Sermon by Rev. Tim Woodard
January 11, 2015
Mark 1: 4-11
Hear now these ancient and holy words from the gospel according to Mark, chapter 1, verses 4-11
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Having heard these words, let us now allow God to open our hearts and to open our minds, thus allowing us to gain a deeper and more meaningful understanding of these ancient and holy words.
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My father once told me that I could not be a Christian and live on an island with no one else there. The spirit of what my father said was right. He was urging me to be part of a community. In his mind he wanted me to join a good Christian church. His remark, however, was literally wrong. One can be a Christian and still end up on a deserted lonely island, isolated from other people. The fact is many religious orders were established for exactly this kind of life, and it was believed that those involved became more spiritual and thus closer to God. What does it mean to have a God centered life, but not be a part of the Christian Church? Living on an island or simply living isolated from everyone, can one truly live a spiritual life? What happens if they call upon the Living Spirit of God to be there with them? The bigger question is would God truly want us to live isolated from community? My father didn’t think this was a good idea.
Over the years I have often heard people saying that they live a spiritual life but they don’t come to church. I am talking about good people, people involved in all levels of our society. Others have told me that they’re not interested in being part of a dogmatic religious community yet they had a strong spiritual relationship with God. There are, however, many within the Christian Church that feel without the formality of Christian doctrine and dogma, with a rigid adherence to such, many will be left behind and not make it to heaven. It is no wonder so many have turned away from organized religion. When I am asked about this I have often side stepped the question saying: God’s mercy is greater than my understanding of this. That answer is not good enough for me today.
I feel passionate about the church yes, yet my passion now drives me to express more fully and more authentically – what I have come to believe the scriptures say to us, and what our traditions are meant to express. I also raise-up our collective knowledge and our abilities to reason – coupled with our experiences and the experiences of those around us.
What is it that you believe? Do you believe that the Spirit of God is in this room? Do you believe that when an ordained minister, a clergy person, such as me, calls upon the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, that something special happens? This morning we participated in a baptism of a young child. During the sacrament of baptism I dipped my hand in the water. I called upon the Holy and Living Spirit of God to be upon the child brought before us. You may ask yourself, OK, but how does the Spirit come to be here with us? Or you may be thinking those are just words that are said. Let me assure you, you are not the only person to ask such questions. These are the types of questions people ask themselves all the time.
At this stage in my life, I do honor the occasional isolated walk with God; those times have enhanced my spiritual journey thus improving my relationship with God. At various stages in my journey of faith I have felt the sweet caress of God’s love; I have experienced profound and powerful moments when there is no explanation other than to think I was hallucinating or something mystical occurred. Often times I simply feel a sense of peacefulness pass over me, as I become more aware of God’s presence in nature. However I acknowledge or view these moments or events, those times were meant to prepare me to be a part of a community where I have been able to learn from others and also share with others my understanding and faith in God.
As we ponder these questions in our hearts let’s get into our scripture lesson this morning. The right of baptism with water began a long time before John the Baptist began baptizing people at the river Jordan. What made his baptism so special was that he was asking people to repent! John was using the waters to cleanse them, in the midst of their repentance of sin. He was proclaiming that the kingdom of God was near. He clarified for those who were seeking baptism and cleansing of their sins what was to come. “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” /Mark, Chapter 1, verse 8/ Later in the passage we hear how Jesus came to be baptized and when Jesus came up out of the waters; “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” /Mark Chapter 1, verse 10/ This marks the beginning of the ritual of being baptized with water and the Living Holy Spirit of God.
When I called upon our God to send forth The Holy Spirit and as I asked God’s blessing upon the water and upon the child – something special happened! We call this, we consider this a sacrament. I believe with all my heart that the Spirit of God has welcomed this child into our community of faith.
To be a Christian, doctrine and tradition tells us that we must be baptized. In the early years, in the first centuries, all the adults were deemed to have the ability to take responsibility, comprehending what baptism is and therefore capable of having a relationship with Christ. Thus they, as adults, they were welcomed into the church when they confessed a belief in Christ. Children were part of the community but were not considered baptized Christians until they grew to maturity, thus old enough to take responsibility for their relationship with God through Christ.
As the Church evolved Christian history tells us that in the Fourth Century Christianity became a state religion. “In 324 AD Constantinople was re-inaugurated, as the new capital of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine the Great… The city was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity during Roman and Byzantine times; in 1923 the city was named Istanbul, Turkey.” /Wikipedia/
Constantine took over the city in battle and he named the city Constantinople. Legend tells us that Constantine initially was losing in the battle thus in desperation and willing to try anything, he had his warriors paint the symbol of the cross on their shields – before they went back into battle. He also promised that if they won Christianity would become the sanctioned religion.
Making good on his promise Constantine ordered the Church to make all the people Christians. So the Priests had to radically speed up the process of baptism. Prior to Constantine’s decree only adults whom confessed Jesus as their Savior were baptized. Since the young were not old enough to take on this confession with integrity, it was decided that their parents would take on this responsibility for them, until they were mature enough to do so for themselves. This is how the ritual of baptizing babies began. It was also decided that baptism no longer needed to be with full emersion; instead sprinkling was adapted to speed up the process.
As was recorded in the scriptures, we know that the presence of the Spirit came upon Jesus as he was baptized. This, however, is not the first time the Spirit’s presence has been recorded. Throughout the Old and NewTestament the living spirit is talked about on many occasions. Elijah talked about it – Moses spoke of it many times. The angel Gabriel went to talk to Mary about being with child; he said that it was the ‘Spirit of God’ that was upon her. The concept of the spirit is most positively baffling as-well-as mystifying. The word spirit speaks of something holy, something Divine; some would even say the spirit is something supernatural. We often hear in scripture about the spirit being very powerful; in our scripture this morning we hear how the heavens were ‘torn open’ – when the spirit came down ‘like a dove’. The contrast is stark.
What was it that my father was really trying to tell me when he expressed his thoughts – about my ‘not being’ a Christian ‘if’ I lived on an island all alone? Today, it is crystal clear what he meant. He meant for me to become part of a community. My father understood what baptism is really all about. Yes, it is about the old cleansing ritual that John the Baptist preached about. John wanted adults to take responsibility for their sinfulness and repent, thus begging God to forgive them. His water baptism, via total emersion was meant to totally cleanse the individual of their sins. This is all true and my father believed in this ritual, but my father understood the ritual of baptism in a broader sense. He understood that when one confessed a belief in Christ, they were entering into the Universal Church of Jesus Christ. This broader context puts a Christian smack dab in the midst of a large community. My father wanted me to have the support of that larger community.
As modern protestant Christians we have evolved into the traditions of our denominational preference. We have landed in this community of believers together. As such we have adopted the tradition of baptism for our children. And yes indeed we have lifted up the community aspect of baptism as central to our understanding of it. Yes, we acknowledge the cleansing aspect of baptism; but at the same time we struggle with the concept that children are born bearing the sins of their parents. Thus we are more focused on the community aspect, believing that as a community we are cleansed and given a new opportunity to pursue our relationship with God and to accept our place within the kingdom of God here on earth, fully believing we will one day have a seat at the table when we get to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Holy Spirit has also become central to a deeper understanding of our sacraments that we practice: Communion and Baptism. In both we lift up that when an ordained or authorized minister leads us, praying for God’s presence and blessing – that the Living God is with us in Spirit. We know through our traditions and the narratives from Holy Scripture that sometimes the Spirit’s presence is felt in a profound way, yet at other times God’s presence is experienced like the sweet caress of a gentle summer breeze.
As an authorized and ordained clergy person it has been my privilege to preside over the sacraments many times. In so doing it gives me the opportunity to renew and refresh my understanding of these holy events. I pray that each of us here gather today, has felt the gentle touch of the Spirit in some way, thereby renewing within our hearts the fullness of God’s love and grace. I pray that our newly baptized child and her loving parents and extended family also feel welcomed into the Universal Church of Jesus Christ. In so doing I pray that they might continue to feel God’s presence in their lives long after my voice fades from their ears.