New Testament Lesson: Acts 19:1-7
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 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, “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, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them
Gospel Lesson: Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
This morning we begin to venture into a new season that began this past Friday. It is the season of Epiphany. For those who are new to the liturgical calendar, this season is often marked as the word Epiphany alludes to as a season of appearing. The appearing of gifts, and gift givers, and a unique gift from God. We begin this season today with where every Christian who has found their way into the church begins with: Baptism. Baptism a gift that often is one that is so fundamental to the Christian Church, yet often has so many questions and mysteries that surround it. As we read from out text from Acts, we saw that even as early as the early church, the people of Ephesus were confused about the meaning of Baptism as they were baptized by water for the repentance of sins by Apollos, and yet Paul comes and asks if they have received the power, the grace of the Holy Spirit. And in answering that they have not ever heard of such a thing, Paul re-initiates the baptism but a baptism in the Lord Jesus Christ. Still today we have many different understandings about the meaning and purposes of baptism. We hold questions that are fundamental to our understanding of the identity of Christ, and even to our own identity. Questions such as “If John offers a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’, why does Jesus come to be baptized by John? Was Jesus under the power of sin until this point? Or is he merely binding himself more closely to a sinful humanity? And does the voice that calls Jesus ‘Son’ and ‘Beloved’ simply announce what has always been true—or does it perform a kind of adoption?…Does anyone else hear it? And if Mark describes the Spirit ‘descending like a dove’ on Jesus, how can Western Christians confess in our Nicene Creed that the Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son?’” Why do we as Methodists baptize as infants when Jesus was an adult? These are all great questions that beg to be answered and many more, but we cannot handle all of these questions today. I am going to encourage you though, before we really get into the depthness of this text today to take up the opportunity of joining us for our study of Baptism on Wednesday Nights. I will not tell you the answers to these questions, but rather we will begin to discuss in a covenant group as Wesley did to further our own spiritual development as we seek Christ together in community. So let’s take the plunge here and begin to at least get some of the many insights from these passages today. I will encourage you to take out a pen and some paper to write down thoughts, insights or questions that may come to you.
As I look at these two passages from Mark and Acts, two things really strike me. One is an identity and the other is power. Over the next few weeks we are going to be paying close attention to the identity of Christ and thus the identity of ourselves as it is in our baptism that we are given a name. Over the next couple of weeks we are going to look into the many names of Christians: such as visionaries, Reckless Evangels, Prophets, Missionaries, Incarnational, and Disciples. Today the name in which we are looking at is the name of Jesus that is announced “Son, the Beloved”. So let us first begin with identity and then we will move into the second part of power.
The climax and forte of this appearance in this passage from our Gospel lesson begins with Jesus coming up out of the water as he is baptized by his cousin John the Baptist. John, prior to the coming of Jesus sets the scene. John many would call eccentric, but a prophet non-the-less. John professes a message that really breaks into all of time, past, present and future. He preaches about repentance of the past in the wilderness that may touch on the memories of the Jews experience in the wilderness, the present forgiveness of sins in baptism as he stands located upon the threshold of where the wandering Jews came to find salvation in the crossing of the Jordan into the promised Land , and yet prophesies about the coming of the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a sign that would mark the beginning of the end. And so you could say that Jesus, God who is incarnate, in the flesh, is adequately been set up using images throughout the whole history of the Jews to begin sharing his identity with the world. The gospel writer, Mark is the only Gospel writer that names John the Baptist as the one who baptizes Jesus. Mark does not focus so much on to understanding the relationship between the Trinity, but rather focuses on the events that happened as Jesus came up out of the water. Let us also then focus now on this scene. “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart” That in itself is a powerful image to comprehend. It is in this very moment of Jesus arising out of the waters that we have both earth and heaven transparent with one another. The prayer of the prophet from Isaiah 64 is answered as the prophet prayed, “tear open the heavens and come down”. We will come to hear today twice more this tearing open of the heavens and twice more will the identity of Christ be made apparent. As the heavens are ripped a part, and the two come together as one, according to the Gospel writer the Spirit descends like a dove on him.” Now this is an interesting scene here. We have the mighty power of the heavens splitting open, a scene that I do not think of lofty images, but one that is majestic and full of power and here we have this image of the dove coming down on Jesus. It makes me begin to wonder about the way in which we view the power of the Spirit. Often I believe we as a church are formed from our hymns, like the one we sang this morning called the Spirit Song. What I mean by this is I think we often think about the power of the Spirit being much like a dove that gently glides down and rests peacefully on the shoulder of our Lord Jesus much like the tune and lullaby of the Spirit Song. Now that imagery is not wrong, nor inappropriate as the Spirit takes on many forms and one of those forms being a great comforter. But that imagery to me does not seem to fit in the situation of the Heavens being ripped open. Rather I begin to think of it much like a dove or a bird that occasionally dive bombs to the ground. The spirit being full of power and of energy, a Spirit that moves and shakes, a Spirit that acts like fire, yet another scriptural image of the Spirit.
And then a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Now I want us to pause at this part of the narrative and think about when have we heard these words elsewhere. And what does this name mean in light of how we have heard these words again…..There are two other places that we hear these words in the Gospel of Mark. We hear them in what we will actually end this series with at the Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus finally reveals his true identity of divinity and everything becomes apparent and clear to the disciples. And again on that mount it is a “thin place” as the Irish understand it where Heaven and Earth are joined together. And finally, at the end of the Gospel of Mark it is this title, “Son of God” that convicts Jesus to be condemned to death on a cross. As Jesus dies on the cross, we have another ripping open, but instead of a ripping open of the heavens, it is a ripping of the curtain that breaks through the holy of holies, thus symbolizing God’s power and authority throughout all of the land and no longer held behind a veil. A powerful God who does not need an intercessor anymore, but rather Jesus, the High Priest is our intecessor. And a Roman centurion, a non-Jew, confesses the identity of Jesus Christ as the “Son of God” (Mark 15:39). This title, Son of God, a title that was given to Christ in which began his ministry with baptism, a baptism in which we take on ourselves, ends in a death of earthly things. Paul in his letter to the Romans 8:12-13 says “So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. This title as Son of God both brought glory to Jesus in his lifetime and ministry, but it was by this very same title was he put to death on a cross. The identity of adopted Son of God and Daughter of God given to us also places the responsibility to continue the work in which Christ first began in his ministry, to share in his sufferings, and thus to share in his glory. We are called “Beloved” and with that comes responsibility to live into that name. Through our Baptism we are brought into the life of Christ. This is the beginning point by which we begin, but it is not the end. There is a life to which we are called.
Now if you may remember, I told you that there were two parts that came to me as I read these scriptures. The first we have dealt heavily with and that is the identity of being the Beloved. The second now of which is the power that comes along with being the beloved. God does not call us and not equip us, but rather he gives us the authority to lead with power of his Spirit. Paul was shocked when those who were baptized by Apollos did not have the authority given to them by the Spirit. They answered what Spirit? Paul then baptized and invoked the Spirit to be placed on them and they began doing great things indeed. A baptism without the invoking of the Spirit upon their life does not give that disciple the tools necessary to continue the work in which Christ began. Christ was full of the Spirit, and so likewise we also must be full of the Spirit as well to be able to continue the ministry to which we are called.
One of the great parts about the Methodist movement is “The Methodists rediscovered the power that is unleashed when the Spirit of God is channeled appropriately through structures and means.” Paul Wesley Chilcote, author of Recapturing the Wesley’s Vision, explained it using this analogy. “It is like the old story about the sailboat. The purpose of a boat with sails, of course, is to skim across the surface of the water. But if there is no wind, the boat lies dead in the water despite the means it has to utilize the wind. Likewise, if the sails are not unfurled, then there is no way to put the wind to constructive use. It simply blows you about—or blows you to pieces. The Wesleys rediscovered this important spiritual law: the church needs enthused disciples. “Enthused” literally means to be properly filled with God….And so the community of Christ’s people needs to have the Spirit breathing new life into its members, but it also needs to develop structures and forms to channel that power appropriately for the renewal of the church and the life of the world.” And so, as we understand together this analogy, as we learn to live into this analogy over the coming weeks, it is the means and structures of the church, through our means of grace like acts of mercy, fasting, prayer, reading scripture, through the sacraments of baptism and communion, it is through these God uses the Spirit or the Wind that gives power to the people called the Beloved.