Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7; Genesis 1:1-5
Unlike the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Gospel of Mark has no stories about Jesus’ birth or early childhood. After a few introductory verses, the Gospel of Mark jumps right into the description about Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his public ministry, presumably when he was about 30 years old. Actually, considering the average lifespan of a male in Jesus’ day, 30 years old might be considered middle age. Consequently, Jesus had a lot of life experience under his belt before he ever stepped foot into the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin, John—a baptism that would change his life forever and actually result in his life being cut short because of his devotion to living by the power of the Holy Spirit and living according to God’s good pleasure.
My guess is that all of us could look back on our lives and identify those moments when we had a certain revelation or experience that would change our lives forever. Considering our lessons for today, I am reminded of 2 such moments in my life—both of which occurred when I was 20 years old and both of which would inform my theology for the rest of my life. The first such moment occurred one day when I was sitting at the lunch table in the dining hall at Concordia Senior College and suddenly realized that the importance of this first story in the Bible had little, if anything, to do with a literal 7-day creation as I had been taught since my childhood. Instead, this story about God creating the heavens and the earth had everything to do with who God is, who we are in relationship to God, and what our responsibility is in relationship to the world in which God has placed us human beings. I blame this shift in understanding and perspective on the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is the one who, according to Jesus, guides us into the way of truth.
The second such moment that same year came after about 5 months of praying for what is often referred to as the baptism with the Holy Spirit. During the summer of 1968, two of my dearest friends informed me that they had received the baptism with the Holy Spirit and that they could speak in tongues as a result of this outpouring of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They both were such alive and positive persons, and I wanted what they had. So, when I went to the Senior College that fall, I regularly would go down into the tiny chapel in the basement of our dorm and pray for this gift of the Holy Spirit. After about 5 months of this endeavor, I still hadn’t had the bright light experience that my 2 friends had described to me, and I had no experience of speaking in tongues. That’s when I finally realized that speaking in tongues probably was not going to be my gift and that the Holy Spirit would have to endow me with some other gifts that would be as beneficial to me and to others in my life, and give me the satisfaction of knowing that I still was a beloved child of God who could please God in others ways in my life. Little did I know that one of those gifts of the Holy Spirit eventually would be the gift of prophecy.
It is this gift of prophecy that has helped me to see that this so-called 7-day creation story at the beginning of the Bible really isn’t about the creation of the heavens and the earth, but rather is about the importance of the seventh day when God rested from all that God had done and revealed to all the world the significance of the Sabbath when even the land would be given a year of rest, all debts would be cancelled, all slaves would be allowed to go free, everyone would have enough food to eat, all wars would cease, and the property that people had lost during the previous 49 years would be returned to them. We can use this first story in the Bible as an excuse to carry on the divisive debate between creationism and evolution, but as far as I am concerned, as long as we do, we ignore, or better yet, we intentionally avoid the political and economic implications of this Sabbath story that was intended to establish God’s manner of justice and peace in the world that would be eternally pleasing to God, our Creator.
Some people have criticized me for preaching too much about God’s justice and peace in this world that afflicts those of us who are comfortable with our affluence and our weapons of mass destruction instead of concentrating on comforting everyone who is afflicted with some kind of sickness, injury, pain, loneliness, brokenness, grief, or despair. Perhaps this emphasis is the result of my prophetic edge, but such is the edge that also was evident throughout Jesus’ ministry—an edge about which most of us don’t want to hear because to listen to the prophetic Word of God always requires some kind of repentance on our part just as John’s baptism required the people to repent in preparation for Jesus’ arrival. The baptism with which Jesus baptized would require this same kind of repentance, but also would offer the bonus of being endowed with the power of the Holy Spirit to be able to make the necessary changes in our lives that would be more pleasing to God.
Having failed to experience the gift of speaking in tongues helped me to realize that there is so much more to the outpouring of this Holy Spirit than speaking in tongues. As far as I know, we never hear about Jesus speaking in tongues in any of the four gospels. However, we do hear a lot about all that Jesus did by the power of the Holy Spirit like publicly proclaiming the good news of God’s reign on this earth, resisting the temptations of the devil, healing those who were sick, casting out the demons of mental illness, dining with those who were shunned by the rest of society, admonishing those who were abusing their authority by stealing the houses of widows and killing people who were prophets, and eventually resisting the principalities and powers of his day with non-violent silence as they would torture him and execute him for his devotion to God’s manner of love, justice, and peace in this world.
We often are left with the impression that Jesus was not filled with this Holy Spirit until he was baptized by John in the Jordan River. If that was the case, then would we say that for 30 years of his life, Jesus did not have God’s Spirit within him, and then logically conclude that baptism is the only means by which anyone can receive and be filled with this Holy Spirit? I have a hard time reconciling this conclusion with the reality that in creation, God breathed the Holy Spirit into every human creature and sent us off with the blessing to be fruitful and multiply and to take care of this planet on which we have been placed by God to live. In order to demonstrate to us how to live at peace with one another and how to take care of this planet, God then rested on the seventh day and established the Sabbath day as a way to make certain that God’s justice and peace would reign throughout this world.
I am of the opinion that, like Jesus, we all are born into this world already filled with God’s Spirit, not only as God’s creatures, but also as God’s children who are destined to live according to God’s good pleasure. We also are born with the propensity to turn away from God and do what is evil in the sight of God. In the water of baptism, this propensity to sin is washed away and forgiven in order that we might be released from our bondage to sin and in order that the power of the Holy Spirit might be unleashed within us so that we can devote ourselves to doing God’s will and following in the way of Jesus. Within the rite of Holy Baptism, people often are marked with the cross of Christ forever as the sign of being called and ordained into the ministry of following in the way of Jesus as his disciples. There is nothing easy about being a faithful disciple of Jesus—something that we hardly can accomplish on our own. That’s why the power of this Holy Spirit with which we are created needs to be watered and unleashed within us. Baptism is one way for this liberation to happen. Another way is through the laying on of hands. As Jesus also demonstrated, this baptism with the Holy Spirit can happen simply by breathing on another person and calling forth the power of this Spirit to guide the person into God’s way of truth.
In his letter to these baptized members of the body of Christ at Ephesus, the Apostle Paul later explained that this Holy Spirit is the one who unites all of us in the bond of peace within the body of Christ and acknowledges that this Holy Spirit gives everyone particular gifts, all of which are meant not only to edify the body of Christ, but also to help us lead lives worthy of repentance so that we might be restored to the likeness of God in which we have been created and lead lives of true righteousness and holiness all of our days. Paul describes this way of life in another way when he tells these disciples of Jesus at Ephesus that they are not to grieve this Holy Spirit of God with their bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, malice, thievery, or evil talk. Rather, they are to be kind to one another, speak the truth in love to one another, forgive one another, and make every effort to maintain the unity of this Spirit in the bond of peace.
What gifts of the Holy Spirit have you been given for this purpose? As I have pondered this question this past week, two people kept coming to my mind—people who are children of God, who are filled with God’s Spirit, and who are doing their part to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The first person is Rebekah. She was a tiny African-American woman who lived in one of our residences for mentally-ill elderly women at N Street Village back in Washington DC. Every day, rain or shine, Rebekah would be outside sweeping up the trash along the curbs of the Village, all the while talking to herself in a voice only known to her. The staff at N Street Village worked with Rebekah for years in trying to make sense out of what she was saying. After many years, one staff member finally gained Rebekah’s trust and was able to find out the names of her children and where they might be living. The day that Rebekah’s grown children showed up at the Village to take their long-lost mother home was truly a day to rejoice and give thanks to God for the beauty and wonder of this precious child of God.
We have a similarly-gifted person in our own midst. His name is Rupert, the mentally-ill elderly man who shows up for coffee several times a week and makes sure that everyone in our building is recycling and composting properly. I have no idea how many other religious institutions Rupert services in this way, but I do know that he already was around and devoted to this mission thirty years ago when I was serving as a pastor at Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church. Although Rupert spends his days in his own world and speaks to people that none of us can see, he is an intelligent man with a gentle heart whose paranoia dominates his life and makes him suspicious that everyone is out to get him. Is Rupert a child of God? Yes!! Is he filled with God’s Spirit? Yes!! Has Rupert been baptized in the church? I don’t know. What I do know is that Rupert has been given certain gifts that he uses to edify the body of Christ and contribute to the peace of this world.
Rebekah and Rupert are powerful reminders to all of us that we all are children of God who have had the Spirit of God breathed into us for the purpose of loving one another, forgiving one another, keeping peace with one another, and taking care of this planet Earth. Those of us who have been baptized in the name of Jesus and have been called to be followers of this Jesus have been blessed with the powerful gift of Jesus’ Spirit so that we might fulfill what we have been called to be and do as faithful disciples of Jesus who want nothing more or less than to live for God’s good pleasure. Whatever gifts of the Holy Spirit that we have been given are for this purpose so that we might be able to keep the Sabbath day holy and maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Toward this end, may God’s love and peace be with us all. Amen.