What does it mean to be baptized in the Holy Spirit? (A sermon from Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)


John, the Baptizer drew people from the villages and towns out into the desert to hear his message and to be baptized. As he baptized people he pointed them to Jesus, who would come after him, whom he said would baptize them in the Holy Spirit. What does a baptism in the Spirit of Christ look like or feel like? What does it involve?  

Luke describes John’s baptism in v. 3 as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It seems to be that any baptism that represents in some way a new beginning or chapter in our lives must include repentance and forgiveness. I think it is often assumed that forgiveness of sins is the receiving of forgiveness from God, but the text doesn’t specifically say that. In reality, forgiveness is never just a one-way street. If you look at the teachings of Jesus regarding forgiveness in the Gospels Jesus inseparably connects receiving forgiveness with extending forgiveness. The model prayer makes this connection clear. We pray, “forgive us our trespasses (or sins) as we forgive those who have trespassed (or sinned) against us.” The kind of repentance that leads to forgiveness is not just about confessing our sins to God and enjoying God’s forgiveness, it’s equally about changing our attitude and posture toward others within a forgiving framework. It’s just as much about acknowledging to others the hurt and offense we have caused them as it is confessing our sins to God. It’s just as much about letting go of grudges and resentments we have harbored against others, as it is about admitting these things to God. Forgiveness is never just about God forgiving us, it’s just as much about our forgiving others and our seeking forgiveness from others.   

At the heart of any baptism or immersion in the Spirit is the experience of sharing and receiving forgiveness. Forgiveness opens the door to new spiritual experiences. It can lead us into a deeper relationship with the God who indwells us and who equally dwells in everyone else. Because God’s Spirit resides in every human being, every new beginning with another person is always a new beginning with God. A relationship with God is always tied to our relationships with others. There is no such thing as loving God without loving others. We open ourselves to a new beginning with God when we find the courage and honesty and humility to forgive those who have hurt us and seek forgiveness from those we have hurt. We open ourselves up to spiritual renewal, to an immersion in God’s Spirit when we acknowledge and let go past hurts and grudges that we have harbored against others. The giving and receiving of forgiveness is at the heart of any immersion or baptism in God’s Spirit.

The text says that the one coming after John will baptize with or in the Spirit and with or in fire. The fire is “unquenchable” and will burn up the chaff, but leave the wheat. I believe that we totally misapply this text if we make the wheat and the chaff different groups of people, and if we make the fire, the fire of God’s wrath. The fire cannot be the fire of divine anger or judgment, because the fire is unquenchable. God’s wrath or judgment is not “unquenchable.” The fire of God’s judgment is momentary, temporary, and instrumental. It’s purpose is to correct and purify.

Abraham Heschel was a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and a Jewish mystic. He spoke as if he knew God intimately, and I have no doubt that he did. He points out in his classic work on the Prophets that the dominant purpose of God’s anger in the prophets and in the psalms is to bring about the repentance of God’s people. There is no divine anger for anger’s sake. It’s a temporary state. Isaiah declares, “In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, But with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer” (Isa. 54:8). The Psalmist bids us give thanks to God, “For his anger is but for a moment; his favor (steadfast, faithful love) is for a lifetime.” Heschel points out that the secret of God’s anger is God’s care. There is nothing greater than the certainty of God’s care. Isaiah speaking on behalf of all God’s people says, “For though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid, for the Lord is my strength and my might . . .” (12:1b-2). Whatever the symbolism of hell points to (and it is a symbol, it’s not something that is literal), it’s only temporary. It’s not forever. Only God’s love that binds us to God and from which no power in heaven or on earth can sever is eternal. Whatever hell is or may be, it is not eternal.

So the unquenchable fire that burns up the chaff is not the wrath of God, but the love of God. God’s anger is ultimately consumed by God’s love so that when the prodigal son or daughter comes home, he or she does not come home to a wrathful judge, but to a loving Father or Mother. Isn’t that what the parable Jesus told about the prodigal teaches. The prodigal comes home to a loving embrace. The fire of God’s loves consumes the chaff – the greed, egotism, the malice, the untruths, the pride, the lust for power, anything and everything that emerges out of the false self. It’s the false self that produces these destructive vices, because this is not who we really are. What the Spirit says to Jesus after he is baptized by John is what we will hear the Spirit say to us when we are baptized or immersed in the Spirit, namely, “You are God’s beloved daughter or son.” That’s who we really are. We just need to claim it, trust it, and live so that we become who we already are.

The late Fred Craddock tells about the time he ministered in a little community in southwest Oklahoma. There were four churches in that small community: a Methodist church, a Baptist church, a Nazarene church, and a disciples of Christ Christian church. Each had its share of the population, and generally attendance rose and fell according to the weather and whether it was time to harvest wheat.

The best and most consistent attendance in town, however, was not at the churches, but at the little café where all the pickup trucks were parked and where all the men gathered inside discussing the weather, their cattle, what kind of crop they were going to have, while their wives and children were in one of the four churches. The attendance of the churches wavered, up and down as church attendance goes, but the café consistently had good attendance every week.

Once in a while, says Fred, the café would lose one of their members because the wife or the kids finally got to him, and off he would go kind of sheepishly to one of the churches. But the men who gathered in the café on Sundays felt they were the largest and strongest group in town. These were not bad men, says Fred, they were mostly family men and hard working men, but did not see a need for the church.

The patron saint of the group at the café was Frank. Frank was 77 years old when Fred first met him. He was a farmer and a cattleman. He had been born in a sod house, and he had prospered. He was a real pioneer and with his credentials he was considered the patron saint of the café. One day Fred met Frank on the street. Fred had no intention of trying to convert him, but Frank put up his guard and took a shot at Fred anyway. Frank said, “I work hard and I take care of my family and I mind my own business.” He told Fred that as far as he was concerned, everything else was fluff. He was basically saying, “I’m not a prospect for your church, so don’t’ bother me. Leave me alone. I mind my business, you mind yours.”

So Fred left him alone, and didn’t bother him. But then one Sunday, Frank surprised everyone, especially the men at the café, when at 77 years of age he presented himself at the Christian church where Fred was serving for baptism. Some in the community thought Frank must have been sick, must have received a really bad health report and got scarred. Why else would old Frank join the church?  

So Fred asked him, “Frank, do you remember that little saying you use to give me, to keep us ministers off your back. You know, the one where you said, ‘I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business.’” He said, “Yea. I remember. I said that a lot.” Fred asked, “Do you still say that?” He said, “Yea, I guess I do still say that.” Fred asked, “Then what’s the difference now?” He said, “Brother Fred, I didn’t know then what my business was.” At 77 years of age Frank finally discovered what his business was.

Do we know what our business is? What is our business as God’s daughters and sons in the world? It’s pretty simple really. It is to love God and love others. In fact, the only way we can truly love God is by loving others, who are also the daughters and sons of God even if they don’t know it or live like it. When we love others we are loving God, because we are all one in the Spirit of Christ. Our business is to love each other because we all belong. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus of Nazareth embodied this unifying love in his teachings about loving others, and in his ministry to the sick and identification with the poor and the downtrodden, and in his common practice of inviting all to the meal table of fellowship. The man Jesus embodied love for others. As Christians, he is our definitive expression of what it means and looks like to love others. And, the living Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ makes this known to our hearts when we open our lives to God’s love and become immersed in Christ’s Spirit.

God’s Spirit is the Spirit of Love. Paul said that “the fruit of the Spirit is love,” then what follows, all the other virtues and qualities listed after that are but expressions of love. Love is the ultimate virtue, greater even than faith and hope, says Paul in his ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13. “Above all,” says Paul, “put on love, which binds everything else together.” This is what baptism in the Spirit is about.

To be led by the Spirit is to move from places and positions of exclusion to an ever growing and widening inclusion. Jesus even instructed his followers to love their enemies. The Spirit moves us from a position of limited blessing to a place of universal blessing, for we realize that it’s not just us – our family, our church, our group, our nation – who are blessed, but we are all blessed, because we are all one people in Christ Jesus.

Paul was so passionate about this that he wanted to establish local “in Christ” communities, local churches that would express to the world this oneness so others could see through the windows of these “in Christ” communities what the kin-dom of God is all about. Paul must have been so hugely disappointed numerous times when the communities he formed had such trouble and difficulty and faced so many problems in living out their oneness. And that, of course, continues to be the challenge isn’t it? And it is a great challenge, an immense challenge facing us today because fear and divisiveness and scapegoating and exclusion are being preached in the halls of power. And a good many Christians today have decided to abandon the gospel of peace and love, and follow this non-gospel, this false gospel of safety and security by means of exclusion and seclusion.

When we are immersed in the Holy Spirit, we know what our business is. We know that we are not the only ones beloved of God, and we know God wants us to build bridges, open doors, tear down walls, invite all to the table, and share God’s unquenchable, eternal, steadfast love with everyone using every opportunity we have.

Our most loving Lord, give us eyes to see what is clearly our greatest purpose and calling as your children in the world. Help us to see that nothing competes with the calling to love others with your love. As we open our lives to you, inspire us and empower us to walk in your love. May your Spirit so fill us that our souls and bodies might become a wellspring from which your love endlessly flows out to refresh thirsty souls. Amen.

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