baptism, all of us are united with Christ, without exception.
The Uniting Church’s baptism service says
In his own baptism in the Jordan by John,
Jesus identified himself with humanity
in its brokenness and sin …
‘Jesus identified himself with humanity’ — all of us. Everyone. No one is left out.
Today, I want to look with you at some of the baptismal stories Luke tells in the Book of Acts. And then we’ll come to the very strange story we heard today, about believers who had never heard of the Holy Spirit!
Let’s be clear: Christian baptism includes the promise of God’s Spirit. In Christian baptism we are identified with Jesus Christ, who bears the Spirit and shares the Spirit with us.
It doesn’t matter how old you are. You can be five weeks, five or fifty years old; in baptism, you are publicly initiated into the community of the Spirit, the Church of God. You may be unaware, as an infant; you may need further training, as a child; you may need to grow further in maturity, as an adult. It doesn’t matter who you are. You have the gift of the Spirit, by the grace of God. You have received the sign of belonging to the community of the Spirit.
The ‘whoever you are-ness’ of baptism is embedded in the Book of Acts. Luke, the author of Acts, tells of a number of baptisms that show God’s grace freely poured out on people who the so-called ‘righteous’ may have looked down on.
Firstly, the Day of Pentecost in chapter 2. Three thousand people were baptised according to Luke (Acts 2.41). These people were Jews who didn’t live in Judaea. Some of them may have been converts to the Jewish faith. Strict Jerusalem-based believers might have suspected them of having heretical views, and who knows, some of them may have had heretical views. They were welcomed and baptised.
Then in Acts 8, Philip preaches the Good News to the loathed and despised people of Samaria. People here in what we call the West Bank were certainly considered heretics by Jewish people. They were welcomed and baptised.
Also in chapter 8, Philip meets someone. He was from Ethiopia, and probably a black man. He was reading from the prophet Isaiah. He may have been a convert to the Jewish faith, a member of an Ethiopian Jewish community, or a ‘God-fearer’, a Gentile attracted to the Jewish God.
We do know he was a eunuch, and so unable to participate fully in Temple worship. He may have been an intersex person. Today, he might identify with the LGBTIQ community.
Some people may have shunned him, or at least made fun of him behind his back. The Ethiopian eunuch was welcomed and baptised.
After Acts 8 comes Acts 9. In this chapter, Saul, the arch-persecutor of the followers of Jesus, is baptised — reluctantly — by a believer called Ananias. I’d be reluctant too. Saul had blood on his hands. He was an enemy of Jesus and his followers. You’d have to think this could be a trick.
Yet Saul was welcomed and baptised. He took a new name, ‘Paul’, to show that he was reborn in Christ. He became the architect of Christian inclusion, proclaiming (Galatians 3.26–28) that
in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Isn’t it amazing that Paul, the former persecutor of Christians, is now a brother in Christ to the Ethiopian eunuch? To me, this is an example of how liberating the Bible can be when we read it carefully. Everyone is welcomed, all may be baptised.
Let’s move on, and we only have to go to the next chapter, chapter 10. Things are moving so quickly!
Acts 10 tells about the baptism of Cornelius and his household. Cornelius was a Gentile, a believer in God though not a Jew.
But that doesn’t stop God working. Peter has a vision and goes to the house of Cornelius, where Peter shares the Good News of Jesus (Acts 10.44–47). Luke writes
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptising these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’
The way of Jesus was now open to rank outsiders, to the Gentiles. To a member of the occupying forces and his household! They were welcomed and baptised.
That word ‘household’ comes up several times in Acts. Lydia was an independent woman, a dealer in purple cloth in the city of Philippi. Purple cloth was very exclusive and expensive in that day. She is next to be welcomed and baptised, she and her household.
Soon, Paul and Silas are in jail, still in Philippi. The jailer asks how he may be saved, and they tell him
Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household. They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptised without delay.
What was a ‘household’? Households were made up of family members, perhaps an extended family, along with servants and slaves.
The whole household was baptised. In biblical terms, faith is communal. So if the head of a household like Lydia or the Philippian jailer is baptised, the whole household follows. Everyone is welcomed and baptised. We think in such an individualistic way, we can’t easily understand it.
Now, if there were children in a household, they would be baptised too. Yet some churches draw the line at baptising children. We include everyone, whatever their age.
Let’s look at today’s reading. Some disciples have been baptised, but something’s not right. Then Paul finds out they haven’t even heard of the Holy Spirit, and he realises something’s seriously lacking.
It seems they have been baptised, but under John the Baptist. The thing is, John’s baptism was for those who repented. It was the forerunner of Christian baptism. Jesus was baptised by John, yes; but Jesus later said (Luke 12.50)
I have a baptism with which to be baptised, and what stress I am under until it is completed!
But Jesus, you’ve already been baptised! But his baptism was only completed in his death on the cross and his resurrection on the third day. And being baptised into union with him, we are caught up with him in the events of his cross and resurrection. So we are dead to sin — though we have a long way to go! — and we look for the signs of eternal life now, while we await the promise to be fulfilled.
Christian baptism includes all this. Christian baptism is freely available for all who will come. I am persuaded that we should not put blocks in the way of people being baptised. We don’t judge them first, we allow God’s Spirit to work in their lives.
So they receive Christian baptism, and the Spirit comes. How has the Spirit come to you? In Acts, Luke is very keen on speaking in tongues as the sign, yet when Paul writes about the Spirit he points to other things being more important — especially love (1 Corinthians 12–13).
There are churches today which claim Luke is right, but most follow Paul in this matter. How has the Spirit come to you? Let me ask the question another way: Do you have a heart to grow in love? How will you express that love?
At the beginning of the Book of Acts, the risen Jesus tells the apostles,
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1.8)
The story of Acts is the story of the church spreading more and more widely, welcoming — and baptising — people of different ethnicities, varying genders and any age into the fellowship of the Spirit of Jesus. That’s the story we are committed to today.
West End Uniting Church 10 January 2021