January 10, 2016
Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
I heard on the news that Friday would have been Elvis Pressley’s 81 birthday and that over in Memphis at Graceland there were going to be a lot of Elvis impersonators—and of course some of those guys just look ridiculous, while a few look a lot like the King himself. Some of these guys can even sing. But if we were ever tempted to believe that Elvis had returned from the dead what we’d really want to compare would be his character—does the impersonator have the same character, the same view on life, and the same agenda, as the original?
One week after the resurrection you remember the apostle Thomas says he’s not going to believe this is really Jesus risen from the dead unless he can examine the body of this intruder to see if he looks like Jesus did the last time he saw him which was on the cross.
In this morning’s reading from Acts we’re less than a year after the resurrection and the apostles have a chance to see if this Risen Jesus, who they believe is active in their lives through the Holy Spirit, has the same character as the Jew from Nazareth they had gotten to know so well.
This is a vital question for us as well, because sometimes the church portrays a Jesus that bears almost no resemblance to the one who encounters us in the gospels.
For instance, some churches say the Risen Jesus is all about family values, yet the Jesus the apostles knew calls disciples to break away from their families, abandoning father and mother to face old age alone in order to follow him. He tells his blood relatives that the people he considers his real family are not them but those who do the will of his father in heaven. And of course Jesus himself never gets married to start a family of his own, so he’s got bigger fish to fry than pushing family values.
Other churches say the Risen Jesus is all about patriotism and the right to bring your guns to church, and supports all of America’s wars, but the New Testament Jesus tells folks they can give Caesar’s money back to Caesar, but what is really important is giving total allegiance only to God and God’s Kingdom, and by the way, he is also non-violent, calling us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and above all treat strangers and even our enemies with forgiveness and love.
And other, more mainline churches, appeal to Jesus in order to support the status quo. The Episcopal Church told my generation that Jesus was as formal and stuffy as our parents, and would never do anything to rock the boat, yet throughout his ministry Jesus constantly challenges the status quo and even makes his disciples uncomfortable any chance he gets, like in his parables and his concern for the salvation of the rich. More recently parents like it when their teenagers start wearing bracelets that said, WWJD, what would Jesus do, but they obviously forgot about the Jesus who overturns the tables in the Temple or violates the Sabbath, or eats most of his meals with prostitutes and alcoholics.
So, in the reading from Acts this morning, the apostles get strong confirmation that this is the real Jesus is running loose in the world, when they hear that people in Samaria are giving their lives to Christ and being baptized into his risen life.
The apostles are probably thinking—what dear soul took the good news of Jesus to the Samaritans? Turns out it was Philip who was led by the Spirit to go to those half-breeds and heretics, who worship God on their own mountain, and not in Jerusalem, and who have the blood of Assyrians running through their veins. Samaritans of all people!
Yet, the apostles take a deep breath because they remember Jesus once told that story about the man who was left for dead by robbers and it wasn’t the priest or the deacon who helps the man, but a dirty Samaritan who saves the day!
This is obviously the same Jesus causing mischief and therefore Peter and John must go to see what Jesus is up to. They find the people were baptized into the Lord Jesus but they did not receive the Holy Spirit.
So they are left with a possible way out: since the Holy Spirit wasn’t part of this baptism experience, they could have concluded that this wasn’t of God after all. But that’s not what they did: They could see Jesus was at work bringing them into God’s Kingdom, so they laid hands on them and prayed for God to release the Holy Spirit upon them.
And we might wonder how can they tell if the Holy Spirit shows up after they pray? Easy, the Spirit manifests among the Samaritans in the same way She does for the disciples: with a visible enthusiasm to tell through word and deed about the incredible love of God for broken-down sinners like themselves. They are set on fire with Jesus’ love and filled with the desire to take that love and to stand with those who feel unloved and unlovable.
Of course there really is only one baptism and that’s the baptism of Jesus, in which we are participating in when we are baptized. So if we are part of Jesus’ baptism what is going on?
First, Jesus is freely and completely surrendering to the will and Lordship of God. It was the Father’s command that Jesus be baptized. In this act Jesus gives himself to God—head, heart, soul, body, past, present, and future. As we say today, “He’s all in!”. Baptism for Jesus is a total immersion in water, symbolizing a total immersion into God. (–Which is why I sometimes worry what we are communicating when we only sprinkle the water!)
But Second, Jesus is also, at the same time and in the same event, freely and completely surrendering himself to humanity, to the human race, to you and me. And not just to the successful and the well-scrubbed, but also to the sick, the sinful, and to the non-believers. Everyone is being invaded by Jesus as he goes into that water. As a friend says, Jesus goes down into our dirty bathwater to share our nature, whether we want him to or not, in order to make us clean.
And this union of God and humanity is forever: this is not like the stories of a king who takes on the clothes of the peasant, so he can wander around among the ordinary people, but at the end of the day he drops the disguise, puts on his robes and sits at table with lords and ladies and lots of good food. No, Jesus’ immersion into the human race, made visible in baptism, is to our very depths and is forever. Even now at the right hand of the Father Jesus holds us with him. This is the point of those silly medieval paintings of the Ascension showing people watching Jesus’ feet disappear into the clouds. There are human feet in heaven—which right there ought to make us rethink what heaven must be and why the New Creation to come isn’t a mental abstraction. See Karl Barth Church Dogmatics IV.4, page 50ff This Jesus has us with Him and the Father!
This Jesus has no interest in the status quo, because, as Ronald Reagan used to say, “Status Quo” is Latin for the mess we’re in now and Jesus wants to free us from our slavery to all kinds of idolatry of self, family, money, and nation.
Whether it was 80 years ago or today, in baptism Jesus immerses us into God, and grasps us by the Holy Spirit and liberates us from the prison of our wounded images of God and ourselves, liberated now to go to friend and stranger, bearing witness to our unsettling, life-giving, love-making Triune God. And if you say you’re not sure you received Holy Spirit at your baptism—not to worry—for Holy Spirit is already present, waiting on your “Yes”.