Benediction Online

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Baptism, and the Holy Spirit

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7

Mark 1:4-11

Today is the first Sunday of Epiphany, the season when we remember God’s self-revelation in the Biblical narrative and look for her revelation in our own lives. Today’s Gospel reading is of Jesus’ baptism and God’s declaration that Jesus is indeed God’s son. But the Church has placed this gospel within the context of two other readings: the movement of the wind or Spirit of God at Creation, and an experience of baptism in the early church – an occasion when the baptized was also publicly blessed by the Holy Spirit. So our focus today is on the work of the Holy Spirit as we seek to deepen our understanding of God’s self-revelation in Jesus’ baptism and by extension, the revelation of God in our own baptism.

Pentecostal and charismatic Christians point to passages like the second reading to argue that every believer should have two experiences of baptism; one with water and another with the Holy Spirit. The Baptism of the Spirit is a spiritual experience which results in spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues, prophecy, gifts of knowledge and so on. During the late 60s through to the mid-70s there was a big resurgence of charismatic experience in the Episcopal Church which seems to have started in Van Nuys!

I often wonder why God does not seem to work in the same way with everyone at all times; why are we not all baptized in the Spirit and speaking in tongues?

I honestly don’t know the answer. I do know that if you read through the book of Acts there isn’t a clear pattern. Some people spoke in tongues before they were baptized, others after, and some not at all. I also know that God works in many different ways. So rather than dwelling on the spiritual experience known as Baptism in the Spirit, I want to spend our time this morning thinking briefly about the difference between the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus and then use that understanding to think about the role of the Holy Spirit and baptism in our own lives.

At the time of Jesus and John it was believed that the coming of the Messiah would be preceded by widespread repentance, so John’s baptism was a sign of the coming of the Messiah, also understood as the coming of the Kingdom of God. To be baptized by John was a sign that you repented of your sins in preparation for what was to come. In Jesus the new revelation of God, the new kingdom was manifest.

So to be baptized in the baptism of Jesus is not preparation, it’s the real thing - full initiation into the kingdom of God. It not only takes away sin but restores us to the fullness of life we were meant to have. Cyril who was a 5th century Patriarch of Alexandria thought that through his incarnation, Christ honored the flesh of all bodies and became the new tree of life. He said,

“If because of the tree of food they were thus cast out of Paradise, shall not believers now because of the Tree of Jesus, much more easily enter into Paradise?... Adam by the Tree fell; you by the Tree are brought to Paradise.”

Baptism grafts us into the Tree of Jesus.

Here’s a different analogy, this time from Gregory of Nyssa who lived a century earlier;

“Because our nature is mixed with the divine nature, our nature is made divine…. In the baptism of Jesus all of us, putting off our sins like some poor and patched garment, are clothed in the holy and most fair garment of regeneration.”[1]

So Cyril saw baptism as grafting us into the Tree of Jesus and Gregory saw it as making our human nature divine as we shed our sin and are made new people in Christ.

In Romans 6, Paul says

“Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom 6:3,4)

We too may live a new life. This, I think, is where the Holy Spirit comes in. Let’s go back to that image from the Creation story.

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

When the earth was just a formless void, the Holy Spirit – the wind of God – swept over the waters and God spoke the creative word. Words are carried on breath. God’s creativity is carried by the breath of God, the wind, the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit sweeps over the face of the waters of baptism making us new. As a result of our baptism we are changed. The trajectory of our lives is changed forever. But it is the breath of God blowing in and through and around us which brings that change from being a nice idea hidden deep under the layers of human stubbornness into tangible reality.

It is the Holy Spirit who grafts us as branches into the Jesus Tree; it is the Holy Spirit who clothes us in the garments of regeneration; it is the Holy Spirit who raises us with Christ into the dawn of resurrection life.

In our baptism we are sealed as Christ’s own for ever. But this is not just a sacrament which shows our relationship with Christ, we are baptized in the Name of the Trinity – Creator, Word and Holy Spirit. It is a sacrament that brings us into new relationship with every member of the Trinity. It translates us into the Kingdom of God.

Making that a reality in our everyday lives is the work of a lifetime. We are already in the kingdom of God. Jesus told the Pharisees, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say “Here it is” or “there it is” because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Lk17:21). We are in the kingdom and the kingdom is in us. Our task is to let it out.

Our task is to live every moment as if that is true. Our task is to manifest the kingdom of God here on earth, in our homes, in our work places, in our friendships and our families. Our task is to invite others into the kingdom with us.

We don’t have to do it alone. That’s the role of the Holy Spirit; to work with us and through us to bring the kingdom of heaven into full manifestation.

I suggest that you adopt a simple spiritual practice. Whenever you wash your face or take a shower, remember your baptism. Remember that you are sealed as Christ’s one for ever, that you are part of the manifestation of God’s kingdom. And ask once again for God to transform you into the Christ-like being you were made to be. Just a simple prayer, “Come Lord Christ” or “Make me new” prayed intentionally whenever you wash or shower will make an amazing difference.

For the Holy Spirit is waiting on tiptoe for us to come into our own.

[1] Brock and Parker, Saving Paradise, p.133

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Baruch Hashem - Blessed be the Name

I expect some of you were surprised by our opening hymn this morning – you probably came to church this morning expecting to sing carols. But today is the day that we, the Church, celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name. The Feast of the Holy Name; at first glance this seems a little obscure. Why celebrate a name?

Today’s gospel reading records the baby of Bethlehem being circumcised, as all Jewish boys, and given his name, Jesus. The New Testament reading from Philippians told us more about his Name. In a hymn from the early church we heard:

"Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. "

When the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary about her coming child he said, “You are to give him the name Jesus.” (Lk. 1:31) And to Joseph he said “Mary will give birth to a son and you will call his name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21)

Jesus means “The Lord Saves."

For the ancients, names were very powerful. They represented the person and his or her attributes. So the Name of Jesus is in itself powerful and venerable. I think it may be a little like the American flag. When we take the pledge of allegiance we aren’t committing ourselves to a flag but to what it represents. But we honor the flag precisely because of what it represents. Even if we don’t stand to attention, we take notice when it is raised or lowered; and we use it to give military honors to those who die having served in the military.

For many years there were laws against “flag desecration” which were nixed by a 1989 Supreme Court decision in favor of free speech. Similarly, the third of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (Ex 20:7). This is not about swearing in the sense of using bad words but in the sense of undervaluing the most sacred and precious thing there is. The Name of God is so sacred in Judaism that often Jews will call God HaShem which means “The Name”.

When we say a familiar name it brings with it a sense of the person. Just think about these names:

Mother Teresa

St. Francis


Martin Luther King Jr.


Hitler has a totally different feel than the others doesn’t it? Because the name brings to mind the nature, character and spirit of the person it represents. A name has more power than just a label.

As today is the first day of the New Year, it is a good time to ponder what kind of name we each have and what kind of name we would like to have. When someone says your name, what comes to their mind about your nature, character and spirit? What do you want your name to mean? What are you doing to build those characteristics?

When someone says “St. Benedict’s” what does it say about us as a community?

Every time we gather together to worship or to serve we gather in the name of Jesus who said “Where two or three come together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20). I think Jesus was speaking as much about intention as about physical togetherness – whenever we gather our thoughts and intentions together in Jesus’ name, God is in the midst of us.

That is what gives us the hope that we can have a good name. We do not have to do it alone. We do not have to transform our hearts and lives on our own without help and assistance. God is with us. That’s another name given to Jesus – Emmanuel – God with us. Whatever the challenges you are facing today, the fears, the hopes, the anxieties as well as the joys, Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. Proverbs 18:10 says “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” God’s abundant love is available to us – it is as close as the Name.

In Acts the apostle Peter says, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12) Of course it would be superstitious to imagine that we are saved simply by saying “Jesus” – yet when we intentionally call upon the name of Jesus, it is truly powerful, because we are actually calling upon the nature, character and person of God.

Because it is so powerful, many Episcopalians choose to briefly bow their heads whenever the name Jesus appears in the liturgy. Because it is so powerful, and because Jesus told us to pray in his name, we often end our prayers “in the name of Jesus”.

Baruch HaShem; Blessed be the Name.

In a little while we will pray together, “Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be thy Name”; Let us pray it in a different way today, remembering that a name is not just a label and the Name of God is holy and powerful.

In ending I want to return to the question of what our names represent. When someone says my name, what does it communicate about my nature, character and spirit? Here’s a poem that encapsulates my hope:

School Prayer

Diane Ackerman

In the name of the daybreak
and the eyelids of morning
and the wayfaring moon
and the night when it departs,

I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.

In the name of the sun and its mirrors
and the day that embraces it
and the cloud veils drawn over it
and the uttermost night
and the male and the female
and the plants bursting with seed
and the crowning seasons
of the firefly and the apple,

I will honor all life
—wherever and in whatever form
it may dwell—on Earth my home,
and in the mansions of the stars.

© Vintage Books.