Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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By Water and the Spirit

Acts 19:1-7 and Mark 1:4-11

The book of Acts contains this interesting story about a small group of “believers” in the city of Ephesus. Paul ended his second journey in Antioch. Antioch is in Syria, just below what is today the nation of Turkey. After some time, he traveled back through Phrygia and Galatia. These were interior parts of modern Turkey. And he made his way to the coastal city of Ephesus. Ephesus was the western end of the trade route through Turkey. From there goods went loaded onto ships to be sent to Greece and on to Rome. Here he encounters a group of “disciples.”

Sort of. There is something off about these “disciples.” It turns out that they don’t know anything about Jesus. They are still following John the Baptist. This tells us that John must have had quite a following. By this point, he has been dead for about 25 years, and Ephesus is a thousand miles from the Jordan River, where John ministered.

What must have happened is that a group of Jews from Ephesus had traveled to Jerusalem for one of the great festivals, which all Jews were required to do at least once during their lifetime. While there, they heard of John and his preaching. But they left before Jesus began his ministry. John’s intention was to get people ready for the Messiah, but they didn’t get to see where that was going. They went home and continued to believe John was a genuine prophet of God and that his message of turning from sin and turning to God was necessary. They couldn’t simply trust in their birth as children of Abraham, they had to make a personal decision for God.

Years go by, and along comes Paul. He informs them that they have not heard the whole story. And when he tells them the rest, they receive it gladly. And they receive the same Holy Spirit as other disciples.

The reason this story is included in Acts is because there did continue to be disciples of John in the first century world. Their faith was incomplete until they heard about the one John whom announced.

Now some people take this story as a message that we must receive a “second baptism.” We must be baptized once by water and then again by the Holy Spirit, which is evidenced by the gift of tongues. This is the “Pentecostal” interpretation of the story. I don’t think it’s a good interpretation! It is reading back into the story a modern question about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. They weren’t denied the Holy Spirit because they needed a second baptism. They needed to have faith in Christ, and they hadn’t heard of him before Paul came.

John the Baptist was sent to prepare people for the one to come. His baptism was only an outward display of an inward desire. It was incomplete on its own. John never pretended to be “the guy.” By his own admission, he was just “the guy before the guy showed up.”

When Jesus came, he was baptized by John. This might seem strange, since John’s baptism was billed as a baptism of repentance. Why would the sinless one need to be baptized in such a way? There are several reasons suggested.

Jesus’ baptism was a way in which he showed his identity and solidarity with sinful humanity. He was one of us. His baptism was also an inauguration, a starting point for his ministry. And it is certainly an example for us to follow. I think his baptism was also an affirmation of his identity. If Jesus was truly human, and he was, then part of the human experience is to wonder about oneself and question one’s purpose in life. But at his baptism, God affirmed Jesus’ identity and mission. It was God saying to Jesus, who had laid aside the full use of his divine knowledge, that “Yes, this is who you are and this is the time to begin your life’s work.”

As Methodists, we have a Wesleyan understanding of the sacraments. John Wesley was a brilliant theological mind for the way in which he was able to bring contrasting ideas together. He said that we are baptized by water and the Spirit. That it is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

In some Christian traditions, there is almost a “magical view” of baptism, that it does something all on its own, without any response on the part of the person baptized. It’s a “ticket to heaven,” almost. In other Christian traditions, baptism is nothing more than an “emblem.” It’s something other people can see, but it doesn’t have any meaning on its own. There’s no work of God in it. It’s just so other people can see that you have responded to God’s work. It’s something we do, and not something God does.

Wesley brought those ideas together. There is a work of God in baptism. God is doing something in baptism. There is a grace of God at work. But on its own, it is not something that saves us. We have to respond to that work of God with our own faith. This is the reason why in the Methodist tradition, we baptize infants. We want God’s grace at work in the life of a child. But baptism is incomplete without Confirmation, without us taking the step of acknowledging what God has done and receiving Christ for ourselves.

Today we remember our baptisms. We remember and affirm what God has done and is doing in our lives. And we renew our commitment to respond in faith to God’s grace.

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