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The Rev. Barbara Berry-Bailey The Rev. Barbara Berry-Bailey

The Rev. Barbara Berry-Bailey is the Associate Director for Companionship - Africa for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, headquartered in Chicago, IL.

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


I Thought We Believed in Only One Baptism

Acts 19:1-7

January 09, 2000

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed though the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" They replied, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." Then he said, "Into what then were you baptized?" They answered, "Into John's baptism." Paul said, "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus." On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied -- altogether there were about twelve of them.

What I wonder about these followers in Ephesus, these disciples is this: How would their lives have been any different if they had heard that there was a Holy Spirit? We are not told in this text how they lived their lives, only that they were under the impression that they had been baptized into John's baptism and not into the baptism of Jesus the Christ. They totally misunderstood what their baptism was all about.

We know what John said, which was "Repent and believe in the one who was coming after him." The questions are what did those disciples of John hear and as a result, how did they live their lives.

Having been a film student in my undergraduate years, I must admit that I was then as I am now a frequent buyer--of movie tickets that is. And I am not one to frequent horror films, but I recall studying the independent horror classic "Night of the Living Dead," a film about a day when the unburied dead were unexplainably reanimated and roamed around killing the living. Since we were discussing this film in class, much to my dismay, I had to go to see the movie and this was long before home video so I could not fast forward through the scary parts.

Several years later a sequel was released, "Dawn of the Dead." And though I refused to sit through another one of those, the movie critics television program focused on a particular scene of that film in which the zombies would roam mindlessly through a shopping mall. Two living, breathing men had been sneaking around and studying the habits of these zombies and one man asked the other, "Why do they come here? What are they doing?" The other man replied, "Going to the mall is something they recall from their living days. They are now dead and it has no meaning. It's just something they do automatically."

Does this sound familiar? What spiritual fruit given to you in your baptism has died? What killed it? Or is it just petrified? Or maybe you have not been baptized at all.

I once met a man who was a faithful visitor in my congregation. He attended worship every Sunday, even joined the choir. When I asked him about joining the congregation, he said he refused to stand up there in front of all those people and admit that he had never been baptized. To him, to be baptized as an adult meant to admit that there was something unworthy within him. I reminded him that we all do it every Sunday when we confess our sin. We all say out loud that we are unworthy. We also confess, that is, say out loud, that in God's mercy, when we admit that we are unworthy, God makes us worthy. Since he had already taken the first step in his verbal confession and the second step in his association in a community of faith, I invited him to continue to rejoice in the dance. Take the next step and you will not stand alone. Not only does his sponsor stand with him, I told him, but the entire community in Christ stands with you, those present, those who are in our worship space, and those who are baptized in faraway places, in cities whose names we cannot even pronounce. In your baptism, the church of Christ stands with you. It was some shindig that Easter vigil when he was baptized.

Of all the details that the writer of Luke and Acts tend to give us in other accounts, many details are left out of this account of Paul in Ephesus. What in the world made Paul ask them if they had received the Holy Spirit. I know if I were to come upon people whom I knew were fellow Christians, I'm certain the first thing that I would ask them would not be, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" That is, not unless something about the way they conducted themselves belied their profession of Jesus Christ as Lord.

Perhaps these Christians for some reason did not display all the outward signs of the Spirit's presence in their lives. Perhaps the gifts of the Spirit were not readily obvious to Paul and this unlikely behavior prompted Paul to ask in essence, "Has the Holy Spirit touched your life?" And the answer they give to him in essence is, "No, what is that?"

We believe that the Holy Spirit comes to us in our baptism at which we confess our faith in the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Though these followers had received the water, they did not receive the word. John the baptizer may have transmitted it but they did not receive the word, and by the words of their own mouths, they proclaimed what John did as invalid. Christian baptism is not just some water being splashed or poured or being immersed in. It is water and the word. It is about drowning to sin and rising to a new life daily in Jesus Christ. That's what makes it baptism. These followers of John in Ephesus did not confess Jesus but rather someone else. They did not believe, they did not know, understand, they did not comprehend what that water thing was all about. And so St. Paul baptized them, not a second time but the first time, into Jesus and then they received the Holy Spirit.

As a parish pastor in the city of Philadelphia, I have had the blessing of encountering people from various Christian traditions--people who were born into one denomination, raised in another, joined another as an adult, and yet another when they come to join my congregation. People who are looking for something to fill the void and in their searching they have been baptized as many as three times. "When I joined another church, they told me my baptism was not valid," one woman said to me and she asked if I would baptize her yet another time.

But I assured her that she was baptized into Jesus, not Luther or Wesley or Calvin, but Jesus, and as long as she believed in Jesus as the Christ and had been baptized, that is, received the water and the word, then a reaffirmation is all that was necessary to become a member of our particular community of faith. But I also assured her that, though we believe in one baptism, the fact that another pastor had demanded a second baptism does not condemn her.

You have heard it said, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." Truly, I tell you the proof of the gift of the Holy Spirit given to us at our baptism and dwelling in us is in the way in which we live our lives, how we relate to God and how we relate to others.

Maybe in spite of our original baptism, there are times when we look like zombies, mindlessly going through the motions of worship, standing when commanded, singing when necessary and totally tuned out by the time the proclamation of the word is upon us.

At times in life, we may be tempted to show more concern and respect for tropical fish than for our family members. At times we may be tempted to show more concern and respect for Marilyn Monroe's wardrobe than for co-workers or fellow workers with us in the kingdom of God. There are times in the life of, not even, but especially, Christians, when our anthem is not "Blessed be the Tie that Binds," but rather "You've Lost that Loving Feeling." And I would imagine people look at us and wonder if we have ever heard of the Holy Spirit. Has the Holy Spirit touched our lives because the evidence of the Spirit's presence is, well, not evident. There are times when the baptized who have confessed Jesus Christ as Lord seem like the living dead.

But baptism is not a one shot deal. Though there may have only been one ceremony, living our baptism is something that occurs every day. Every night we die to sin and the next day rise to newness of life. And when we hear the Word of God, the Holy Spirit gives us not only a new life but a new heart. Not only a new heart but a new will. Not only a new will but a new vision. And through the gift of the Holy Spirit, you will be able to see things tantamount to the heavens being torn apart. You may be that messenger of the external word that someone needs to hear to kindle the living fire of the Spirit. And that is what it means to prophesy, to speak the word of the Lord at just the right moment in someone's life.

May Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit in whose name we are baptized infuse us with the power to live our baptism in trust in God, in hope of the life to come and in love for others. Amen.

Let's pray:

Almighty God, giver of all things, in water and the word, you have made us your own. You call us to be a light to the world. We pray that your Spirit would move in us that all that we do will give glory to you, that our actions, our very being are worthy of the name we bear, the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


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