Zoom Church St John and St Stephen’s, Reading
19While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2He 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.’ 3Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ 4Paul 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.’ 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— 7altogether there were about twelve of them.
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
The Baptism of Jesus
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
At the beginning of this new year, it might be a good time to take stock and ask ourselves ‘where are we today?’ Well, we’re online. Again. We’re in lockdown no. 3.
We’re in January, the month in which the saddest day of the year falls in approximately 10 days’ time. We’re at the start of the third decade of the 21st century. We’re in the middle of possibly the worst stage of the coronavirus pandemic with the NHS reportedly ‘on the brink’. But we’re also at the start of a nationwide roll out of the vaccine that will get us through to the other side. And we’re in Epiphany.
Where is our world at the moment? There’s been a programme on radio 4 asking this question – you might like to have a listen on iPlayer. The daily 15-minute slot aired Monday – Friday each morning at 9.45 am. In each episode someone who leads in their particular field read their essay entitled “A letter to the 21st Century” on its coming of age (turning 21). I had a vested interest in tuning in as Tuesday’s essay was given by the Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund and cited climate change as the most pressing issue of our time. The essay happened to have been written by my daughter!
Where is our community of Newtown at the moment? Well, I walked down to the church the other day and noticed the Sun Street Community Centre all beautifully refurbished and ready, right down to the green baize grass outside, but looking suspiciously as though there was no one inside, no doubt due to the current restrictions. Meanwhile the gas tower art exhibition which we would have hosted last summer has moved online and is still attracting a lot of attention; it’s as though a community has gathered around this important landmark and we all wonder if 2021 will finally be the year when it disappears. And thirdly, also online is news of a new youth and community hub opening in Cholmeley Road, and a Facebook video of the refurbishment and where it has got to so far. That was news to me. And have you noticed how someone is painting the utility covers at the side of the roads across our parish, with interesting and uplifting words: Look. Hope. Unity.
In the wider community this week Reading was shattered to hear of the death by stabbing of a 13-year-old boy in Emmer Green. Three other young teenagers were taken into custody in connection with the murder. How is it in our town that 13-year-olds are wandering in a park in daylight carrying lethal weapons they intend to use? What has happened in our society with our young people to make this possible?
And where are you today? Tired? Hopeful? Despondent? Worried about 2021? Are you in a better place than you were last spring when all this began, or a worse one?
Are you sad or bereaved? Perhaps you’re waiting for medical intervention or recovering from some? Perhaps worship and homegroups being online has been the best thing as far as you’re concerned. Perhaps it’s been the worst. Whatever, it’s always good to take stock. So, where are we?
As mentioned, liturgically we’re in Epiphany. We’ve celebrated God’s light being revealed to those who were not naturally God’s people – the Magi from the East. And today we see Jesus coming for baptism. It may not be obvious what the link is, but if we stick to God’s glory being revealed in different ways to different people, we’ll be on the right track through Epiphany.
So where is Jesus today, in this reading? He is at the very start of his ministry.
For Mark, writing his somewhat breathless account of Jesus’ life, the nativity is dispensed with and John the Baptist opens the first chapter. Jesus is baptised within the first 9 verses – there’s no hanging around. So, Jesus is at the start of his public ministry. What else is going on?
He is straddling the two covenants – or two testaments – the Old and the New. And as such, his baptism is significantly different from the baptism that John had been offering to the Jews. John knew the significance of this different type of baptism; he said: ‘the one who is more powerful than me is coming after me…I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit’ (Mark 1:7-8).
And the apostle Paul knew the difference too. We read in Acts that during his missionary travels he came across ‘some disciples’ who had been baptised with water, but not the Spirit. It’s a very interesting little passage. For some reason he asks them ‘did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ I wonder why he asked them that? Was it somehow obvious to Paul that these disciples were missing something? We don’t really know, but it’s an interesting thought. They are disciples of Jesus, but they don’t have the Spirit. It’s puzzling and also challenging. Is this a thing, to be a disciple but miss the main point; to be a disempowered disciple?
I’m wondering if that should make us think a little? Are there disciples in our churches who have somehow missed out on receiving the Holy Spirit? It’s always struck me how outsiders to the church assume that everyone believes everything inside the church. Sometimes there can be more evidence of God outside than in.
Anyway, Paul asks them his question, ‘did you receive the Holy Spirit?’ and they respond: ‘We haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit’. (Which kind of makes me laugh, in a sort of desperate way; it’s like every vicar’s worst nightmare. I’m imagining a scenario where there’s a special church event which the vicar is worried no one will attend, and the vicar approaches you and asks: ‘are you coming?’ and it’s not just a ‘no, I’m not coming’, but ‘I haven’t even heard of it’!)
This phenomenon of disciples who’ve not heard there is a Holy Spirit or who have in some way misunderstood the faith, should encourage us that no amount of heterodoxy should debar anyone from being blessed by God.
Which reminds me of a somewhat uncomfortable occasion when I agreed to take a baptism of a baby at rather short notice. The mother had had a series of very difficult life events, and had fallen out with her local priest. I’d already baptised one of her children and this second time around, I think we only had one session of preparation at which I was mostly trying to remember if this was the same partner as she had had the time before, or someone different, and what surnames I should be writing in the register. As the special Sunday drew near, I fell ill, and my colleague had to step in to take the service at the last minute. Our small congregation had swollen to five times its size as the mother had invited everyone she knew, and in every sense, it was a BIG OCCASION. My colleague, who’s a bit more relaxed than me, assuming I’d done some thorough theological preparation with the family, asked the mother if she’d like to say a few words at the font. The mother duly stepped forward and announced to the whole congregation how happy she was that her child had been baptised, because when baptised children die, they automatically turn into angels.
When this was reported to me later, I nearly died of ministerial embarrassment. But I have to say I remember that lady as the most enthusiastic champion of infant baptism I’ve ever come across. And a natural evangelist (hence all the guests). It was obvious that God was at work in her life.
So back to Jesus. Here he is, standing before John the Baptist, submitting to baptism, and as he rises out of the water, we are told the heavens are torn open and the Spirit descends like a dove. Two events contrasted by their similes: the ‘tearing open’ phrase is from the Greek ‘skizomenous’ from which we get schizophrenic (split personality) and schism (an irrevocable split in the Church). And then the Spirit descends gently. It rests upon Jesus, as portrayed in many a classical painting (one of which Richard Croft led us through in his sermon this time last year). In fact, the Spirit could also be said to have ‘gone into’ Jesus if you look at the pronoun used in the Greek.
So here is Jesus, at the still point of receiving the Spirit before he goes into action.
Moreover, he hears the voice of God declaring ‘this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’. At this still moment, the source of Jesus’ power is revealed as love. Being beloved. The love of the triune God that holds everything together invites me in, invites you in. And this love is offered to Jesus before he does one day of ministry. Before the teachings, before the healings, before he confronts the wilderness.
This is the source of all we do, too: God’s prevenient, unconditional love. Contemplating God’s love leads to action, and action leads back to love. That’s how we function as the body of Christ in our fellowship. Do you know that assurance of God’s love, that even when you’re at the end of your own resources (and especially at this point) you are still precious in his eyes. Each of us needs to hear that voice: this is my beloved son; this is my beloved daughter; this is my beloved child.
Where are we today? Like Jesus, we are perhaps also at a crossroads. In lockdown 1 we mourned the loss of a normal church life. In lockdown 3 we have a chance to think about our identity – personally and as a church. We are called to be, and to do, just as Jesus was. As we consider who we are and where we’re going we might take comfort from what is emerging from the political upheaval in the States this week, that many of us will have followed on TV.
After four years of Donald Trump ends in the violent storming of the Capitol, I am forcefully struck by the evil of White Supremacy, of how it has a strangle hold on so many people still; how it brainwashes people and makes nationalism into a god; how it is intrinsically antithetical to the Way of Jesus.
I encourage you to catch up on what’s been happening in the state of Georgia as two new Senators have been elected this week. In the past two years, after narrowly missing out on being elected herself, black lawyer and activist Stacy Abrams began grassroots community organising. This was to encourage people of colour who felt like it wasn’t even worth voting, to cast their vote for change. She ran a movement called Black Voters Matter and for two years she and her team encouraged black people find their voice. I suspect this went largely unnoticed by the press. Van Jones, a political commentator, lawyer and author, said this on Wednesday, after their successful campaigning had delivered two new Democrat Senators: ‘Black joy won over White rage in Georgia’. One of the new Senators, Pastor Raphael Warnock, paid tribute to his 82-year-old mother who grew up in the Jim Crow South: ‘The other day, because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.’
This is something new emerging from chaos and injustice.
This is where we are today: poised on the brink of racial justice emerging from an unjust world that has been brutally unmasked by Covid. And we’re poised to address climate breakdown as the clock ticks away this decade. And perhaps the Church is poised to rediscover her identity, not in prestige or power, but as ‘the beloved’. None of this emerging renewal will come cheap. At the beginning of this new year, let’s hear again that voice that grounds us and readies us for action: ‘this is my beloved child: with them I am well pleased.’