Pr. Eric Jonas Swensson

January 11, 2012


graphic about us imageLiturgical congregations follow a schedule of readings and there are many “festivals” beyond Christmas and Easter. One is the Baptism of Our Lord, which is used on the Sunday after Epiphany. I have noticed that the scriptures seem to be more about our baptism and that of Jesus in the Jordan, and they are so very much about His gift of the Holy Spirit. The Gospel lesson speaks of Jesus as a conduit of the Holy Spirit. The second lessons tell of how believers are filled with the Holy Spirit when they come to believe in Jesus as their Savior.

Because liturgical churches practice infant baptism and (like ours) rightly call baptism a “Sacrament,” we tend to think whatever is said about baptism in the New Testament is about the sacrament of baptism. That is, we assume that any and all mysterious words and events about baptism that are related to the reader of the New Testament are somehow related to the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, and this includes what the Bible calls the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.

For example, John the Baptist says "After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." Jesus came to baptize with the Holy Spirit. This sounds rather important, doesn’t it? I have to wonder why we don’t hear more about that. Is it because we aren’t sure what that means? Imagine a non-Christian coming up and asking you about it. “Excuse me, what is that all about, Jesus baptizing with the Holy Spirit? Does that happen often? Have you actually ever seen it?” Most people probably wouldn’t appreciate being put on the spot like that. What would you say? “Well, it usually takes place after the sermon, a small group gathers around the baptismal font and the pastor reads some prayers and sprinkles some water on the baby’s forehead.”

Do you see the problem? We have a ritual which may not appear to be more than a few polite gestures and words. However, more than a ritual, our faith tradition believes that God is in fact the actor here and much more is happening than what we can physically see. It is a life-altering event with eternal consequences. Believers are being translated from one story into another. Before it they were as the world was before the birth of Jesus, not knowing with any specificity where help comes from. Paul talks about the new life that the baptized encounters as the difference between night and day.

Romans 6:4 says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Baptism is a whole new life. In mortal life we are destined to die. In baptism we are destined to live. Before, we are ruled by sin. In the new life we are not perfect, we still struggle to live as we know we ought, but we are free from the curse of sin and we can daily grow toward the righteousness of God.

Baptism is a whole new life. In mortal life we are destined to die. In baptism we are destined to live. Before we are ruled by sin.

Therefore churches like ours need to teach on the spiritual significance and what is actually going here. We do that for example quoting the Small Catechism. Jesus commanded his followers be baptized and taught and the Catechism tries to do that. It tells us that Baptism works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare and the Baptized shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever. This is wonderful stuff indeed.

The catechism tells us plainly that belief in the promises of God is necessary, but we of course already have been told that this too comes from God, as a free and unmerited gift. Wonderful stuff indeed.

It is indeed so wonderful that many have gone like miners into the deep shafts to uncover precious bits that they hold up to declare you can have the same spiritual benefits that they have at their disposal.

Here’s the rub. I have a scholar friend, a man who is no mere academic but a practitioner, a pastor, who wrote me asking what I thought of the idea of “storming heaven”. My first reaction was, “Doesn’t he know I am Lutheran?” that is, first of all, we believe that it is God who acts and we receive, but second, we have a rather awesome picture of God, so “storming heaven” sounds rather like “breaking and entering” and I don’t think we are going to get away with it. Of course, more importantly, as a Lutheran, I am quite happy with our emphasis on Christ as a revelation of how good and gracious God is, and for our own good, we are meant to know the God who is knowable, and this good and gracious God, would he withhold good things?

No, the spiritual life, including the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, can be explained many ways, but perhaps the best is like the loving father Jesus taught his disciples about. This loving parent is wise and knows what is best, and when it comes to the spiritual life, the Holy Spirit is often like the first line of the Bible, “…darkness was on the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God was moving gently over the water.”

Human consciousness, that is, when a person thinks about their own humanity, they might as well be staring into a deep abyss. And when we think about God, it is much the same. God is only knowable as God chooses to make Himself known. How are we to describe then the mechanics of the Holy Spirit? With trepidation surely. Yet, many are the pioneers who are going to tell us exactly what steps need to be taken.

Moving gently over the water is a literal translation. Most texts say the Spirit was hovering over the water. Same thing. I think God is gentle when it comes to His coming. I’m not saying that God does not move in our lives at times with swiftness and using at times even violent events to get our attention. I am saying that the presence of the Holy Spirit emerges in our spiritual life, gifts are released, and not out of boxes with bows and bright wrapping paper but out of the soil a green shoot appears.

“And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 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. There were about twelve men in all.”

“We had not even heard there was a Holy Spirit.” Sadly, that is still the case. However, there is also an equally sad situation where people fight over what the Holy Spirit does when people are blessed into a deeper spiritual life.

So, isn’t it sort of funny that when we come to church and we see that the focus of the day is the baptism of Jesus, what we are really hearing about is what His baptism means in relation to ours, how it affects those who believe, in short, how we benefit? But isn’t that the way it always is? On Good Friday, the message is what he won for us on the cross. On Easter it is because He lives we shall live also. Such it is with the Selfless Giver.

I believe that without the witness of the Holy Spirit I would not know that Jesus is my savior. The Scriptures tell me that He poured out His Spirit on His Church on Pentecost. He commanded his apostles to go to all the world and baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and teach them the things he had taught.

We need to be taught about baptism, and as Acts 19 shows, there is more, there is more. Perhaps we should take our little boats out into the deeper waters. Even now, the Spirit of God is moving gently over your waters, waiting to give another lesson, and so it will be, God willing, until we see Him face-to-face. He is here, and the Spirit is there whenever we pray, bearing testimony to our gentle, selfless friend, making Him more and more real to us as we need Him in our pilgrim way.