Monday, December 12, 2016

John's Baptism

Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were baptized?

This is a question asked throughout the New Testament, a question meant to contrast the baptism of John with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Yet today's church rarely, if ever, asks this particular question. Rather, today's baptism falls far short of either answer.

To today's church, baptism is either one of two things - it is theologically null, merely one of the steps toward membership or a sign of a child stepping into a spiritual adulthood, or it is a baptism of the remission of sins, kind of a hybrid act of John's baptism and Jesus' sacrifice. 

But neither of these was an acceptable baptism post-resurrection. Either you received the Holy Spirit when you were baptized or you had not, in fact, been baptized. It was that simple. Everywhere they went, the disciples were inquiring about baptism and were re-baptizing those who had only repented; it is the Holy Spirit that made a real baptism.

Whenever I tell the story of my own baptism, or even simply recall it, I smile. I remember so well on that day that when I rose from the waters, for a split second, I could not even hear the applause. (We clap, congratulating the person, not the Holy Spirit.) For a split second, my eyes hazed over. I couldn't seem to focus on anything. And my head was swimming. My whole body felt light, and were it not for the youth pastor's hand on my back, I swear to you that I would have fallen back into those waters. This makes me smile.

It makes others laugh. For some reason, whenever I have shared this story, the reaction has always been laughter. Oh, you silly girl. Always so silly. But I've also noticed more than a few heads, even in laughter, gently nodding. And it makes me wonder - is this the moment?

I'll be honest - it made me feel like more of a sinner than I'd ever considered myself to be. In my young, naive theology, I figured that the absolute lightness I felt in that moment was Jesus actually removing my sin. The sheer change of weight in my being meant, I guessed, that I was really a wicked person. All the little whispers I'd tried my whole life not to hear came coming back to me. I really was...but maybe I didn't have to be. (Of course, I was profoundly disappointed to discover that I was essentially the same person after baptism as before, and it was far too easy to forget that I had been "forgiven." It's still too easy to forget.) Not only does this baptism set up a scenario whereby every evil thing I've ever heard about myself is confirmed, but Jesus is kind of a liar - because I still am who I always was. Aren't I?

But I'll be honest here, too - when I decided to be baptized, I didn't know anything about Jesus. I didn't really understand anything about God at all. I think that's true for most of us. But in that split second when I seemed to be lost between the waters and the world, when my ears were closed and my eyes were blurred and I couldn't keep my balance for the lightness in my soul, I tell you that in that moment, I understood more about Christ than I ever had. I knew more about holy things than I ever had. I knew something that I could not have anticipated knowing, that I never could have studied enough to understand.

Still, you know, like...congratulations, or something. Welcome to the church.

It is disheartening how easily the church has turned from the Holy Spirit. We celebrate our baptism as a coming into community, not as a communion. And that's a shame. I wonder what would happen if we all told our laughable baptism stories, our split seconds between the waters and the world. I wonder if there aren't more stories out there like this, where men and women stepped into the waters not knowing and came up assured. 

I wonder how many others felt the full weight of their sin and nothing more. How many bought into the story that this...this is a baptism for the remission of sins and nothing more, so that lightness you feel? That's your sin, you sinner. You dirty, dirty sinner. And how many spent their whole lives looking in the mirror and knowing only that sin (It's Calvinistic, I think. Isn't it?) and knowing not the Holy Spirit, which is, of course, the entire point of baptism? 

It's not so simple. I know. For a lot of reasons. One of these, we will look at tomorrow.... 

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