Summary: Exploring the teaching and practice of Christian baptism.
Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord, Yr B
January 12, 2003
Based on Acts 19:1-7; Mk 1:4-11
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Grace Lutheran Church, Medicine Hat, Alberta
Baptism… Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus as well as our own. Down through the ages, the teachings and practices of baptism have been quite diverse—unfortunately causing divisions and misunderstandings among Christians and non-Christians. It kind of reminds me of the following encounter between a mother and her young son.
Probably everybody has heard the story of the little boy who came home one day and asked his mother where he came from. She gulped hard and proceeded to explain to him the facts of life. When she had told him everything there was to tell, she stopped to see how he was handling all this. He said, “No, Mommy, that’s not what I mean. Jimmy says he came from Scranton. Where did I come from?” 1
In our dialogues with each other concerning baptism, we have still not reached a consensus on our teachings and practices. It seems, like this story, we are misunderstanding each other. In the story, both mother and son are correct, yet the meaning and approach to the boy’s question is understood quite differently. Is it the same for Christians as well as non-Christians in regards to baptism? Do we really hear each other out correctly or does our communication break down because we turn a dialogue into an argument and try to forcefully convince “the other” that they are wrong and we are right?
In both our second lesson and gospel today, we learn of Christ’s baptism by John in the river Jordan, and of two different practices and teachings of baptism in the early church at Ephesus.
Luke provides a rather interesting account of the situation concerning baptism in the early church at Ephesus. As I read, studied and pondered this account in Acts; there were at least four things that struck me as rather unique here.
First, Luke does not mention at all in this account whether baptism in the Ephesian church involved sprinkling, pouring, immersing, or any other method of applying the water. Is the omission here by Luke intentional or accidental? We shall likely never really know for certain. Yet, perhaps it is an instructive omission. Luke may not mention whether sprinkling, pouring, immersing, or some other method of applying the water because it was not an issue for him personally or the church at Ephesus. Is it not a rather sad state of affairs that some Christian churches insist on only one method of applying the water in baptism, otherwise the baptism is not a valid one? I personally do not believe our God is going to condemn someone forever because of the method by which the water was applied on them when they were baptized. It is quite probable that Luke left this detail out because it was not an issue; or/and there were a variety of methods utilized by the Ephesian church—all of which were valid.
Second, the conversation between Paul and the Ephesian disciples is rather unusual in that it begins with a question I would likely never ask anyone: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” Such a question I would likely take for granted, and answer, “Of course, we received the Holy Spirit!” But, it turns out that Paul’s question was a good one, because they answer in the negative: “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Now how could they not have heard of the Holy Spirit? After all, Apollos was their leader and teacher and in Acts 18:24 we are told that Apollos was a Jew who has come to Ephesus from Alexandria, Egypt and: “He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures.” If that was true, most certainly Apollos would have known of the Spirit of God mentioned several places in the scriptures. It seems rather strange that Apollos had not taught these Ephesian disciples anything about the Holy Spirit.
Whatever the case, we learn from Luke that Paul then asks them yet another question, which reveals that they had been baptized into John’s baptism of repentance and forgiveness. Then Paul teaches the Ephesian disciples that John’s baptism led up to and prepared for a new era, telling the people to believe in Jesus who came after John. Luke then begins verse 5 with three very telling words: “On hearing this.” It was then through the words, the teaching and preaching of Paul that the Ephesian disciples responded by being “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” The power of God’s word is at work here in the hearts and minds and lives of Paul and these Ephesian disciples.
So it has been throughout the ages: God spoke, and formed the creation out of watery chaos; at Jesus’ baptism the heavenly voice spoke and said: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased;” so too God’s word speaks to us, calls and blesses us, makes us children of God when we too are baptized. God’s word continues to work wonders and create a new thing in each of us every day—as we grow and mature in our faith and practice of following Jesus. God’s word remains ever active—fulfilling promise upon promise. God’s word continues to be free—embracing everyone, everywhere. We are called to share that word too.