Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11
This morning I want to share with you a modern parable about a group of men who drove to Des Moines in order to see a crazy traveling preacher that had made her way to Iowa.
The gal’s name was Jane B. and she dressed in all black and leather with a blue Mohawk where a normal person’s hair would be. In part, these small town guys from Marengo just wanted to see the spectacle. But when they got there, when they stood on the banks of the Des Moines River and heard her preach – they were moved.
That traveling preacher, Jane B., was telling them that dipping down in that icy cold water could wash away their sins. It would make them clean. Repent! Jane B. said. Turn away from your past mistakes. Become clean again and live as a new person!
Well, those small town guys from Marengo didn’t talk about their problems with other people – being self-reliant types. But each of them had something that tugged at their conscious, some action or behavior that they needed to be washed away. And so they presented themselves to Jane B., one by one, and were washed clean. That’s what baptism is after all – a washing clean of your spirits.
As they continued to listen to Jane B. for the rest of the day, they also heard something that warmed them from the inside out. Someone else was coming – someone who had a message even more powerful that that of Jane B. She was only the messenger, pointing the way for the Savior of their lives.
That group of men headed back home and knew their lives would be different. They promised to meet every week at the local coffee shop to keep one another on track and help each other look out for this Savior who was coming.
Things went okay for a few years. They had become their own private little group, and while they sometimes talked about their experience, most of the time, they just kept it to themselves. They weren’t sure that other people would understand. They wanted to make another journey back to Des Moines, to see if anything had happened, but thought for sure they would have heard by now if the Savior had come.
One morning, a young man walked into the coffee shop, right over to where the group of men were sitting. He ordered a cup of coffee and then sat down, right at the table with the other guys and started a conversation.
“Good morning!” he said. “Do you guys come here often?”
A grunt of affirmation was his response.
“You guys here just to enjoy the coffee? Or are you getting together for some other reason?”
One of the men looked up. “We made some promises a few years ago. To change our lives. So we get together here every morning to help one another out.”
The stranger seemed very intrigued by this. “Oh yeah?” he said, “What brought on the change in your lives?”
Another one of the men replied, “A trip out to Des Moines, to hear that crazy preacher Jane B.”
The young man could hardly contain himself. “You guys are believers?! That’s terrific! I’m a preacher myself. The name is Paul and I’m going from community to community trying to encourage people to follow the Way. You don’t know how excited I am to already find some of you here! Now tell me, Did ya’ll receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”
The group of men stared back at the stranger. “Holy Spirit?” One of them replied. “Not quite sure I’ve ever heard of the Holy Spirit before. Maybe we’re talking about different things.”
Paul responded, “I thought you said that you went out to see Jane B.? Whose baptism did you receive?”
“Whose baptism?” was the response. “We just went down there and heard Jane preach and all of us were so moved that we got washed clean there in the water. So I guess, Jane’s baptism, I guess. They we all headed back home. Is there something we missing?”
A large smile spread across Paul’s face. “Oh my friends,” he replied. “How much you have missed! Jane B. baptized all who came to her, young and old, and she preached repentance and washed away sins. But she also promised that someone was coming after her – the Savior – the one whom we should all believe in! I’m here to tell you today that that Savior came… and his name was Jesus. Jane’s baptism is merely the beginning… there is so much more for you to hear!”
Paul stayed with them a few more hours and shared with them about how Jane B. had been preaching one day out in the river when something amazing happened. A seemingly ordinary young man walked down to the river and asked to be baptized. Jane B. dunked his body under the water like the rest, but as he came back up, the very heavens seemed to break open and a bright light came down out of the clouds and settled upon the man. And then, deep within Jane B’s spirit she heard the words – almost as if they had been spoken from above… “This is my Son. This is my Beloved. With him, I am well pleased.”
Ever since that day, Jane’s ministry diminished and the ministry of that man, Jesus, began. Paul shared with them about how he fed the hungry, and healed the sick, how he preached a message of love and forgiveness. And then he told the men gathered around the table about how Jesus had stepped on the toes of power and was executed.
Paul shared that after his death, the followers of Jesus’ Way claimed that he was still around – that he had been raised from the dead – but Paul didn’t believe it himself until Jesus appeared to him, himself. Paul confessed that he had once tried to round up and arrest followers of the Way, but that meeting the risen Christ face to face, changed everything in his life. Paul told them about the power and the love and the grace that comes when the risen Christ lives within you – when the Holy Spirit dwells in your heart and guides your every action. Paul told them what true transformation and life can look like.
The men looked down into their coffee cups and then gradually looked up into each others eyes. First one, then another, then all four of them stood up and looked directly at Paul.
“We don’t know all the details yet, we don’t quite understand how it works. But we want to be a part of this way that you are talking about. We want to experience what you have shared about God and about that kind of relationship. How do we do that?”
“Well, do you have any water?” was the reply.
A few glasses of water were brought to the table and one by one, Paul baptized the men in the name of the Father, our creator, of the Son, our redeemer, and of the Holy Spirit, our sustainer. And the immense power of the Holy Spirit filled these men, a new sense of life that came with the realization that God didn’t just forgiven them of their sins, but that God loved them. That God was for them and that God wanted them to share this new life with others. They found the strength to share their stories with others that they met – to help them to come along on the journey and to discover what life in Christ was truly all about.
Douglas Ottati writes, “The gift of the Spirit in baptism sweeps people up into the dynamic of the Spirit and its expansive Way. It drives believers to participate in the church’s expansive mission. It empowers them to witness in word and in deed to a universally inclusive reality. And so by the Spirit they are empowered to witness to a truth that many in today’s terrorized and war-torn,” and I might add, economically troubled, “world may need to hear.”
Like the men in the coffee shop, our modern day believers at Ephesus from the book of Acts, I have to admit that for a long time in my own life, I didn’t know just how much I was missing.
Growing up, my family was very nominally Christian. We always went to church on Christmas Eve – but usually at my grandparent’s church in Cherokee, Iowa. Sometimes, we would go on Easter Sunday. And in our minds – that was what qualified us as Christians.
In high school, as I have already shared with you, I became more active in the church, more regular in attendance, was baptized and confirmed in the church, and got to thinking, alright – this is what makes me a Christian.
In many ways, I didn’t know that was what God was doing in me at my baptism. I thought it was about forgiveness of sins and about “getting in” to the Christian community. At the time, I went through the motions, but I never really opened myself up to what was happening. I wasn’t quite ready to trust God with my life… I thought I had… but I hadn’t.
I was missing the fact that God was already at work within me, preparing me, leading me, guiding me, getting me ready to follow. I was missing the fact that being a Christian wasn’t about rules I had to follow or conditions I had to meet, but about letting God in Christ through the Holy Spirit into my life. That it meant I became a different person not because I had to, but because the Spirit of God was transforming me.
And I think that there are a lot of people in our world today – and maybe even in the church this morning – who are in the same place. We live without the blessings of the fullness of baptism because we have underestimated “the power bestowed on us in our baptism” (Hooke) – not realizing what the Holy Spirit is all about.
The Holy Spirit is the weird, out there part of the Trinity of God that we just can’t quite put our fingers on. Especially when we are told that the Spirit should be giving us gifts of tongues and prophecy. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never spoken in tongues before.
Ruthanna Hooke assures us that while , “we tend to think that prophecy has to do with foretelling future events… in Luke’s Gospel and in Acts, to prophesy is to speak about the present; it is to speak in God’s name on behalf of God’s work in the world.” It’s telling the truth about what God is doing, and with the Holy Spirit behind you, that truth has the power to change the world. When we are baptized with the Holy Spirit, we are given the “power to proclaim the gospel with boldness,” in ways that everyone can understand.
That is why Jesus’ Baptism is so different from the one received by John. In the words of William Loader “To be baptized with Jesus’ baptism… meant an act not only of receiving divine grace… but also joining with Jesus in his reaching out and like Jesus, being equipped and inspired by the Spirit to do so.”
While our baptisms may be something that we do only once, the work of the Holy Spirit never stops within us. It calls us out of our selves to discover what life in Christ and life alongside Christ is truly all about .And in doing so, we are called to walk with Christ to the sad and the lonely, the hurting, those who are struggling and those who see only darkness. We are called to live out of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, whose name is high over all names, and whose baptism we claim as our own.