TO MAKE THE WATER HOLY
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Lections: Isa 43:1-7; Ps 29; Acts 8: 14-17; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
The season of Epiphany focuses our attention on three manifestations of the divine reality that we encounter in the Gospels: the Journey of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, and the Marriage at Cana. Today’s reading from Luke recounts the moment when “the heaven was opened” at Jesus’ Baptism “and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” This is the clearest picture we have in all the Scriptures of the three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in One God who is the Trinity.
The Gospels tell the story of God’s descent from heaven to live among us, so we might find our way up the ascent to heaven and live together there, in the eternal kingdom of God’s heights. Our life is intended for the journey we undertake to be with God; we pass our days coming to belief, growing in faith, and learning to relate to the world as the theater of God. The world, too, is moved by intention; for as humanity is made new in its pilgrimage of ascent, so is all creation.Too often we relate to everything in the world as if it were created just for us. The feasts of the church are especially powerful occasions for putting our lives in a more accurate perspective. Today we celebrate the epiphany of the Baptism of Our Lord, and we do this in part by recalling our own baptism, as we repeat the renunciation of sin which is central to the church’s baptismal ceremony. The question naturally arises, what is the connection between the two events, that is, how does the baptism of our Lord relate to our own baptism? To answer this question, I think, we need to look at the three different types of baptism we are most familiar with from the Gospels. As we do so, let us keep in mind that the manifestation of divine reality is not intended only for us; when God is revealed to us, God is also revealed to the world.
The first type of baptism, chronologically, is John the Forerunner’s baptism, “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” as both Mark and Luke tell us.[i] John himself calls his a limited baptism, because he baptizes in the absence of the Spirit; Mark records John as saying, “I have baptized you with water, but he [Jesus]will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”(Mk 1:8), and the Apostle John quotes John the Forerunner as being told, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33). For this reason, it makes sense to regard John’s baptism as a ritual cleansing, one that had to be performed over and over again, whereas baptism with the Holy Spirit will only need to be performed once. Jesus, we remember, fulfills the law and the prophets; he is greater than all who came before him, and one quality of this greatness is the ‘once-forever’ efficacy of his acts. As he demonstrates most remarkably by his atoning death on the cross, Jesus is able to accomplish in one saving act what the priests who came before sought to accomplish with recurring ritual. The path of ascent that Jesus points us to cannot be climbed if we have to keep going over and over the same ground; baptism with the Spirit, what Peter calls “the answer of a good conscience toward God,” (1 Peter 3:21), enables us to move forward. Cyril of Alexandria writes, “it is the sole and peculiar property of the Substance that transcends all, to be able to bestow on people the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit and make those that draw near unto it partakers of divine nature.”[ii]
The Gospels are silent about baptism with the Holy Spirit during the lifetime of Jesus. We know from the Gospel of the Apostle John that baptisms took place, for “when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee” (John 4:1-3). We do not know, however, how or when the Apostles were baptized, or if their initial baptisms of disciples differed from John the Baptist’s. We do have from John the Apostle a post–resurrection account of the Apostles receiving the Holy Spirit directly from Jesus. In the room with the locked doors, “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21-22). Later, during Paul’s missionary travels, Luke relates in Acts an account of Paul meeting some disciples in Ephesus, who he baptizes with the Spirit through the laying on of hands: “And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And 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, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying” (Act 19:1).
Acts is the first place we find a documented account of “baptism by the Spirit.” This takes place after Jesus has asked the Father to send the Spirit to be with his church, and after he himself ascends to heaven. The Spirit comes to the church on Pentecost, where several thousand people, along with the Apostles, are gathered: “And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” and “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Act 2:38-41).
Early accounts of baptism show the Spirit conferred by 1) the direct transmission of Jesus, 2) laying on of the Apostle’s hands, and 3) during or following immersion in water. Notwithstanding the variety of ways baptism was accomplished, we can be sure, from the Great Commission given by Jesus to his apostles at the conclusion of Matthew (Mt 28:19), that from its beginning the church considered baptism necessary for making the Christian pilgrimage. The Gospels teach us that the baptism of the Spirit, sealing our belief in Jesus and repentance of sins, will save us, i.e. enable us to make the ascent to heaven. The water of baptism is a sign of repentance, “the washing of regeneration,” as we read in Paul’s letter to Titus: “[God] saved us” Paul writes, “not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Tit 3:5-6). Paul elaborates in 1 Corinthians on just how this salvation occurs: we are” washed,” “sanctified,” and “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1Co 6:11) And in 2nd Thessalonians Paul calls the disciples “brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2Th 2:13).
Baptism with the Spirit is one of the events taking place during the lifetime of Jesus that was prophesied in the Old Testament. For instance, Peter says, “But this [baptism of the Spirit you see] is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams …” (Act 2:16-17). Peter also emphasizes that baptism by the Holy Spirit is a “promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39).
We have seen how John’s baptism differed from baptism by the Apostles in the early church; now let’s consider what this tells us about the Baptism of Our Lord. We are taught by the church that Jesus is “fully human” as well as “fully divine,” that is, in all ways like us with respect to his humanity except that he never sinned. Jesus was “wholly pure and spotless, and the holiest of the holy.”[iii] John’s baptism of Jesus, therefore, could not have been for the repentance of sin; why, then, was Jesus immersed in the water of the River Jordon?
The answer the church gives us is a surprising one: Jesus is not changed by his baptism, but the water is! Remember, Jesus comes to save not only man, but all of creation. Gregory the Great said, “All the elements [of the world] bore witness that their Creator had come.”[iv]As a sign of the new creation, Jesus transformed the water, “through its penetration by consciousness.”[v] Jesus makes the vessel of water capable of holding the Holy Spirit, “for when the Savior is washed, all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages.”[vi] Rivers, seas, wells, springs, and all the elements of creation add their voices to “the chorus of the redeemed.”[vii]
The Baptism of Our Lord is related to our own baptism in two ways: first, to establish the pattern of baptism for us, and second, because the transformation of the created element of water into a vessel capable of holding within itself the Holy Spirit is like our transformation by baptism into a humanity capable of holding the fire of the Spirit within our heart. As the water of the River Jordon is prepared for Righteousness by Jesus, so are we prepared by Righteousness for divine reality. And as we are readied by the descent of the Son to be guided by the Spirit in our ascent toward God, the world is likewise consecrated by the Son for the new creation. Let us, therefore, call God to mind, and be zealous of our pilgrimage.
[i] John’s Baptism: “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin” (Mar 1:4) “And [John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3).
[ii] quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Luke (NT Vol 3).
[iv] Gregory the Great, Sermons On the Gospels, 10.2
[v] see Bede Griffiths, The Marriage of East & West (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1982), 34
[vi] Bishop Maximus of Turin, quoted in Philip H Pfatteicher, Journey Into the Heart of God, 114
[vii] Pfatteicher, Journey Into the Heart of God, 116