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."
"Baptism Of Our Lord"
Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen
Baptism… Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus as well as our own. Down through the ages, the teachings and practices of baptism have been quite diverse—unfortunately causing divisions and misunderstandings among Christians and non-Christians. It kind of reminds me of the following encounter between a mother and her young son.
Probably everybody has heard the story of the little boy who came home one day and asked his mother where he came from. She gulped hard and proceeded to explain to him the facts of life. When she had told him everything there was to tell, she stopped to see how he was handling all this. He said, “No, Mommy, that’s not what I mean. Jimmy says he came from Scranton. Where did I come from?”
In our dialogues with each other concerning baptism, we have still not reached a consensus on our teachings and practices. It seems, like this story, we are misunderstanding each other. In the story, both mother and son are correct, yet the meaning and approach to the boy’s question is understood quite differently. Is it the same for Christians as well as non-Christians in regards to baptism? Do we really hear each other out correctly or does our communication break down because we turn a dialogue into an argument and try to forcefully convince “the other” that they are wrong and we are right?
In both our second lesson and gospel today, we learn of Christ’s baptism by John in the river Jordan, and of two different practices and teachings of baptism in the early church at Ephesus.
Luke provides a rather interesting account of the situation concerning baptism in the early church at Ephesus. As I read, studied and pondered this account in Acts; there were at least four things that struck me as rather unique here.
First, Luke does not mention at all in this account whether baptism in the Ephesian church involved sprinkling, pouring, immersing, or any other method of applying the water. Is the omission here by Luke intentional or accidental? We shall likely never really know for certain. Yet, perhaps it is an instructive omission. Luke may not mention whether sprinkling, pouring, immersing, or some other method of applying the water because it was not an issue for him personally or the church at Ephesus. Is it not a rather sad state of affairs that some Christian churches insist on only one method of applying the water in baptism, otherwise the baptism is not a valid one? I personally do not believe our God is going to condemn someone forever because of the method by which the water was applied on them when they were baptized. It is quite probable that Luke left this detail out because it was not an issue; or/and there were a variety of methods utilized by the Ephesian church—all of which were valid.
Second, the conversation between Paul and the Ephesian disciples is rather unusual in that it begins with a question I would likely never ask anyone: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” Such a question I would likely take for granted, and answer, “Of course, we received the Holy Spirit!” But, it turns out that Paul’s question was a good one, because they answer in the negative: “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Now how could they not have heard of the Holy Spirit? After all, Apollos was their leader and teacher and in Acts 18:24 we are told that Apollos was a Jew who has come to Ephesus from Alexandria, Egypt and: “He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures.” If that was true, most certainly Apollos would have known of the Spirit of God mentioned several places in the scriptures. It seems rather strange that Apollos had not taught these Ephesian disciples anything about the Holy Spirit.
Whatever the case, we learn from Luke that Paul then asks them yet another question, which reveals that they had been baptized into John’s baptism of repentance and forgiveness. Then Paul teaches the Ephesian disciples that John’s baptism led up to and prepared for a new era, telling the people to believe in Jesus who came after John. Luke then begins verse 5 with three very telling words: “On hearing this.” It was then through the words, the teaching and preaching of Paul that the Ephesian disciples responded by being “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” The power of God’s word is at work here in the hearts and minds and lives of Paul and these Ephesian disciples.
So it has been throughout the ages: God spoke, and formed the creation out of watery chaos; at Jesus’ baptism the heavenly voice spoke and said: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased;” so too God’s word speaks to us, calls and blesses us, makes us children of God when we too are baptized. God’s word continues to work wonders and create a new thing in each of us every day—as we grow and mature in our faith and practice of following Jesus. God’s word remains ever active—fulfilling promise upon promise. God’s word continues to be free—embracing everyone, everywhere. We are called to share that word too.
The key word for evangelism is INVITE. The minister was lamenting that the average person in his denomination invited someone to church once every 18 years. A sigh of relief was heard from the back row when one older member said to a neighbor, “Whew, I don’t have to do that for another three years!”
Take your baptism seriously. Be an Epiphany. (A revealing light). Make known the presence of God by the witness of your life.
The third thing that struck me about our passage from Acts is that Paul baptized the Ephesians “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” If this is the case, then obviously at the time Paul baptized these Ephesians and Luke wrote down this account, neither of them knew of Matthew’s last chapter (28:16-20)—where the risen Christ gives his disciples “the Great Commission” to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” If Paul and Luke knew Jesus’ words as recorded here in Matthew’s Gospel, surely they would have followed this baptismal teaching and practice, wouldn’t they? Well, maybe, but then again, maybe not, if this particular teaching and practice of baptizing in the name of Jesus was more familiar to them and widespread in the Gentile churches. This may also mean ironically, that Paul and Luke in an attempt to show the incompleteness of John’s baptism may themselves have taught and practiced an incomplete baptism until such time as they learned of Matthew’s “Great Commission,” instructing the church to baptize in the name of the Triune God. When that happened we cannot be certain. But we do know that Matthew’s account eventually became the most widely accepted teaching and practice in the life of the Christian church—which remains the universal teaching and practice among mainline Christians to this very day.
Fourth, Luke tells us that after the baptism and “Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” It is interesting here that Luke mentions the gifts of the Holy Spirit given in this incident were those of tongues and prophecy, NOT the three greatest gifts of faith, hope and love, which Paul speaks of in his first letter to the Corinthians. Now tongues and prophecy are gifts, but they are least among those mentioned in Paul’s letters. In fact, he says of tongues that when Christians gather to worship “in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (I Corinthians 14:19) Words spoken without people understanding them really do not accomplish much for the edification and well being and growth of others. Such words can place barriers between people and hurt rather than help good communication. Therefore, faith, hope and love are the greatest gifts of the Holy Spirit, since they are put into action—making a difference for others, influencing people’s lives for the better way more than incomprehensible, mumbo-jumbo speech ever could!
So, as we celebrate the baptism of our Lord today, may remember too the blessings of our own baptism: that our sins are forgiven by dying to sin, death and evil; we are adopted as God’s children into his family the church; we are given the gifts of the Holy Spirit to make our lives count in the church and in the world; and, one day, we shall be resurrected to eternal life. Amen.
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New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The New Revised Standard Version Bible may be quoted and/or reprinted up to and inclusive of five hundred (500) verses without express written permission of the publisher, provided the verses quoted do not amount to a complete book of the Bible or account for fifty percent (50%) of the total work in which they are quoted. Sermon contributed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz- Hanson, Grace Lutheran Church, Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada.