One Lord, One Faith, Three Baptisms?

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
January 8, 2012

Baptism of the Lord

Acts 19:1-7 

I wish you could have been in the worship planning meeting last Tuesday.  We could have used your help.  Phil Mitchell was away and Becky Payne was not able to join us, so it ended up being just Lynn Turner, David Powers, and me, sitting in my study, talking about to make worship special on this day when we focus our attention on the Baptism of the Lord.  We started with the sermon.  I said, “I could just preach the Gospel lesson for the day, the story of Jesus’ baptism, but I find that I’m drawn to this passage from Acts 19, where Paul encounters some believers who haven’t been baptized in the right way.  Or at least that’s the way Paul sees it.  He asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they believed and they say, ‘No, we didn’t even know there was a Holy Spirit.’  I told Lynn and David that I had met with my lectionary study group that morning, and when we talked about that line—“We didn’t even know there was a Holy Spirit”—someone in the group said, “That sounds like my church!”  We had a good laugh over that, but then David said there must have been something about these believers in Ephesus that made Paul ask that question.  What would it have been?  Did they not raise their hands in worship?  Did they not speak in tongues?  Whatever it was, it led Paul to ask: “Did you not receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” and they said, “No, we didn’t know there was such a thing.”

Which makes me wonder what he would say to us.

Have you ever been in one of those situations where the guest preacher was used to getting a whole lot more “Amens” when he preached?  There you are, sitting out there in the congregation, hanging on every word, but he wants you to say “Amen,” and when you don’t he begins to get agitated, frustrated, as if you thought there was something wrong with his preaching.  He starts saying, “Come on now, people.  There must be somebody out there who can say Amen!”  If Paul were our guest preacher this morning would it be like that?  Would he pace back and forth, waiting for something to happen, and finally ask in frustration, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”  What would we say? 

Well, Lynn Turner would say yes.  At least, that’s what she said in our worship team meeting on Tuesday.  She said it had always been her understanding that these two things go together, that when you become a believer and get baptized you also receive the Holy Spirit.  I said that was my understanding, too, but where would we get such an idea?  Possibly from Jesus himself.  Mark tells us that when he was baptized the heavens were torn open and the Spirit descended in the form of a dove and rested on him and a voice from heaven said, You are my Son, my beloved; in you I am well pleased.”  It’s not exactly like that when we are baptized, but it’s close.  I still remember a picture I saw in National Geographic years ago, where a man from Tennessee was being baptized in the Jordan River.  He had just come up out of the water, and he was looking toward heaven as if he expected a dove to flutter down any second.  In the caption under the picture he said, “I know exactly what I was thinking in that moment.  I was hearing God say, ‘This is my beloved son, Jerry, in whom I am well pleased.”  It’s not like that for everyone, but it’s not unheard of. 

When we do baptisms here I ask people to say “Jesus is Lord,” not only because that’s what Christians have been doing since the earliest days of the church but also because Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:3 that “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  It’s not really a test, but it does serve as a comforting confirmation of the presence of the Spirit in that person’s life.  In some traditions the newly baptized are anointed with oil—the sign of the cross marked on their foreheads—while the priest says, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  Even though that’s not the way we do it here we might agree that baptism is a sign of our eternal union with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We don’t need to be baptized again and we don’t need to be baptized in some different way, do we?  Well, Paul thought those believers in Ephesus did, and he thought so, apparently, because they didn’t show any evidence of having the Holy Spirit in their lives. 

When I was in my early teens I visited a Pentecostal church for a while, and those people would have said it wasn’t enough to be baptized in water, that you also needed to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.  That’s what they called it, and they had scripture to back them up.  Look at today’s Gospel reading, for instance, where John says, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).  Look at John, chapter 3, where Jesus says, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit” (John 3:5).  Look at all those places in the Book of Acts—including today’s reading—where people receive the Holy Spirit either before or after they have been baptized, but not in the same act.  I came to that little Pentecostal church believing I was already a Christian, but in their opinion there was something lacking, and that something was that I hadn’t been baptized in the Holy Spirit.

And so I tried.  I did everything they told me to do.  I went down to the front of that little church night after night, and knelt on that worn green carpet, and prayed to receive the Holy Spirit.  There were times when I felt wondrously warmed and filled, and thought maybe I had succeeded, but I wasn’t able to produce any convincing evidence, that is, I wasn’t able to speak in tongues.  That was pretty much the litmus test in that little church: if you could speak in tongues you had the Holy Spirit, but if you couldn’t then you didn’t.  But I can’t believe that was Paul’s litmus test.  If you read 1 Corinthians 12, 13, and 14 closely you can see how Paul is addressing a church that is divided over that very issue.  In chapter 12 he talks about how we are all members of the body of Christ, and one member can’t say to another, “I don’t need you.”  In chapter 13 he says that even if we speak in the tongues of angels but have not love we are no better than clanging gongs or noisy cymbals.  In chapter 14 he says, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than any of you, but I would rather say five words that make sense than ten thousand that don’t.”  He tells those Corinthians to strive for the greater gifts, and he names some of them: teaching, preaching, helping, and healing.  In other places he mentions gifts of hospitality and administration, gifts of encouragement and love, in other words, gifts that might not be as obvious as speaking in tongues, but gifts that may be more important for building up the body of Christ: the church. 

I wonder if that’s what Paul was looking for among those believers in Ephesus: evidence of the kind of gifts that build up the church.  You may remember that we had a discussion in this church a few years ago about baptism and membership.  We had this long-standing tradition that people entering our membership from other denominations, who hadn’t been baptized as believers by immersion, needed to be immersed.  But then this new pastor came along challenging that tradition, and asking why we would re-baptize people who were already Christians.  The answer he got, over and over again, was that they hadn’t been baptized, not really, or at least they hadn’t been baptized in the right way, which is precisely the argument Paul makes in this passage from Acts 19.  Those believers he encountered in Ephesus had only received the baptism of John—a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  They hadn’t received Christian baptism.  And apparently they didn’t show any sign of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  So, Paul baptizes them in the name of Jesus, lays hands on them, and then they are “baptized” in the Holy Spirit, if you will.  They start speaking in tongues and prophesying. 

Now, maybe it’s just me, but that sounds like three different baptisms, and if Paul were our guest preacher I might ask him to explain.  When he was shaking hands at the back door after the sermon I might say, “Here you are, asking us if we received the Holy Spirit when we were baptized.  Well, let me ask you something.  Didn’t you say, in Ephesians 4:5, that there is ‘one Lord, one faith, and one baptism’?  So, why,” I might ask, “did these people get baptized three times?”  And Paul would have an answer.  You know he would.  Let’s imagine what it would be. 

I think Paul would say, first of all, that John’s baptism, though it was a good thing to do, was not a Christian baptism; it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  As Paul says in this passage, it was a way of getting ready for the one who was to come, and just in case those Ephesians don’t know who that was he tells them: it was Jesus.  Which always makes me wonder why Jesus was baptized by John.  He didn’t need to repent.  He didn’t have any sins to be forgiven.  The best answer I can come up with is that he did it to identify himself with us—immersed himself in water that was still muddy with human sin in order to take those sins upon himself.  But if so, then we can’t really say that we follow Jesus’ example in baptism other than in the most physical sense—that he got wet and we get wet.  We certainly don’t immerse ourselves in human sin in order to take those sins upon ourselves.  In fact, we’re trying to do just the opposite: we’re trying to wash our sins away.  That’s what those believers in Ephesus were doing in baptism: washing their sins away. 

But they weren’t baptized in the name of Jesus and that’s what Paul would say next.  He asks those believers what they were baptized into and they say, “Into John’s baptism.”  And for Paul that’s not enough.  He tells them they need to be baptized in the name of Jesus.  It’s interesting that he asks the question that way—“What were you baptized into?”  It reminds me of what he says in Romans 6: “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).  “Baptized into Christ,” he says, as if it weren’t a pool of water up there but a baptistry full of Christ Almighty.  Paul might say that when we are dipped down into that water we identify ourselves with Christ so completely that we share in both his death and his resurrection.  As he was lowered into the grave we are lowered into the water, and as he rose from the dead so we come up to a whole new life.  You can see why Paul would want those Ephesian believers to have that experience.  

“But why,” we might ask, “all this emphasis on the Spirit?  What’s going on there?”  And I think Paul would say, truthfully, that that was just his experience.  You remember what happened to him in Acts, chapter 9, how that bright light dazzled him on the road to Damascus and that voice thundered from heaven, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  He had an experience of the risen Christ, and for three days afterward he was blinded by it, sitting in a room in Damascus, unable to see, unwilling to eat.  But then Ananias came and laid hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, Jesus has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  And then something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight, and got up, and was baptized, and after having something to eat he regained his strength.  But in the very next verse he is proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues, saying “He is the Son of God!”  And two verses later Luke says he became increasingly more powerful in his witness.  I think Paul would say he couldn’t have done that without the Holy Spirit. 

Look back through the preceding chapters and you will discover that the gift of the Spirit (what some would call the “baptism” of the Spirit) is typical of the experience of the early church.  It comes to those 120 believers on the Day of Pentecost with the rush of a mighty wind.  It comes to those Samaritan believers, not when they are baptized in the name of Jesus, but only after Peter and John lay hands on them.  It comes upon the household of Cornelius, the Gentile, while Peter is still preaching to them, and because it does Peter thinks they should probably be baptized.  So, sometimes it come without baptism, sometimes it comes after, and sometimes it comes before, but in every instance it seems clear that to be a Christian is to receive the Holy Spirit. 

“And so,” Paul would say, “that’s why there were three baptisms.  Those believers needed to complete their Christian experience.  They needed to do more than wash away their sins.  They needed to be immersed in Christ.  They needed to be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Which makes me think we may have spent a lot of time and energy debating the wrong things when we were talking about baptism and membership.  We were talking about who could be a member of First Baptist Church and what kind of baptism was required.  We were talking about whether you needed to be fully immersed or whether a sprinkling would do.  We were talking about whether it could come before you became a believer or if it had to come after.  I think Paul might say, “Really?  Do you think it really matters how much water is used, or when it is applied, or how?”  I think he might say, “The thing you need to do is this: immerse yourselves in Christ Jesus.  Soak yourselves in his life and death and resurrection until you are completely saturated, until you are so thoroughly identified with him that his experience becomes your experience, so that when you come up out of it the heavens are torn open, and the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice says, “You are my child, my Beloved. 

“In you I am well pleased.”

—Jim Somerville 2012

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