“I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Mark 1:8
A washing or baptism ritual for cleansing has been practiced for many centuries, long before the coming of the group called Christians around 2000 years ago. The word “baptism” comes from a Greek word, baptizo meaning simply to dip or wash clean. A similar ritual was prevalent in many of the ancient eastern Mediterranean countries, perhaps through similar Jesus stories that I have previously talked and written about.
A form of baptism, similar to the baptism of the church, was observed years ago in the Cherokee Native American tribe. It was so similar some argued the Cherokee might well be among the “ten lost tribes of Israel.” (Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Lost Light: An Interpretation of Scriptures.) But what does this ritual or rite mean?
Baptism as a ritual cleansing means that we as human beings, at our very core and essence are sinless and perfect. It is the meaning expressed in the baptism of Jesus in the gospels when being baptized by John the Baptist. When Jesus arose up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart, with a dove of peace descending upon him and a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11)
For centuries and for most of us, we were taught this did not apply to us; it was only Jesus who was anointed and declared to be God’s Son. The church in the 4th century, after a long debate, finally declared that this Jesus, which actually had no convincing historical proof of existence, was one and equal with God. This was a reaction led by people such as Alexander, Bishop over Alexandria and his priest/teacher friend Athanasius again a priest name Arius. Arius taught that Jesus was but a teacher and model of living on earth with the awareness of himself as God’s Divine Son, an awareness we can all experience by an awakening. (Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas)
Thus emerged the Orthodox view that we were lost sinners with Jesus the perfect God man as our only Savior through trust in his blood to save us from eternal hell! In the Reformation years of the sixteenth century, we who were descendants of the Calvinist tradition were taught of our innate sinfulness, our total depravity as human beings.
In reading David McCullough’s recent book titled, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, he quotes a letter from Oliver Wendell Holmes just before embarking in 1830 to study medicine in Paris. In leaving his New England roots he wrote of his desired relief from the “sameness and heaviness of his Calvinism at home.” Holmes wrote, “We learned not only that we were a set of little fallen wretches exposed to the wrath of God by the fact that existence which we could not help. I do not think we believe a word of it.”
And so the understanding of water baptism over many centuries in many minds was that it was a necessary ritual to cleanse us from that original sin. In so doing I believe we lost a central meaning to the beauty of this ritual. In my understanding it is a ritual to celebrate our divine essence as God Sons and Daughters. It affirms that God wants us to succeed in love, compassion and kindness as we grow to accept our identity as spiritual essence in oneness with God our Creator.
Thus the water baptism ritual is not something done in a magical hope of escape from pain but in the magical idea of an inner essence of oneness with God and each other. This presence is always within us but so easily forgotten and unremembered. Without this understanding the ritual can be seen as a kind of “fire insurance” against what is assumed to be a literal hell. Hell, is I have tried to say before is not a literal place but a description of our thinking and living without the awareness of eternal hope and oneness.
Water baptism however is only the first part of the ritual. It’s the event of having physical water poured on, sprinkled in, or engulfing us in baptisms. The second part is the experience or the realization of its truth. This is summarized in the words from Mark’s gospel where John the Baptist says, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8) Today’s water baptism is the outward external manifestation; the experience of being aware of our Divinity is the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The first baptism is like a promised trip to Hawaii; the second baptism is experiencing Maui! The first baptism is the promise of eating a delicious meal; the second baptism is eating of it! The first baptism is thinking about marriage; the second baptism is doing it! The first baptism is attending a worship or prayer service; the second baptism is being overcome with deep joy and a sense of being transported to a new dimension!
In the Bible book of acts, chapter 19 we read how apostle Paul comes to the city of Ephesus and he asked the disciples there, “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 Paul 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 them, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, it says they were then baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Paul laid his hands on them, and the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied!” See the difference?
Baptism in the Holy Spirit was illustrated in the old Hebrew book of Second Samuel chapter 6. It says when King David realized the Holy Ark of God had been brought back to the city of Jerusalem he began to dance before the Lord with all his might! He danced girded with only a linen Ephod or small apron. And when Michal the daughter of King Saul and David’s wife looked out the window and saw David leaping and dancing like a wild man, she despised him in her heart! And if you remember the rest of the story she was punished by having no children for her criticism of David’s wild dancing before the ark of the Lord.
Last Sunday night at the little home Bible study meditation in the Doll home, I was asked about the experience of “speaking in tongues.” To me “speaking in tongues” represents a kind of ecstatic language that people express when feeling great joy. You’ll hear it at a football or hockey game or various sport event when your candidate or side wins! Often it’s expressed when people feel a deep sense of joy and peace and a transcendent oneness. It happens when a golfer gets a hole-in-one!
Most Calvinist followers such as Presbyterians tend to spurn these outbursts of deep feelings of joy. We hardly know what to do when someone experiences overwhelming joy in one of our worship services. We hardly know how to deal with handclapping to say nothing of people shouting out gibberish in unknown tongues!
The story is told of a Presbyterian minister with a great gift of speaking. A visitor came to the services one day and after the minister began to speak his sermon, the visitor would often shout out, “Amen! Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!” After about the second or third outbursts a stern usher walked down the aisle and looked over at the visitor and asked in a deep voice, “What in the world are you doing?” The visitor replied, “I am praising the Lord!” And the usher replied, “Not in this place!”
A water baptism with affirmations of our oneness with God and all humanity irrespective of race, nationality or religion without a deep sense of feeling in spirit can be deadening. It’s like a marriage without romance, a honeymoon without sexual intimacies, a wonderful dinner menu without food.
When I moved here in 1976, many Roman Catholic churches were featuring what were called “Folk Services.” They involved the use of guitars, drums and songs filled with handclapping and hugs. Attendances were increasing in these services but then the Pope decided to ban them as dangerous. Many non-Catholics were also attending and they were developing a strong sense of oneness transcending their beliefs and different forms. And with the banning of these wonderful services of singing, even speaking in tongues, the drop in attendance and interest resumed.
Baptism is a wonderful reminder that we are all One in Spirit. We say it, we affirm it in ourselves and in our infants and children. But pray and seek to feel it, to understand its deeper meaning and joy, and may it be felt and freely expressed in our lives and times of prayer and sharing together. Amen.
Talk shared by Rev. David G. Persons, November 13, 2011, at the 1st Presbyterian Church of West Seneca, NY, 10:00 a.m.