This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/13/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17, and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs significantly from the written text.)
Who here has been baptized with water? Sprinkled, dunked, infant or adult – it doesn’t matter. Can I see a show of hands?
It’s interesting. I think a lot of us have been immersed in water as a part of a Christian ceremony. A demonstration of faith, of our intention to follow Jesus as part of the Christian community.
I say it’s interesting, because the Quaker tradition takes a pretty low view of water baptism. For most of Christian history – and certainly in the time of the early Quakers, back in 1650s England – water baptism had been weaponized. The government-sponsored churches claimed that being sprinkled with water – usually as an infant – was required for salvation. If you hadn’t been sprinkled, you weren’t right with God. It was a power play, a way to enforce the power of the government church’s hierarchy. The early Quakers saw right through it.
Quakers were unique in that they completely abandoned water baptism. There were a lot of really radical movements in England and on the continent of Europe, and they fought endlessly about when and how baptism should be practiced. I mean, people were killed over this stuff! But practically nobody did away with the practice of water baptism entirely.
The Puritans were ferocious in their critique of the liturgy and structure of the state church of England, but they upheld the establishment church’s view on infant baptism. Baptists and Anabaptists went further, rejecting infant baptism. Different groups had different styles of baptism they preferred, but they agreed on one thing: Only adults could make a conscious decision to follow Jesus, and so only adults could meaningfully make a public commitment through baptism.
The Baptists and Anabaptists were considered extremists, and were often persecuted for their faith. But starting in the 1650s, Quakers took things even further. The basic problem for Quakers wasn’t the way baptism was being practiced – it was that it was being practiced at all. For the early Friends, it was self-evident that John’s baptism – a ritual baptism with water – is superseded by the baptism of Jesus. The baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.
The Quaker movement holds up the centrality of spiritual baptism as the “one baptism” mentioned in chapter four of the letter to the Ephesians. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism – and that baptism is the spiritual transformation that Jesus pours out onto us, enabling us to follow him and become children of light.
It’s easy to look for other baptisms – other ways to feel assured that we are in right relationship with God. We humans are really good at this. Circumcision, water baptism, nazarite vows, holy pilgrimages – we have endless ways to express our desire to come closer to God. But ultimately, all of these rituals are means to an end, a pointer to what is truly essential. We kneel, we bow, we sit in silence in order to invite the Holy Spirit to descend on us. We engage in ritual as a gesture of surrender and invitation. It’s a way to welcome the living Jesus, asking him to come and show us how to be disciples.
Our tendency to look for ways to welcome God is natural, and often beneficial. I think it’s a good thing that we’re gathered here this morning to practice the ritual of Sunday worship. This practice helps draw us together and strengthen us as a community in Jesus.
Unfortunately, our rituals can easily become the focus, the center – an end, rather than the means. It’s easy to get fixated on certain ways of welcoming God, while neglecting others. For example, when is the last time you were anointed with oil? There are many biblical references to recommend anointing with oil – and this is still considered a sacrament in many churches. But most Christians have never been anointed with oil. It’s certainly not seen as a requirement.
For some reason, baptism with water became one of the mandatory Christian rituals. It’s the initiation rite. Like circumcision. The thing you’ve just got to do if you want to be considered part of the club. For thousands of years, the institutional church has used water baptism as a gatekeeper device. Do this ritual. Do it in the way we tell you to do it. Do it under our authority. Or you’re going to hell.
I’ve been baptized with water. I was twelve years old, and beginning to hit the emotional hurricane of adolescence. As a young child, I had had a deep faith in God. But now as I reached the “age of reason,” I felt increasingly angsty. I had attended some Evangelical church summer camps, and they put the fear of God into me. I remember that they told me that the Devil ruled the world, and so I asked my camp counselor, “Do you think he controls the moon, too – or does that still belong to God?”
Anyway, I was very afraid of going to hell. I had no sense of assurance, no way to know if I was right with God. And so, in my fear, I asked my mom to baptize me in the pool in our pool in the back yard. I still remember going down into the water. I remember coming up. And I remember feeling so disappointed. I felt nothing. Nothing had changed. The heavens didn’t open. And I was still afraid.
It wasn’t until years later that I experienced true baptism – the “one baptism” that the letter to the Ephesians tells us about. When the baptism of the Holy Spirit came, I received it without ritual, without witnesses, and without explanation. There was no earthquake, wind, or fire. Just a still, small voice. The living presence of God.
So I can relate to the Samaritan Christians that we read about in Acts. It says that the apostles in Jerusalem had heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, and so they sent Peter and John down to visit them. And on their visit, Peter and John prayed for the community of Jesus followers in Samaria, and they laid hands on them. And it says that then they received the Holy Spirit.
Now, this is important. It says that then, when Peter and John laid hands on them, they received the Holy Spirit. It also says that they had already been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. These folks had already received water baptism, but they hadn’t received the Holy Spirit yet. They knew about God. They wanted to be friends of Jesus. They longed for him. But the Spirit hadn’t come to them yet, hadn’t filled them yet.
I know what that’s like. I know what it’s like to go for years, longing to really know Jesus. Not just words about Jesus. Not just an ideology about Jesus, not just a religion. But to be intimately connected with him. To be one with him, and with his father. To be united with him in love and joy.
That was John’s whole life, his whole ministry. It was a ministry of expectation and preparation. It wasn’t about the water baptism. That was just a familiar ritual to help people focus. The ministry of John wasn’t about baptizing with water – it was about preparing to the people to receive the Messiah.
John himself says:
“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He will immerse you into his life, presence, and awesome power. He will fill you with his joy and cover you with his forgiveness. This is the one baptism of our Messiah Jesus. This is the true baptism that John pointed to. This is the substance; everything else is just a shadow.
John’s ministry was a prophetic ministry. A ministry that pointed toward the kingdom of God, toward the dawn that was about to break on the horizon. Jesus is the day star, and the Holy Spirit is the sunrise.
This is the daybreak that Jesus encountered when he came up from the waters of the Jordan. When he saw the sky ripped open, and the dove descending. This was the fulfillment of John’s ministry, the end of John’s baptism, when Jesus heard those words: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well-pleased.”
Sometimes we Quakers are a little too good at being against things. We’re against war. Against slavery. Against injustice of all kinds. But this is what we are for: The light shining in the darkness. The healing Spirit hovering over the troubled waters of our soul and our society. The crucified Jesus whose life judges the blindness and hatred of this world.
At our best, Quakers aren’t against water baptism. We don’t need to be. It’s just a form that has fallen away. It served its purpose, but now the real baptism is here. If pouring water over your head makes you feel closer to God – go ahead. Or ask a friend to anoint you with oil. Or perhaps we could lay hands on you and pray, that you might receive the Holy Spirit. God wants us to reach out to him, no matter what form we choose.
But don’t yield to fear. Don’t let anyone tell you that a ritual is required for your relationship with God. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re going to hell because you didn’t check a liturgical box. Fear doesn’t come from God; and neither does water baptism that functions as fire insurance.
Remember the criminal who was crucified beside Jesus. A man who was condemned as a murderer. A man who had no water for baptism. A man who became a friend of Jesus, to whom Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The heart of the Christian faith is the presence of the Holy Spirit. And that presence is one that drives out all fear. Our inheritance is not ritual as a ticket to heaven, but the unearned grace of God. This grace is the baptism that fills us with power, assurance, and a strength to live boldly as children of light in a world that is often very dark. As the prophet Isaiah writes, this is God’s promise to us:
Thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.