Baptism-Shaped Life

Who baptized Jesus? Well, that's an easy one. John the Baptist. But it's not quite that simple-not like asking, "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?" At least, it's not so simple as Luke tells the story. There are some rather intriguing verses that were left out of today's reading. Most of this third chapter of Luke follows the story of John's ministry found also in Matthew and Mark. John is the voice crying in the wilderness, John baptizing hundreds who came out to be baptized, John making it clear that he isn't the Messiah: "I baptize you with water," he said, "but one who is more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." So far, so good. But then Luke adds a little interlude about Herod being very upset with John, angry because John had charged him with stealing his brother's wife. Indeed, Luke tells us Herod was so upset that he shut John up in prison.

Then the story goes on as we heard it. "Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…." What are we to make of this? How could John baptize Jesus if John was in prison? Or is Luke simply writing about something that had already happened before Herod imprisoned John? If we listen carefully, we might notice that Luke says nothing about Jesus' baptism. There's nothing here about Jesus going down into the water or coming up out of the water. We probably assume that this happened as the other gospels tell the story, but Luke doesn't seem to care. Indeed, Luke doesn't seem very interested in the actual moment of baptism, only what happened after baptism. This may seem rather distressing since the name of this day of the church year is "The Baptism of Our Lord." Yet, whatever disappointment we may feel about Luke's lack of attention to the moment of baptism may redirect our attention to what happens after the water has dried.

Luke is very interested in that. He is passionate about telling the story of Jesus who lived a baptism-shaped life. There are clues to this way of life running through Luke's gospel like a baptismal river-even if Luke hasn't said anything about Jesus being in the river. The first clue is prayer. Jesus was praying. It was while he was praying, not while he was in the river, that the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. Why the attention on bodily form? Well, I suppose one reason is that would be the only way to see the dove. But there's something far more important going on. The Holy Spirit is not disembodied. We dare not make the Holy Spirit too amorphous or ethereal or imaginary or disconnected from the things of earth. At least, not as Luke tells the story. There's no room here for a dangerous dualism that splits all of life into Spirit versus body. The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in bodily form like a dove and dwelt within the body of Jesus. What God has joined together, let no one tear asunder.

After the Holy Spirit descended, a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased." There's no indication that anyone other than Jesus heard these words. Luke also makes it clear that Jesus heard these words while he was praying. In the moment of prayer, the Holy Spirit descended upon him-not out of the blue, not like a lightning strike, not without preparation or openness. Jesus was praying, centering his life in the presence of God in a very intentional way; and it was then that he heard the voice from heaven. We will see this happening over and over in Jesus' life, praying at moments of crisis and discernment and times in between. Not only that, we will see prayer as a mark of the baptism-shaped life as Luke's story continues in the Book of Acts. Now, that's very important, because Acts tells the story of what happens after Jesus ascends into heaven, leaving the disciples alone. And this is precisely where we live also, in that time after Jesus has left the earth, and we are here in bodily form. Prayer shaped the life of those early believers. In the first chapter of Acts, the disciples, including many women, were together in Jerusalem and were "constantly devoting themselves to prayer." Shortly after that time of prayer, the Holy Spirit came upon them in a rush of mighty wind and something that looked like tongues of fire. Luke wants us to see the connections, doesn't he? Jesus prayed and the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form upon him. The believers prayed and the Holy Spirit came upon them in forms that they could hear and see. If Jesus prayed and the early believers prayed-well, I don't know about you-but maybe I should spend more time praying rather than waiting for God to come like a bolt out of the blue.

"Pray," says Luke. After baptism, pray-whether you believe in infant baptism or believers' baptism, whether you believe baptism is a visible sign of God's commitment to you or your commitment to God. Frankly, Luke doesn't seem interested in such debates. But he's very interested in life after baptism. That's why he says so much about prayer-and why he says so much about the Holy Spirit. But too much talk about the Spirit makes some people nervous because, well, it's hard to define, and sometimes people claim the Spirit for their own purposes.

Several years ago, I was asked to speak in Buenos Aires at a gathering of youth delegates preparing for the Lutheran World Federation meeting. The theme of the gathering was "Come, Holy Spirit;" and since that was the theme, that's what I was asked to talk about. Two days after my speech, three young men came to me. They were very agitated about what I had said and how I had said it. They were all seminary students. "Your speech was too emotional," one of them said. "With that kind of talk, you could sell washing machines." I kept listening to them, though I was quite doubtful that I could really sell washing machines. Finally, they got to the heart of the problem: the Holy Spirit. Even though that was the conference theme, they were very uncomfortable with such talk. "No one has ever seen the Holy Spirit," one of them said. Another joined in, saying, "The Holy Spirit could be anything!" Then banging his hand on the table, he shouted, "The Holy Spirit could be this table!"

"No one has ever seen God," I responded, "so could God be this table?"

"That's why we have systematic theology!" he said, and all three of them walked away.

Luke can help us here, even though he's not a systematic theologian. The Holy Spirit isn't just anything we imagine. The Spirit descended on Jesus in bodily form, and we see the Spirit moving in the life of Jesus. Luke insists on keeping Spirit and body together. We heard this theme while Jesus was still in the womb when his mother Mary sang a powerful song of praise to God, "My soul magnifies the Lord," she sang, "and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." Then her song goes on in praise to God with words that have everything to do with bodies:

You have shown strength with your arm,
and have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
You have brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

After baptism Jesus echoed his mother's song when he spoke his first public words in his home town of Nazareth. He stood up in the synagogue and found the place where the prophet Isaiah wrote:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor,
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

After Jesus sat down he said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." These bold justice words from Isaiah defined Jesus' ministry from that day forward-it would be a bodily ministry shaped by the anointing of the Spirit.

We see Jesus caring about bodies wracked with pain or bound by demonic powers, Jesus touching those nobody else would touch. We see Jesus feeding hungry people and eating with those who never got invited. We hear Jesus tell a parable about a Samaritan who stops to bandage the body of a stranger; it was Jesus' way of defining what it means to be a neighbor. We weep as Jesus puts his very body on the line in faithfulness to God who sent the Spirit upon him. Three days later we rejoice with the women who bring news that Jesus is alive. Though the disciples didn't believe the women, they soon saw for themselves when Jesus appeared in their midst saying, "Peace be with you." And in the midst of their fright, he says, "Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." Then he makes a very ordinary request, "Have you anything here to eat?" And they give him a piece of broiled fish. How down to earth can you get?

Spirit and body joined together in the life of Jesus. Spirit and body held together also on the day of Pentecost. Do you remember that story? Of the Holy Spirit coming upon believers in wind and fire? Acts 2 tells the story. People from every nation hear the untrained disciples speaking in their own languages. Then Peter stands up and recalls words from the prophet Joel and preaches an amazing sermon that led 3,000 to be baptized. What a day! But that was not the end of the story. Those who were baptized devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers - there's that reminder about prayer again. But even that wasn't the end of the story. Here's how the story ends: "All those who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." (Acts 2:44-45) Pentecost ends too soon when we don't read to the very bodily end of the story. Baptism ends too soon when we focus only on the moment and forget what comes after the water has dried: a baptism-shaped life where God's Spirit dwells within our very bodies. What God has joined together, let no one tear asunder.

Please pray with me.

Gracious God, we thank you for breath and clay, for wind and prayer, for spirit and body. Pour out your Holy Spirit now upon us, upon and within our bodies. Help us to live in faithfulness to you long after the water has dried. Amen.