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Baptism of the Lord – January 10, 2016

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

On a recent Saturday morning I received this text: “Where do you stand on the Filioque?”

Not exactly what I expected to read when my sister’s name came up on my phone. It does, however, make some sense given that she is in the process of becoming a full-fledged member of the Greek Orthodox Church. Even so, it caught me off guard as I was not prepared with a text-length response to such a historic and complex query. I have not honed my digital elevator speech either for or against the double processing of the Holy Spirit. (I do know which side I am supposed to be on, just for the record.) We went back and forth and, being a little sister relishing the role of expert with my senior sibling, I warned her against modalism and admonished her to look up “economic” and “transcendent” in regards to the Trinity. (Hey, these moments of superiority are few and far between, so I had to get in what I could.)

It was an odd exchange, but one that did get me thinking again about the Holy Spirit and the complicated relationship to the Third Person of the Trinity in our tradition. We Reformed folk get tongue-tied when it comes to describing the role and work of the Holy Spirit. Year after year, I read confirmands’ faith statements that describe the Holy Spirit as being their conscience, somehow akin to an angel on their shoulder urging them to do the right thing. My own son, when asked as a kid about his understanding of the Holy Spirit by a friend doing research on faith development, said he didn’t know about the Holy Spirit but was sure he’d learn about that in confirmation. (I guess he did. I need to ask.) Our Orthodox Christian siblings (and our Pentecostal ones, too) have it all over us when it comes to talking about the Holy Spirit and perhaps we need to work on correcting this reality. Lucky for us, this Sunday gives us such an opportunity – and it’s not even Pentecost!

The Baptism of the Lord, and any occasion of baptism, invites us to talk about the Holy Spirit and we should RSVP with a resounding “yes”! The gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism are unanimous in the Spirit descending like a dove on Jesus and the three synoptic accounts have John the Baptist articulate that Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Matthew and Luke add, “and with fire.” Hence, it isn’t an exegetical stretch to get into some pneumatology on Sunday. But where to start amid so many rich images: water, dove, fire? What about the compare and contrast that John the Baptist makes: repentance vs. Spirit? What’s the relationship between water and the Holy Spirit? Is there one baptism of two in this text?

I have found Will Willimon’s book, “Remember Who You Are: Baptism, a Model for Christian Life,” helpful in sorting some of this out. He writes, “The New Testament does speak of two baptisms. One, the baptism of John the Baptist, is pre-Christian, a baptism of water as a sign of human repentance, human cleansing. The other, the baptism of Jesus, is with water and the Spirit as a sign of God’s presence and activity.” He goes on to say that the action shifts with Jesus’ baptism from a human act to an act of God. “Jesus is the sign of the presence of God. God’s Spirit rests on him. The Spirit testifies to all the world who Jesus is.” The time to prepare is up; the Kingdom is here.

There is one Christian baptism and it is with water and Spirit and, as Willimon states, “baptism in no mere momentary rite.” He goes on to say, “the Holy Spirit permeates the Christian existence, begins the Christian’s pilgrimage, and leads us daily, tugging at our lives until they be fully turned toward God.” That’s an idea worth exploring as we launch into a new calendar year. How is the gift of the Holy Spirit “tugging at our lives” in order to get us headed in the direction God intends for us to go? What word is burning in our bones to be spoken? What is hovering around us trying to get our attention? And how do we know when that tug, warmth and wind are of the Holy Spirit or something else entirely?

Here Catholic liturgics expert Aidan Kavanagh gives guidance. He writes in “The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation” that “water baptism and the perceptible outpouring of the Holy Spirit seem to be connected in New Testament reports — not so much in a rigid chronological sequence as in a tandem-like relationship whose common center of gravity is the risen and exalted Christos-Messiah. Both water baptism and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit are necessary, but it is of less importance to note which comes first than to realize how both follow upon the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation. All three of these events — proclamation, baptism, and the outpouring of the Spirit — constitute the integrity of initiation into the believing community, the locale of the Spirit which is the Church.”

In other words, that tug, wind and flame, if they are of the Holy Spirit, are moving us to follow Jesus Christ and it is in the company of gathered believers that we come to know the Way. Our center of gravity, no matter which way the wind blows, should be Jesus Christ – proclamation, baptism and Holy Spirit together keep us balanced. Therefore, remind your hearers to focus on Jesus Christ, knowing that, in the words of Orthodox Christian scholar Alexander Schmemann, they have received “this personal Pentecost” as gift and therefore “having been baptized into Christ, we have put on Christ … Christ has the Spirit as His Life and in Himself and we are given participation in His Life.”

This Sunday, rather than answering where we stand on the Filioque, confess the mystery of the Triune God who stands up for us in our baptism, uniting us with Christ, thus making us beloved sons and daughters, too.

This week:

  1. How is Jesus’ baptism like ours? How is it unique?
  2. Take a look at the parallel texts for the Luke 3:21-22. Note differences and similarities. Pay particular attention to Matthew 3:14-15.
  3. What other biblical stories have the heavens opening up? What happens when the heavens open?
  4. Take a look around your church for images that include representations of the Holy Spirit. What images do you find? (Dove? Flame? Wind?) What stories are depicted? Any common themes in these various stories?
  5. The Baptism of the Lord Sunday is an appropriate Sunday to reaffirm our baptism. Take a look at the liturgy in our Book of Common Worship for a congregation to reaffirm the baptismal covenant and note all the meanings of baptism that are included.
  6. Here is a prayer from “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults 

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