About 20 years or so ago, when I was a parishioner here at the Cathedral, The Rev. Canon Alden Franklin, our Canon Liturgist at the time, preached on a Sunday when there were baptisms and during the sermon, one child just wailed his entire way through it. Towards the end of his sermon, Canon Franklin just looked down at the child from the pulpit, smiled, and said something to the effect, “You should be worried. Any time you invite the Holy Spirit into your life, it can be pretty scary.”
As I recall, the child did not seem to be terribly comforted by his words.
Lo, these many years later, I often think about what he said whenever we do baptisms. But there was a particular instance a couple of years ago when they came flooding back.
A woman contacted me about baptizing her son. They weren’t able to attend the baptism class I give prior to baptisms, so I met with her and her son separately in the Cathedral to go over the service. Or rather I tried to.
He was a little boy, old enough to walk and talk and as he approached the door to the Cathedral, at the north end in the back and saw me standing by the baptismal font, he stood by the door and absolutely refused to come in saying, somewhat loudly, “NO, I DON’T WANT TO GO IN THERE! I DON’T WANT TO GO!
His mom tried to get him to come in but he just wouldn’t come in. And as Canon Franklin’s words came back to me in that moment, a part of me thought, “Smart kid. On some level he knows what’s going to happen.”
However, given his, if not fear, then at least his strong feelings about not coming inside the Cathedral, I suggested perhaps it would be better to baptize him at a noon Eucharist in the Chapel where it would be smaller, quieter and with fewer people present. The mom agreed and we made arrangements.
On the actual day of his baptism, the little boy still wasn’t very pleased to be there but his dad held on to him tightly and we got him baptized.
It is often easy, especially when we’re baptizing infants and children, to be almost overwhelmed by the visuals of the whole experience. They’re so cute and there is so much love present with all the family and friends here. It’s a really blessed time.
And I don’t in any way want to take away from that. It is a blessed time. But Canon Franklin was also right. Whenever we invite Holy Spirit to fully enter our lives, it is going to be a wild ride and one in which we are not even come close to controlling.
Which in many ways is what John the Baptizer is making perfectly clear when he tells the people around him that while he baptized them with water, a baptism done for the repentance of their sins, or at least a conscious desire to turn one’s life around, the one coming after him, the Messiah, will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire. Thereby starting a process within them of discovering and learning to live with what is truly essential, as opposed to what is merely chaff.
Which is pretty daunting when you think about it.
In writing about today’s passage from Luke, The Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton says:
Too often too many of us act as though we have been baptized with John’s baptism only, redeemed from the past, but not empowered for the future. We sometimes forget that as Christians we have also been baptized with the Holy Spirit.
One of the basic definitions of Christian baptism is that it be done “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The service for Holy Baptism in many traditions includes this or a similar line, “[Name] – you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
To be baptized by the Holy Spirit is to have the dove of God’s peace descend upon us as it did upon Jesus. It is to be claimed, adopted, as one of God’s many beloved children. To be baptized by the Holy Spirit is most especially to be empowered to be a follower of Jesus, to be an effective member of the priesthood of believers.
I once heard Desmond Tutu tell a story about his early days as a priest in South Africa. He gave a Bible test to a group of young teen-age boys. One of the questions was: “What did the voice from heaven say to Jesus after his baptism?” Most of them got it right but one boy got it wrong in a very creative way. He wrote, “The voice from heaven said ‘You are the Son of God; now act like it!’”
“Now act like it.” That really is the challenge for all the baptized.
Baptism is not a onetime ritual but actually the beginning of a lifelong process of becoming the people we were created to be—loved, yes. Dearly in fact. But also conscious, or as Dr. Chilton says, “empowered” followers of Jesus.
And this is the key. To not just be believers of Jesus, but followers of Jesus. To be like Jesus’ early disciples who probably didn’t know what to believe about him most of the time, but followed him anyway.
Followed him even though they didn’t know where it would take them, or what they would end up doing. Unsettling, even frightening at times—true. And more amazing and wonderful than anything they could have ever comprehended—also true. We’re here in no small part because of what they did. But as the disciples came to discover, this is what happens when the Holy Spirit is allowed to reign in one’s life.
It is something we would all do well to remember. But at the same time, it’s also important we remember that even when our following of Jesus at times is imperfect, circuitous, well-meaning but bumbling, the Holy Spirit descends upon us like a dove, and God says to each and every one of us, “You are my Son, my Daughter, Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Which I think is exactly what happened to the little boy I talked about at the beginning of this sermon. Because after I poured the water over his head saying, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and then anointed his forehead with oil, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever,” his whole demeanor changed and he became calm and quiet.
I don’t know exactly what happened. But it was holy and it was amazing.
As we gather today to witness the baptism of Lila Rose, both welcoming her into the household of God, and reaffirming our own baptismal vows, let us open our hearts, minds, souls, our very lives to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives and pray for the courage and the will to go where the Spirit is leading. And then Beloved, hang on for dear life.
The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas
13 January 2013
Delmer Chilton, The Lectionary Lab, (accessed at http://lectionarylab.blogspot.com on 10 January 2013)