Saturday, January 10, 2015

By Water and the Holy Spirit: The Courage to Love (The Baptism of Christ, 11 Jan 2015)

RCL Baptism of Christ B
11 January 2015

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus text:  Mark 1.4-11
            In 1906 an African American preacher named William Seymour began a movement intended to restore in the contemporary church the vigour and conviction that Seymour believed were the characteristics of the church in the time of the apostles.  Over the course of nine years Seymour’s preaching was the centre point of a renewal movement that included speaking in tongues, miracles and a style of worship more energetic and dramatic than many North American Christians had ever witnessed.
            Many of Seymour’s contemporaries were shocked by the emotional quality of worship and the ecstatic activities of the worshippers.  Some were shocked more by the fact that Seymour’s congregation was inter-racial and crossed the racial divide that existed in most dimensions of North American society.  What began in Seymour’s Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles gave rise to a movement that spawned the emergence of Pentecostal churches throughout the world.
            But the Pentecostal movement found its way into the so-called ‘mainline’ traditions as well.  By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the ‘Charismatic Renewal’, as it was known, was present among Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics.  Just down the road from us, Dennis Bennett, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Olympia, was a well-known advocate of the Renewal.  Bill Frey, the Bishop of Colorado, was in great demand as a preacher and teacher of the Renewal.
            I remember one of my first assignments as a newly-ordained transitional deacon.  Bill sent me to the Church of the Holy Spirit in Colorado Springs, the parish I had attended before my family moved to Germany in 1961.  The parish took its name seriously and was known as hotbed of charismatic worship and teaching.  I cannot remember why Bill sent me, but I do remember what happened during worship.
            At the end of the prayers of the people, the rector invited anyone who wanted special prayers to come to the altar rail.  He asked me to take one half of the rail and to make sure that I laid hands on each person as I prayed.  Most of the people I prayed with were asking prayers for loved ones who were ill or in crisis, others for themselves.  Then came the most memorable moment.
            As I approached one woman, I noticed that two men were standing just behind her, to her left and to her right.  When I laid my hands on her head, she shrieked and fell over backwards into the hands of the men behind her.  When one of the men glanced up at me and saw the look of surprise, even horror, on my face, he said, ‘Don’t worry, Father.  She does this every Sunday.’  What I had just witnessed was someone being ‘slain in the Spirit’, an experience of complete surrender, body and soul, to the presence of God.  I was reluctant to touch anyone for days afterwards!
            Christians have wrestled with who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does.  One of the earliest forms of the Nicene Creed, after two paragraphs outlining our faith in God as Father and as Son, each beginning with ‘We believe’, ends with the following sentence fragment:  ‘And also in Holy Spirit’.  Mighty theological tomes have been written and Christians have come to blows over the Spirit’s role in our lives as disciples of Jesus.
            And so it is that I tread carefully in my comments today.  I have often pondered what it means when John the Baptist says that he baptizes with water but that the one who comes after him will baptized with water and the Holy Spirit.  So some thirty-three years after my experience at the Church of the Holy Spirit, I have come to think this way.
            When John the Baptist comes preaching a baptism of repentance, his focus is on the past and immediate present and less on the future.  His ministry, as seen by Mark, is to prepare the way by burning the rubbish of people’s past unfaithfulness to the covenant of God.  ‘Get rid of the clutter that obstructs your path to God,’ John proclaims.  ‘Let this water serve to wash away the past so that you can greet whatever God has next in store for us.’  It is very hard to move into God’s future weighed down by the past and cluttered with care.
            Then, into this freshly-cleared space, Jesus enters with the proclamation of God’s kingdom as not only a promised future but a potential present.  What Jesus brings is hope, a hope that is made concrete in his ministry of healing and teaching, compassion and reconciliation.  What Jesus brings is a movement that is open to men and women, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slave and free.  It is a hope that people can actually see and touch and hear.
            One of the gifts that the Spirit bestows upon those who respond to Jesus’ message of God’s future is courage.  Courage is the willingness to act on our hope rather than hide behind our fears.  Courage is costly because it means we may be called upon to set aside all our assumptions about the world and how things work and risk becoming an agent of God’s future.  This choice can cost us friends and family, status and esteem, but we gain more than we can ask or imagine.
            Perhaps the most important aspect of the Pentecostal revival that began in the Azusa Street Mission was not tongues or miracles or emotional worship.  The most important gift was the willingness to cross the boundaries that racial segregation had established throughout the United States.  It was the courage of Seymour and others to proclaim a gospel of inclusion that may their lasting legacy as Christians on the way to the kingdom. 
            When the good news of God in Jesus is preached and heard and acted upon, then the Spirit has bestowed the gift of courage.  When a man or a woman or a child chooses to be the presence of God in difficult circumstances, then the Spirit has bestowed the gift of courage.  When you and I choose to overcome our hesitations and to share our faith with someone, then the Spirit has bestowed the gift of courage.  When Christians rally to protect believers of other faiths who are threatened by extremists, then the Spirit has bestowed the gift of courage.
            And from courage springs the Spirit’s greatest gift, love.  As Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (I Corinthians 13.1-3)  Love, like courage, requires hope in order to flourish and to bring forth what God has planted in our souls.  Love enables us to confront the evil that does exist without becoming consumed by it.
            Thanks be to God who has baptized us with water and the Spirit.  Thanks be to God who leads us from our past and into the future made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth.  Thanks be to God who, through the Spirit, gives us courage so that we love as we have been loved.  Amen.

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