January 11th, 1998 (St. George's URC, Hartlepool)
Epiphany 1, (RCL - year ‘C )
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22*
They were all swarming down to the Jordan, it was the latest thing, it was the new rock ‘n’ roll. John the Baptist, they called him - because he was called John, and he baptised people. But it wasn’t like any other baptism they knew about, this baptism came as a package - it was a baptism of repentance. The way John described it, it was a complete turning round of your life. Some of them had been baptised before. Some of them had been baptised as a sign of their becoming proselytes - Gentiles who worshipped as Jews, others among them had had the ritual ceremonial washings associated with Judaism, but this was something entirely new.
The people were hungering and thirsting after something new. The voice of prophecy had gone silent, God seemed to have gone dead on them, they were under Roman occupation, but their expectation that one day the Messiah would come had not died, if anything it had intensified as the years had passed.
And here was this wild man from the wilderness - imploring them to repent, offering them baptism as preparation for the coming Kingdom. He reminded them of other wild men they had heard about - heroes of the faith - Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and their hearts burned with hope.
“Repent and be baptised! He is coming.” An encounter with John was bruising - he stabbed his accusing finger right where it hurt. “You lot over there, you look well dressed. Why not give some of your spare clothes to the poor - that’ll be your repentance; You over there, you’re tax-collectors aren’t you? Why not stop your extortion - that’ll be your repentance; You at the back, soldiers, cut out the brutality - that’ll be your repentance.”
And he wasn’t afraid to go to the top. “Herod’s spies, I know you’re here somewhere. Run back to your master and tell him he knows what I think - his love-life is a disgrace, his treatment of these people is a travesty.”
And so the crowds flocked around him - to see the spectacle, to hear the oratory, to join the movement, to be part of something. And on that day a new face joined the crowds, patiently waiting his turn. John was in full flow. “I’m not the one you are waiting for, I have been sent to announce his coming. Compared to him, I am nothing. I am not fit even to do up the straps on his sandals. I am baptising you with water, here in the Jordan. My baptism hows that you have repented. When he comes, he will baptise you with the Spirit and with fire - his baptism will change you to the core.”
And then their eyes had met, and for once John fell silent, he had no words for this encounter, he had no words for this moment he had been waiting for his whole life. He sank to his knees, he could not speak, he was paralysed by joy, his lips would not move, his eyes filled with tears. Jesus touched his shoulder, “John, get up, I want you to baptise me.”
Later, as others were being baptised, Jesus prayed. And as he prayed, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my own chosen son, and I am pleased with you.” Jesus’ ministry had begun.
There are lots of questions we might ask about this story, but I want us to focus our thoughts quite sharply this week on one question, namely, what is this distinction that John makes between his baptism “with water”, and Jesus’ baptism “with the Spirit”? We’re going to look closely at the story of Philip in Samaria to help us begin to understand this one.
Timewise, it is still early days for the early Church. It is not long since Stephen was stoned - the first christian martyr - and it seems that for a while in Jerusalem, some sections of the Christian Community were forced to flee the city because of an outbreak of persecution. One of the refugees was Philip. He was one of the seven Church Social Workers chosen to organise the daily life and pastoral care of the Church so that the apostles could get on with prayer and preaching and teaching.
Philip fled the city to the region of Samaria. We’re not sure exactly which town he went to. It might have been Sebaste (the new name for the old capital - Samaria) or it might have been Shechem, or even Simon's village, Gitta. Whichever it was, it would have been full of Samaritans. Now Philip was a Hellenistic Jewish Christian, and you thought that modern-day christian labels were complicated! He came from a community of christian Jews who had adopted a very Greek style of life and thought, and it is likely that he would have had a far more cosmopolitan attitude to the Samaritans than would other non-Hellenistic Jewish christians.
It seems that he was welcomed and accepted in Samaria, and he quickly saw his exile as an opportunity to preach the gospel in word and deed. His reputation grew quickly and he soon built up a crowd of disciples. Even Simon the sourcerer was intrigued. Until now, he had been the town’s religious topdog, offering oracles and miraculous signs and wonders. A great many people were convinced by Philip’s preaching, and they asked him how they could respond. Well in those days, there was no URC Manual to refer to, and no Church Secretary to phone, this was new ground, so Philip did what seemed most obvious - he baptised them, including Simon the Sourcerer.
The apostles in Jerusalem heard what had been going on and decided to send out John and Peter to check it out. You’ll remember John. There was an occasion when Jesus was passing a Samaritan town and was refused entry. James and John asked whether they should call on God to send a thunderbolt from heaven and destroy the impudent Samaritans. Well here he was again, sent from Jerusalem to form an opinion as to whether Samaritans could become christians.
Actually he takes no convincing at all, and here’s the curious thing... John and Peter discern that the Samaritans may have been baptised, but they had not yet received the gift of the Spirit. They laid hands on them one by one and prayed that each might be filled with the Holy Spirit - and they were.
The first question is this: why didn’t the Samaritans receive the Holy Spirit when Philip baptised them? Why did they have to wait until the apostles came?
And there are several answers offered.
A Catholic or an Anglican might very well reply that the Samaritans had to wait for the apostles because that’s how God’s Spirit is mediated - through the laying on of hands by an apostle - or by direct apostolic succession by a bishop. In other words, the magic is in the hands. This verse is the reason why all confirmations are done by the bishop, nobody else’s hands would be effective.
Of course, our tradition would refute this idea. There are plenty of instances in the New Testament where God’s spirit is received without the presence of an apostle.
Others might argue that there was something defective in the Samaritans’ understanding or in their faith until the apostles arrived. But there is no real evidence of this. We are not told that they received any further teaching.
Still others, myself among them would argue that God witheld the git of his Spirit until the apostles arrived because it was important that this should happen in the presence of thiose who had come from the official church in Jerusalem, and so that it would be made very clear from the outset that Samaritans were not being baptised into some weird church splinter group, but that it was God’s will that they should be a full part of his church, to be followed by the Gentiles.
Be that as it may. The second question is much more important. How did Peter and John know that the Samaritans had not yet received the gift of the Spirit?
This question has a very disturbing answer. To Peter and John it was as plain as day, there was no debate, there was no question, they simply looked at his company of christians and knew.
Elsewhere, Paul tries to put it into words: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humilty and self-control. You know whether a person or a community of people have been given the gift of God’s Spirit by their fruit. What do you reckon if Peter and John had come to check us out here at St George’s? Would they have layed their hands on our heads and prayed for the gift of God’s Spirit, or would they have gone off back to Jerusalem, happy in the knowledge that their services were not required?
This is what John the baptist meant when he said that he would baptise with water - a baptism of repentance, but that Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit. The first might produce a person who has repented, who is determined to do better, who believes the message of Jesus and who wants to follow in his footsteps. But it will always be an effort to cling on, a constant struggle to stay faithful.
Jesus offers us infinitely more than that. Jesus offers us infinitely more than a mere knowledge of him and a vague idea that we should do better. Jesus offers us baptism in his Spirit, a passionate flame burning within, a flame that will not be extinguished, a flame that the darkness cannot overcome, a flame which warms the whole of our lives and makes them a living sacrifice in God’s service; a flame which shines from our eyes and which cannot be mistaken.
And more yet - conviction becomes deeper - mission becomes stronger - zeal increases - and commitment becomes enthusiastic -it becomes breathed full. In short - when Jesus baptizes a person with the Holy Spirit and fire - faith moves from here - in the head - to here - in theheart - and it makes everything different from what it was before.
When Peter and John laid their hands on the disciples in Samaria and prayed for them - they did so for a reason - they did so because they saw that for whatever reason the believers in Samaria hadn't yet encountered the transforming and energizing power of the Holy Spirit.
And when Peter and John touched the believers of Samaria and prayed for them - something happened. Something that was visible. Something that was obviously powerful and effective - so much so that Simon the Magician offered the disciples money if they could grant him the same power of touch that they had.
As we embark on another year together, seeking to serve God as the community of God’s people at St. George’s, may God fill each one of us afresh with a new measure of His Spirit so there will be no mistaking it in the way we live, in the way we speak and in the way we seek to share with our neighbours the gift of new life that God has given us. Amen
Let us pray...
Make all the people of this church come alive in faith - let us show passion and energy in your cause - make our
light shine brightly and our faith glow with the warmth of conviction and compassion and certainty. Purge us,
we pray, of worldly loves,and fill us with the love of all things that are precious to you. We pray O God, today,
for transformation - for ourselves and for others. We ask for your truth and your assurance for those who find
meaning only in worldly honour and praise; we ask for your energy and for your power to flow in the veins of
those whose only encounter with you thus far has been in the pleasure and the assurance of our rituals and
ceremonies; we ask for your living word to speak to and guide those who only experience of you is that of
belief in empty doctrines and creeds... Lord hear our prayer...