References: Acts 8:14-17 & Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Introduction: I confess that I haven’t always been an Anglican! In fact, I was brought up as a Baptist. Consequently, I was dedicated to God’s service and care as a baby; a practice rooted in story of the prophet Samuel being dedicated to serve God in the Temple all his life. And this had a profound impact on my self-understanding: I was the Lord’s and somehow knew I would serve God all my life.
Baptism: However, it wasn’t until I was 15 years old that I had a sense that I should acknowledge the fact publicly through, what was called, Believer’s Baptism. And today, as Rita is baptized, we’ll do something not too dissimilar in an Anglican setting but not with so much water. Although there was something powerful in being totally immersed in water as a sign of death and resurrection, the Anglican church is not concerned about the amount of water, as long as it is poured over the baptism candidate, rather than just sprinkled. Of course, it’s what happens inwardly that is relevant as a sacrament is defined as an outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual reality.
For me, as a Baptist at the time, I was told that the act of baptism was just a sign of what had already happened in me. But, although that was my understanding, it wasn’t my experience; something did actually happen at the moment of my baptism. I was deeply aware of it and arose from the water filled with joy. Others testified to something happening in the church atmosphere; one person even claimed to have seen a vision of a figure with their arms outstretched looking on from the balcony at the rear of the church.
Yet, when I went back to school the following day, I didn’t feel any different and wasn’t aware of my consciously changing anything in my life – and some of it definitely did need changing! Nevertheless, not long after, a fairly rough and ready school colleague came up to me one day and said something like, “You know you’ve changed, Hugh; something’s happened to you and people really respect you as a result.”
I’ve never forgotten that statement and it’s given me a life-long assurance that God does transform us, bit by bit, as we journey with Christ.
The role of the Holy Spirit: Of course, I’ve reflected theologically on what was going on in me for that to happen. My conclusion is simple: our Gospel passage today has John the Baptist saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ The account then describes the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus as he was baptized in a bodily form like a dove.
In short, it is this inner work of the Holy Spirit which makes the outward act of baptism a transformative experience. And so, we pray, as we do for each baptism candidate, that this wonderful gift will be given to Rita as she is baptized this morning.
Continuing the transformative life: And what of the rest of us who have been baptized? Are we simply observers? No, every baptism is an opportunity for each of us, not only to renew our baptism vows but to receive afresh this life-changing gift that brings us extraordinary joy and peace. This is the gift of the Christian life: joy and peace in the Holy Spirit, whatever the circumstances. It’s the evidence of being citizens of the Kingdom of God.
As an eagle needs to remain in the rising air in order to be able to soar, so we need to daily be renewed by the Holy Spirit to sustain a life of joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.
Conclusion: So, I pray that each of us will open our hearts afresh to God on the Baptism of Christ Sunday and receive this gift, which is both yours and mine and will, we pray, shortly be Rita’s as well. Amen.
The Rev Hugh Ellis - Vicar & Team Rector