Sermon - Baptism of Jesus (Ordinary 1) Year B | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |


Water and Spirit
The unselfish blessing

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. {11} And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." -- Mark 1:10-11

Jesus was conscious of being blessed by the Spirit of God. He had a special experience of this blessing when he was baptised by John. It was a very significant experience at the beginning of his ministry; one which confirmed his role as Messiah and his call to the service of the kingdom of God: You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. He now understood himself as one especially blessed by God for a task to which God was calling him. It was still with him some time later, after he had begun his ministry, when he applied the prophecy of Isaiah about the gift of the Spirit to himself:

The first thing to notice about this experience of blessing was that for Jesus it was not an end in itself. He did not say, 'This is a great experience! Just the kind of religious experience I have been looking for!' No. That is a modern corruption of spiritual life, to imagine that our personal experience is all that matters, or the most important thing, something to dwell upon, to keep and perhaps to seek again. The spiritual journey of Jesus was not aimed at seeking the high moments or direct personal assurance of the love of God. Of course he did experience those things but there is no evidence that he sought them. On the contrary, they seem to have come to him unexpectedly. He certainly did not come to John seeking any such experience. According to Matthew, John had to be persuaded to baptize him because it was the 'proper' thing do:

Jesus was identifying himself with the people who realized that they were sinners, who needed to make a new start, and especially with those Jews who were not prepared to rely upon their heritage of a special relationship with God but saw the need to make a new beginning in the same way as gentiles did when they were baptized to become members of the Jewish community of faith. He acted as if he were a outsider like the others who knew were estranged from God and sought to wash away their old lives and start again. Of course he did not need to do this, being without sin and already recognized by John as having a closer relationship with God than John had himself. But he did not say to John, 'I need this experience so that I can begin my ministry with confidence.' That is the sort of thing we might say. What he said was, Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness. He was doing what was expected of those whose part he was taking. He was doing no more than the right thing, once he had made himself one with the sinners who were being washed clean. Above all he was thinking of them and not of himself.

His choice for the outsiders

Furthermore he was not filled with spiritual pride and self assurance. That was indeed a temptation to him as it would be to most people; as we see, he did not proceed immediately to his ministry in Galilee filled with such confidence. Rather, if we go beyond today's reading we see that he is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted or tested:

And what was the nature of those temptations? According to Matthew [4:1-11], it was to use the special powers of which he was conscious for his own benefit: to eat bread when was hungry, to be saved by God from any harm and to rule the world! These are very self centred temptations, worthy of the prince of evil himself. He rejected those temptations. And what followed? The result of his becoming conscious of God's blessing by the Spirit was for Jesus to see the blessing of the Spirit as a gift empowering him to serve those whose part he had taken in his baptism, those with the least blessings:

The implications are as obvious as they are enormous. The gift of the Spirit was for a clear purpose: to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. There is here none of the modern romantic self seeking of spiritual satisfaction. There was no meeting of felt spiritual "needs". We are not even told how Jesus felt about it, although we are told of his feelings on some other occasions, and in particular when he felt compassion for others. He knew that the special assurance of blessing which came to him with the Spirit at his baptism was given for a purpose and was not an end in itself, and he did not seek baptism from John for any satisfaction of his own needs, spiritual, political or psychological.

The motivation for the spiritual quest in which many people are engaged today is the very opposite of that of Jesus, and it not surprising that they seek satisfaction in almost any kind of alternative to the plain orthodox Christian faith in which we are brought face to face with the man for others. Much the same applies to the abuse of the sacrament of Christian baptism for personal satisfaction and assurance. Its purpose is not to make us feel good, but to initiate people into a life of service through a new relationship with God, by joining ourselves in faith with the One who has already identified himself with us.

The effective use of signs

Now I need to say a little about the gift of the Spirit and the use of water in the Sacrament of Baptism. They are meant to be linked together but the relationship is not automatic and not always present. The use of water to wash people, signifies the washing away of an old life to start a new life; and the symbolism is stronger the more water is used although neither the amount nor the quality of water is critical. In contrast to the missionary situation when the faith is first encountered, with us, when children or even young adults are baptised, the new life is more about membership in the community of faith, the body of the new covenant, than it is about leaving behind an old life as an individual. After all, few of our young people who come to confess their faith and be confirmed, or baptized and confirmed, whatever their level of sophistication, have actually lived much of a life themselves that needs to be left behind. The old life that is left behind through entry to the Christian community is the old life of the ungodly world in general, which stand in contrast to life in the Spirit, and is a continuing and demanding present option. It makes sense if being a member of the community of faith really makes a difference to our relationship with God and our service to others, in a life in which we continue to rely upon the gift of the Spirit. In other words, baptism, whether of children or adults is effective through the work of the Spirit, through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church and each member. That is what we pray for whenever we baptize anyone, whatever their age or circumstances.

We expect our prayers to be answered and people to be blessed by the gift of the Spirit for their life of service. That is celebrated in the rite of confirmation, but it does not mean that baptized members do not have the Spirit or belong fully to the fellowship before they are confirmed. We recognize that in many churches today by the admission of children to holy communion before they are confirmed.

There are also other special celebrations with prayers for the gift of the Spirit for special purposes, as when the church ordains a minister or commissions an elder or youth worker. We use the laying on of hands in those celebrations as a sign of the prayer we make for God to give the special blessing of his own presence for a specific purpose. Anointing with oil is another sign used for the gift of the Spirit, and it is sometimes used at baptism, especially in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and other churches which follow ancient practices, where the meaning of anointing with oil is similar to that of the laying on of hands at confirmation.

When I say 'signs', I do not say that the use of water, the laying on of hands and anointing are arbitrary or mere signs like numbers or letters on a page. They are effective signs through which something happens, and we believe that things are different afterwards because God has brought about a change in answer to our prayers. These signs are powerful symbols which carry with them something of the reality for which they stand. That is not to say that we perform a piece of magic, but we trust God to answer the prayers with which we use the signs of water, the laying on of hands or anointing with oil. So there a relationship between the use of water and the gift of the Spirit, but it is not a magical connection, nor is it only a matter of private individual devotion and commitment, but a work of God in the life of the community of faith, the body of Christ, the holy catholic church.

Bringing water and the Spirit together

In the early church the apostles often came across people for whom there was a separation of water and Spirit. The gift of the Spirit and baptism with water had not always gone together. The apostles are reported occasionally as doing something to bring them together again, indicating that they believed that people who were brought into the church through baptism should have the gift of the Spirit, and that those who had the Spirit ought to be baptised. Our reading from Acts this morning is one example. Another was when Peter was teaching Cornelius and his family and the Spirit came upon them, so Peter said

With the opposite experience, Paul found people at Ephesus who had received John's baptism and did not know of the Holy Spirit.

And, of course, John himself said of Jesus:

It was the presence of Christ and his gospel that made the difference. That is so often the way it is, and it was the presence of Christ that made the difference at his own baptism. That was how people were born again: remember Jesus talking with Nicodemus.

And it is not something which you can conjure up or discover for yourself:

You cannot make it happen. What you can do is respond to the call of Jesus to enter into a relationship with him as one of his disciples, to follow him faithfully, and then you can expect the blessings of the free unearned gifts of the Spirit.

In and for the world

The presence of the Spirit of God in the world was well and truly known before Christ. After all Jesus was quoting an ancient prophet who lived long before Jesus came to Nazareth when he said 'The spirit of the Lord is upon me ...'; and the Spirit of God was known elsewhere in the world as I was saying last week in reference to Epiphany and the relationship between Christ and creation. We see it in the very beginning of the Bible.

In the symbolic language of the first few verses of Genesis, the wind which blew over the waters of chaos at the beginning of creation was understood as the Spirit bringing order and life to the world. As with the puzzle we had last week about why Christ was not recognized when he came 'to his own', so with the presence of the Spirit: when people were alienated from God through their own wilful actions they were unable to discern his presence and thus to establish a relationship with God. In our understanding of creation, the point of connection between water and Spirit in the Christian faith is that through these gifts the relationship between God and his creation is restored. That restoration or renewal has power to transform and repair a sick and broken world. That is why we say baptism regenerates, it gives new life, through the gift of the same Spirit in the community of faith as was present at the creation. We believe that wholeness of life in the world is restored through the work of the Spirit whose presence we invoke when we bring in a new member through baptism. That is a high and holy purpose, infinitely more significant than the mere celebration of personal feelings. For us, as with Jesus, the blessing of the gift of the Spirit is for objective change in the world through a new relationship with God in Christ.

What I have shared with you is basic orthodox Christian teaching. Seek Christ and you will find God. Then you will have no other need for spiritual sustenance or excitement. Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be yours as well [cf. Matthew 6:32]. In spiritual life and development as in human life generally, as Jesus said

So we will sing Christ, when for us you were baptized, God's Spirit on you came ... The hymn [Sing Alleluia 20] concludes to affirm the unselfish blessing on him which is extended to include us:

Baptize us with your Spirit, Lord,
your cross on us be signed,
that likewise in God's service we
may perfect freedom find.

All glory be to him who was so baptized in life and death for us.

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