Just a Little Water

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

Baptism of the Lord
January 9, 2022

Scriptures – Acts 8: 14-17 and Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

Imagine if you will that you are a new visitor to our church.  Imagine also that you know nothing about Christianity, our customs, our procedures, our prayers, our practices, our sacraments.  You’ve never seen it… you’ve never heard about it…nothing at all.  

Now imagine that the first time you ever join us is on Easter morning.  When I lead the shouts of “HE IS RISEN!” and you answer, “HE IS RISEN INDEED!”…you might conclude that we do this every Sunday for some odd reason.  Pretty loud church…

Imagine that the first time you ever joined us was Christmas Eve a few weeks ago.  You might think that we always meet at night, we always go outside at the end of the service with little electric candles, and we always sing “Silent Night” as we finish.  And when you came back the next week, you would be in for a BIG surprise when you discovered we didn’t meet at night…

Imagine that you joined us on the fifth Sunday of a month, and you experienced “Stump the Choir.”  You might be very impressed that we almost never stump the choir.  You might be extremely impressed with that choir!

Imagine that you joined us on the first Sunday of any month.  On those dates, we always serve Communion…little pieces of bread and little cups of grape juice that looks like red wine.   If you have been with us recently, you might have wondered why we have done it three completely different ways during the past three months:

  • once with tiny chalices with the elements on both sides, 
  • once in very hard to open little cups, 
  • and last Sunday with separate, easy-to-open cups with bread in one cup, and juice in the other.

You might question if we do this every time – and if so…for what possible reason!

Finally, imagine that you joined us on a very rare Sunday, one in which someone was being baptized.  It would probably be a child, since that is who we usually baptize.  You would see everyone leaning forward expectantly.  You would see the parents give the child to the pastor.  You would see lots and lots of big, soft smiles on all the faces all around the room. 

Then you would see a most unusual thing: the pastor would dip one hand into a bowl of water and dribble some of the water on the head of that child.  

The pastor would then walk around the room so everyone could see the child, and the child would finally be returned to his or her parents.

If you saw that for the first time, you might think, “It’s just a little water…I wonder what it means.”

To an outsider, the various rituals, rites, customs, and sacraments that we Heritage Presbyterian Christians do might seem mysterious and odd.  But we all take it for granted because we have all seen these things in various churches we each attended during our lives.  We are used to them, sometimes even to the point that it might be possible we take them for granted.

So, on the day in which we celebrate and remember the baptism of our Lord, let’s lean in a little and look more closely at what is going on.  First, let’s look at Luke’s description of the baptism.

In all four Gospels, the involvement of John the Baptist in the baptism of Jesus is mentioned.  In all four Gospels, John is a significant figure in the setting for the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  But all four Gospels treat this particular baptism a little differently.

Matthew goes to great length to describe and explain who John was and what he was doing.  Mark’s description is virtually the same as Matthew’s.  John gave a more nuanced description in which the actually act of baptizing with water in the Jordan River is not even discussed.  However, in today’s reading from Luke, we get something of a surprise: Luke, the storyteller of the four Gospel writers, barely mentioned the baptism itself and instead focused on a detailed description of John the Baptist and the appearance of the voice of God immediately following a one sentence description that read, “Jesus was baptized too.”  That’s it?  For the storyteller of the four Gospel writers, this should be something of a surprise.

Next, we have the introduction of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus as he stepped out of the water.  The other three Gospels speak of the “Spirit of God” descending upon Jesus as that moment, but only Luke specifically said it was the “Holy Spirit.”  Not much of a difference, but still curious.  Yet, it is vital to remember that the Holy Spirit did not make Jesus the Son of God; he was born in that role.  The Holy Spirit empowered Jesus for the work and ministry awaiting him.

Because we recognize in hindsight that John the Baptist set the stage for the appearance of Jesus, his baptism takes on greater meaning; this would probably be obvious even to the untrained eye.  There is not much in the way of Jesus’ work prior to his baptism; but immediately after it, Jesus called his first disciples and began healing, preaching, casting out demons, and performing public miracles.  Beyond setting the stage, John also helped Jesus mark the point in which Jesus was fully prepared to begin his ministry.

Two more points need to be made regarding the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The first involves a unique passage that Luke uses from John the Baptist.  In chapter 3, verse 17, the Baptist was describing what Jesus was going to do by saying, “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”  In those days, farmers of wheat would take a winnowing fork – think of a sort of pitchfork – and thrown the wheat up in the air.  In this way, the good wheat was separated from the chaff, or the worthless part.  Both Luke and Matthew use this crude description to explain how the farmer could gather his crop without any contamination from the chaff.  This sounds frightening when we consider that John is speaking of Jesus separating people into the good and the wicked.  Yet, Luke and Matthew use this phrase to tell the people that Jesus’ primary mission is to save the wheat, not to burn the chaff.

The second point to hold onto today comes not from Luke’s Gospel, but rather from Luke’s Book of Acts.  In the passage we heard today, it would seem to the outside viewer that Philip had some trouble baptizing the Samaritans with anything other than water.  He did that part just fine, but the Holy Spirit was not evident in the sacrament.  For that, the Jerusalem bunch sent their heavy hitters:  Peter and John.

If you caught the word “Samaritans” in that passage, then you also know that this was no small thing.  The Samaritans and the Jews had hated each other for hundreds of years by the time Jesus came along.  They both claimed to be God’s righteous people, they both had their own Temple, and they both saw the other as cheap copies of the true faith.  Small wonder that when Philip began working with them and even baptizing them, it needed some investigating.  So why not send Peter and John?  Wouldn’t you have done that?

So, the two heavy hitters arrive, discover that their faith is true, and lay their hands on the Samaritans – so they can now receive the Holy Spirit!  Why did this sacrament need Peter’s and John’s hands?  To an outsider – and perhaps even to most of us – it seems that either Philip was not fully authorized to do this, or God had some other reason for doing this.  I think either way could be right.

If Philip was not fully authorized – especially in the early days of the church when so much was going on that was not proper or correct, this might make some sense.  It is easy to look at Philip and wonder about his credentials.  Maybe this was another Philip and not the Apostle Philip; that much is certainly not clear.  If so, that would explain some things.  If the rest of the baptism needed the laying on of the hands of Peter or John, that begs the question: what happened when Peter and John were dead and gone?  How could the Holy Spirit be imparted in baptism?

Perhaps the reason lies in the separation of the two parts of Baptism: the water and the Spirit.  Certainly, John the Baptist was baptizing with water, but even he acknowledged that the “one to come” would be baptizing with the Holy Spirit.  But to reduce the sacrament of baptism to just the water is to reduce it to what it might appear to be: just a little water and nothing more.

Yet, by waiting in the story for the arrival of Peter and John, Luke brings sharp emphasis on the blessing of the Holy Spirit as the most important part of the sacrament.  It is not what earthly people do; it is not the water or the bowl or the sprinkling or the immersion or the baptismal font or the shell or the cup or the hand of the paster; it is the blessing of the Holy Spirit that makes baptism what it truly is.

Whatever you make of these Biblical passages, whatever you think of the Sacrament of Baptism, whatever you think of the use of the water or the container that holds it or the one who baptizes with is, always remember that the Holy Spirit is the part that makes this act more than just a little water.