This week I was talking with Dan Boyd who is the pastor of the church in Carlsbad, and we were catching up on how things were going and I was telling him about the work we have had done here following the hail damage from the summer, and he told me that they were having to have some work done as well. As you probably know, Carlsbad is famous for their caves, and during the summer they have bats which migrate up from Mexico and make the caves their homes, but apparently not all the bats like the caves, and so some of them had decided to make the church their home and their droppings and comings and goings were doing some damage, which they were having to fix. But he said the even bigger problem was trying to get them to stop coming into the church.
They had brought someone in who trapped them and took them out, but they came right back, so then they tried noise and light and everything they could think of, but the bats kept making the church their home, and so as all pastors do when they don’t know where else to go, Dan finally called his district superintendent to let her know what was happening and to get her advice, and Jane said she would think about it and call him back. Well a few days later Jane called back and said she had thought long and hard about it and had a solution she knew would work because it had worked in the churches she had served, and so she told Dan that what he needed to do was to go into the attic where the bats were and tell them about Jesus and the gospel and then baptize them and then he would be sure to never see them again.
On the first Sunday after Epiphany every year the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus. The Baptism represents the beginning of Jesus ministry in all four of the gospel accounts. In Mark it begins talking about John the Baptist and what he was doing, and then Jesus comes to be baptized. In Matthew after we told that Mary, Joseph and Jesus have returned from Egypt, he tells us that Jesus was baptized. The first thing to happen in the Gospel of John, after his introduction about who Jesus is, the word made flesh, he has John the Baptist making his confession about Jesus being the messiah and baptizing him, and then we have today’s baptismal story from Luke. Of the gospels, this one from Luke is probably the least familiar, it has all the familiar pieces of the story, John out in the wilderness doing his thing, the call to repentance, John’s proclamation about Jesus, and then the baptism. But Luke has a couple of interesting twists in his telling.
The first is that he is the only one who recounts Jesus praying, when the Holy Spirit descends in a form like a dove, and God’s voice calls from heaven “You are my son, the beloved.” I think it is crucial to note here, especially for the Gospel of Luke, that this is the first time that we have heard God speaking in the gospels. In all the announcement stories, to Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, the Shepherds, it is not God who speaks, but a heavenly messenger. But when Jesus is baptized it is God the Father who speaks. It is God who makes this proclamation to the world about Jesus, it is God who speaks, it is God who claims Jesus as the beloved, in whom God “is well pleased.” When we think about the role that baptism plays, and what it does for us, I don’t think we can emphasize that enough, that it is God who claims Jesus, and it is God who claims us too. In the waters of baptism God says to us “this is my son” or “this is my daughter,” in them I am well pleased. When we receive the waters of baptize God claims us as beloved children, God claims all of us.
And it is this collective aspect of baptism that strikes me when I read or hear Luke’s version. I encourage you to go home today and read the other accounts of Jesus’ baptism which are found in the first few chapters of all of the other gospels, and in them, while there are clearly other people around when Jesus goes into the Jordan to be baptized, their stories are more about Jesus then the crowds, they don’t even really need to be present because all the interactions are between John and Baptist and Jesus, and then of course God. But here Jesus and John don’t even interact, and we are told “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized” and was then praying. Jesus is just one among many who were baptized that day. And notice that it does not say that Jesus was baptized into the United Methodist Church, and some others were baptized Roman Catholic, and others were baptized Southern Baptist.
Now that may seem obvious and maybe even a little silly to say, but I don’t think it is because how many times have you heard someone claim about what is acceptable or not when it comes to baptism? Maybe even some of you have been told that your baptism is not valid and that you need to be baptized? I know there are people in this town who would say that I am not baptized because I was baptized as an infant. Even more, some would claim that you are not baptized unless you have been baptized in their church. When we make these arguments we convey a fundamental misunderstanding of baptism because these arguments move the saving action from God to us. God’s actions are no longer important because everything is dependent on who is saying the words, where they are said, and what is being done when they are being said. But remember that baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The grace is conveyed by God, not by us. The forgiveness is given by God, not by us. The adoption is given by God, not by us. God does not depend on us to make God effective and efficient, we depend on God. God is the primary actor in baptism, not us.
And while we might be baptized by a particular church, we are baptized into Christ and become members of the body of Christ. The church in its most basic form is the body of the baptized. The church is not this building, it is not the documents that make us unique, it is not me or whoever is serving as preacher. The church is the people who make it up. As we meet to discuss what the future of this congregation looks like, it is incredibly important to remember that the church is the people, the work of the church is the people. I am not the church, this building is not the church, the leaders are not the church, Jane is not the church, the bishop is not the church. We are all the church.
After the Baptism of his baby brother in church on Sunday, little Johnny sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, the boy replied, "That minister said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys."
In addition to remembering that in its most basic form the church is the collection of the baptized, what we also have to remember is what we also received when we are baptized, and that is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is one of the things that Luke emphasizes not just in his gospel but also in Acts. In the passage we heard from Acts 8 this morning, Peter lays hands on people and invokes the Holy Spirit because they did not receive it at their baptism. Later in Acts 19 we are told that in Ephesus Paul encountered a group following Jesus, but he finds out that they have been only been baptized into John’s baptism, or a baptism of repentance, and have not heard of the Holy Spirit. And so Paul Baptized them in the name of Jesus and laid hands upon them and invoked on them the Holy Spirit. While one of the common images used for the Holy Spirit is the dove, it is another form I would like to highlight, and the one Luke highlights.
John the Baptist says “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The reason that the United Methodist symbol has the flame is to represent the Holy Spirit. And I’m sure there are people who are a lot smarter than me that this already occurred to, but what struck me this week is that with the application of the water of baptism, we receive the fire of the Holy Spirit. Now normally water puts out fire, but in this case the water causes the fire. Or to give a different illustration, the Holy Spirit is like a grease fire, and instead of being put out with the waters of baptism, the water instead causes the fire to explode.
Last week I received a note from someone that said “What can we do to get this church hot?” At first I thought it was a complaint about the temperature in the sanctuary, but it continued “and make people to want to be a part of this church?” “What can we do to get this church hot and make people want to be a part of this church?” The answer to that is that we have to get hot ourselves, we have to burn with the Holy Spirit, and we have to believe that when we receive the Holy Spirit that we receive the power of the Holy Spirit.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, famously said, and you’ve heard me say this before, “I didn’t do anything amazing, I simply set myself on fire and people came out to watch me burn.” And what happens with fire is that it wants to spread, it doesn’t want to be contained, and when people see others burning with the power of the Holy Spirit, then they too want to burn. Its contagious and wants to spread. When you throw water on a grease fire it explodes and spreads and cannot be contained, and that is the initiation and the gift we get when we receive the waters of baptism.
But, as much as water might require the fire of baptism to explode, there is one thing that can kill it and that is when we are SOB. Notice that I did not say, when we are sobs, but instead just SOB, which is medical terminology, which means? Where are my EMT’s? It means shortness of breath. Like of oxygen kills a fire just as much as it can kill us, and another manifestation of the Spirit is breath. In the opening chapter of genesis we are told “the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.” It hovered there ready to create life in those very waters, and it is ready to create life in us, it is ready to generate fire in us, it is ready to generate power in us, but just because we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit does not mean that we have actually received it. If we are SOB, then the Spirit is not alive within us, it is not burning in us, and if it’s not burning in us then it won’t be burning in others.
What fire needs to burn is oxygen, fuel and heat, and so in the words of two different preachers “If you want to set someone on fire, you have to burn a little yourself,” and “a burning heart will soon find for itself a burning tongue.” Say that with me, “If you want to set someone on fire, you have to burn a little yourself,” and “a burning heart will soon find for itself a burning tongue.” The church has always relied upon tongues of fire from its members to spread the gospel to the world, and it still does, it requires each and everyone of us because “If you want to set someone on fire, you have to burn a little yourself,” and “a burning heart will soon find for itself a burning tongue.”
As we remember our baptism today, we need to remember that through our baptism that we are baptized into the body of Christ and that the church is not the building, it is not the minister, the church is the body of the baptized, it is you and me, and the work of the church is done by us through the power, through the fire, through the breath of the Holy Spirit which is given to us, but which needs to be renewed and re-invited into our lives. The waters of baptism set the fire of the Holy Spirit ablaze in our lives and in the lives of our communities, but only if we are willing to receive the spirit into our lives and allow the waters to cause the fire to explode in our lives. How do we make this church hot? How do we set it on fire so that people will come? Well “if you want to set someone on fire, you have to burn a little yourself” and “a burning heart will soon find itself a burning tongue. May it be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.