“I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit,” says John to those who come to him for baptism.
Ritual washing of various sorts was and is common to many faiths. The symbolism is easy to understand; water is cleansing, refreshing, reviving. When the crowds came to John the Baptist in the desert, they were already familiar with this sort of custom. Ritual baths were part of the regular pattern of worship. They symbolised a new start, the forgiveness of sins, the washing away of spiritual uncleanness. In some ways there wasn’t anything very new in what John offered. What was new was the power of his preaching and the sense of urgency in it. God’s kingdom was coming, he proclaimed, a kingdom of justice and righteousness, and they needed to be prepared for it. John’s baptism with water was a natural way of signalling their readiness to start a new life in this new kingdom.
But John was clear. He was just the forerunner, and he knew that there was more to come. Specifically, the Messiah was on the way, God’s chosen one, and when he came, said John, he would have another baptism to give them, not baptism in water, but baptism in the Holy Spirit.
And that’s where the whole thing might start to seem a bit mysterious. We’ve seen plenty of baptisms in water. We have them often here. But what is this baptism in the Holy Spirit about?
Some Christian denominations would be very familiar with this concept. Pentecostal and Charismatic churches take their name from that experience on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, filling – baptising - them in the power of God. Go to services in a Pentecostal or Charismatic church and you will find that, as standard, people speak in tongues, share messages they believe have come from God, and worship in exuberant, spontaneous ways. It can seem quite strange if you are not used to it, and there’s always the risk that the emotions will overwhelm any real substance. But for all that, it can also be very enriching to faith. I spent quite a few years in my late teens worshipping in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, and while it’s not my style now, there was often a very enlivening sense of reality about the faith I found there, a kind of electrifying seriousness, an expectation that God was present with us. It was a very important part of my spiritual journey, however much my theological understanding has changed along the way.
My guess is that many people here won’t have experienced that kind of worship, though, and maybe don’t want to either.
Pentecostalism as it is practiced today stems back to revival movements in the late 19th and 20th centuries, but movements like these have been an almost constant part of the Church’s history, rising up somewhere or other in every age. Methodism was born out of the experience of John Wesley who was praying with others one evening when he found his heart “was strangely warmed” as he put it. His faith came alive for him. It made sense to him in a new way, took a hold of him, moved him, changed him. It was that inner conviction, that sense of God’s presence, which made his preaching so powerful. It reached ordinary working class people in their thousands and not only transformed their lives but transformed society as well. The passion of the Methodist movement fuelled all sorts of campaigns for social justice, empowering those at the bottom of the heap, giving voice to the poor at a time when they often felt ignored by the Established Church.
Going back before that, at the Reformation, many new Christian groups that sprung up, full of enthusiasm, liberated by the new-found permission they had to read the Bible for themselves and organise their own churches in new ways.
The Quaker movement was born out of a belief that within every person God’s Spirit could be at work. Everyone had an “inner light” and the characteristic silence of Quaker meetings was there so that the words of God could emerge from it. In the Middle Ages there was an extraordinary flourishing of a whole variety of lay spiritual movements. Writings like that of Julian of Norwich in the 14th century are filled with an awareness of God’s Spirit. Francis of Assisi, at the end of the 12th Century found himself intoxicated by God, overflowing with joy and love which transformed him from a wealthy playboy into a wandering preacher. The Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 3rd and 4th centuries spoke of the need to “become all flame” – not just to go through the motions of religion but to be open to being swept away by the love of God. And of course before all of that there were those New Testament churches, like the one in our second reading, where manifestations of the presence of the Holy Spirit were expected when Christians gathered together. It was what gave them the strength and the courage to endure persecution.
The Baptism of the Spirit comes in a great variety of ways. It isn’t just about exuberant, happy-clappy worship, or mystical phenomena. It’s seen in our a basic attitudes to faith. It comes when our faith stops being just something up here in our heads, and becomes something which affects the whole of our lives, transforming us from the inside out.
Those movements I talked about, across Christian history, were united by their discovery that there was more to being a Christian than the earnest desire to do the right thing, or to worship beautifully, or to have high flown theological ideas. It was about yielding to God’s work, going where God led, growing as he wanted them to. It was seen in faith that had something vital and life-giving about it, that made such a difference to those who were caught up in it that they couldn’t just walk away from it, that was filled with the Spirit’s fruits – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control, as St Paul describes them in Galatians 5.
John the Baptist points his followers forward to the one who can give them this kind of life, because he himself is filled with God’s Spirit. That’s why it matters that Jesus is baptised by John. He doesn’t need the forgiveness of sins, but he does need to go down into the same depths as everyone else, to be submerged in the same river of life as we all are. By doing that he discovers, and so do we, that even there in the depths he is the beloved son of God, and if he is beloved then so can we be. In Christ, God immerses himself in the world, so that we can be immersed in him, filled with the life-giving water of his Spirit.
The story of Jesus’ baptism echoes the words from the beginning of the book of Genesis which we heard in our first reading, probably deliberately. Here too there’s water, chaotic and dark, and here too, the Spirit of God – the wind from God – the word for wind and Spirit are the same –comes sweeping over the water, bringing order and life out of it, which God declares to be good. In Christ, God is at work bringing to birth a new creation. And he does it by identifying himself with us, becoming as we are, becoming one of us.
This week we have seen vivid reminders of the need for that new creation, for the work of the Spirit in our lives and our world. There has been widespread horror at the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the deaths of others after that too. Many have responded to this tragedy by identifying themselves with its victims, affirming their own commitment to freedom of speech. “Je suis Charlie” has been the cry - “I am Charlie”. It’s a recognition that the deaths of those people in Paris affect us all, that we are with those who suffer. In a sense, that is exactly what is happening when Jesus goes down into the waters of the River Jordan. He is declaring that he is one of us, sharing our lives. In Christ, God says “Je suis Charlie” to us too.
But God goes further than that. It is one thing, after all, to identify with those who are victims; we all want to be seen to be on the side of innocence, freedom, and courage. What God does in Christ, though, is more than that. Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians that “For our sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5.21) In Christ God doesn’t just share the lives of the victims, but also shares the lives of the perpetrators. He doesn’t just come alongside the innocent who suffer, but alongside the guilty who cause their suffering. “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” Christ prays for those who nail him to the cross. That’s good news for us all, because if he only came to share the lives of the innocent, what good would that be to any of us? None of us is innocent, not entirely. The roots of that massacre in Paris go back through history and spread across the world. They grow from millennia of suspicion and warfare. They are fed by our commonplace greed and apathy and the simple failure really to care for our neighbour if he or she doesn’t look like us and think like us. Unless we have the courage to accept that, nothing can change.
That’s why this week I don’t think God just says “Je suis Charlie”. If God says “I am Charlie”, he must also say in some sense “I am the terrorists, and the people who radicalised them and all of those who created the climate in which this kind of hatred grows, and those who looked the other way and couldn’t be bothered to challenge it.” It is hard to hear and to say that, but it is basic Christian belief. Christ doesn’t just come to share our suffering and grief; he comes, though he is sinless, to share our sin and failure too; it is because of this that we can know his forgiveness and hope. He drowns himself in our lives, going down into their depths, so that we might find ourselves drowned in his love, filled with his Spirit, overflowing with the new life the world so desperately needs.