We know that the earliest Christian movement was not monolithic. There were various groups and doctrines and it took some time to sort things out. As you would expect.
To begin with, there had been a larger renewal movement going on in Judaism when John was baptizing, and around him one part of that movement coalesced. Not all of John’s movement went over to the Lord Jesus. John’s disciples saw Jesus as an ally, but not all them followed him. He had disappointed them. He was not fiery enough, and not saving Israel in the political and economic way they expected of the Messiah.
We know that even after John’s death at the hands of Herod, his movement continued in the Jewish diaspora of the Roman Empire. These disciples of John continued to repent so that God would forgive the sins of Israel and give it that political liberation which they could go back home to.
The movements of John and Jesus sometimes overlapped, and some of the John groups evolved into Jesus groups when they heard the news that God had raised Jesus from the dead, and so they had to adjust their beliefs and expectations, such as whether they should expect to meet the fullness of God’s saving presence only in Jerusalem or maybe right there where they were, in pagan Ephesus, for example.
To get close to God, don’t we go to the Holy City, or does God come to find us here? Is the temple in Jerusalem the dwelling place for God’s Spirit or dare we think that God’s Spirit may fully dwell in us? And then, is God’s Spirit like a fire or like a dove? Is it the Spirit of judgment or the Spirit of peace? What about what John expected? Do we have to lose John to gain Jesus?
There is always both losing and gaining in religion. In Holy Baptism there is losing and gaining. The losing is in the repentance, in the surrender, when you give up, when you lose yourself. The gaining is in the Holy Spirit, that God has come to find you to dwell in you, and the Spirit is in you to help you find yourself. You gain enlightenment, when within you God says, “Let there be light,” you gain illumination for your vision of yourself.
You gain your new creation of yourself and the beginning of an evolution in you, and it will take its time, because God is very slow. Not millions of years as with the evolution of God’s creation, but months and seasons and decades with you, and the rest of your life of discipleship is always both your losing and your gaining.
For the disciples of John in pagan Ephesus there was losing in the gaining. To be able to speak God’s word in any language now implied the loss of the special privilege of their Hebrew. To be full of God’s indwelling Spirit implied they must let go of their patriotic dreams for the temple in Jerusalem, and even the privilege of their Jewish ethnicity. They will have to adjust their ethics from preservation to participation. Do we have to blend in now?
Is that what it means for the Holy Spirit to speak in any language indiscriminately? Is God just blending in? Is that God’s mission? Where’s our edge? Religion needs an edge. Where’s our boundary, religion needs boundaries. Is this how it will feel, from now on? Will it always feel so fluid, so liquid, like walking on water?
Well, yes, or if not on the water then in it and through it all the time. You’re always kind of wet. I mean, if you’re in Christ, then you’re as wet as he is when he comes out of the water. Maybe that’s why the Spirit came as a dove, because the Lord Jesus was too wet for the fire which John expected.
This dove above the water of the river evokes the dove that Noah sent out from the ark to fly above the receding of the Flood, and bringing back to Noah’s hand the olive branch of peace. The water evokes the waters at Creation, that ancient deep, which God blew upon, and the warm breath from God’s mouth brought life into the void.
In another way of translating the Hebrew of Genesis 1, the Spirit of God brooded upon the face the deep like a bird upon a nest, so that the warmth of God’s Spirit softened up the formless void enough for it to hear God’s Word and obey, and suddenly the darkness of the deep was illuminated by the light. And God saw the light, and it was good.
The creation story gets recapitulated in the baptism of Jesus. The voice that said, “Let there be light,” now says, “You are my son.” The breath of God over the face of the waters is now the dove above the river. Creation begets the new creation, new life rising out of the water, the Light of the World, and God saw his light, and God saw that he was good, and God said, “In you I am well pleased.”
Your own baptism means many things, even if you don’t remember it; it is the sign of many wonders. You are adopted as God’s child. You are incorporated into Christ, and included in his death and resurrection. You receive the Holy Spirit, in which the whole of God dwells in you as God’s temple.
It means your new creation, the creation of the new you, your second nature, never separated from your old nature, always together, the new one always converting the old one and forgiving it, even loving it as it slowly dies away, until you die and only your new one will be left. That’s the losing in the gaining. It means enlightenment, so that you recognize God’s Word for you and for the world. It means illumination, that you can envision your way in the world. And it means repentance, when you lose yourself, but you lose yourself in God.
You are baptized only once, for all of your life, but no matter how far off it was, the reality of it is not maintained by you or by your faithfulness, the reality of it is maintained by God. It doesn’t matter that you don’t remember it, because God does, because God, outside of time, is holding that sign in sight. God sees you as wet.
I’m not the first one to describe the Christian life as “walking wet”. The phrase combines the New Testament image of baptismal water with the Old Testament image of halakhah, the Hebrew word for walking, for life with God as a “long obedience in the same direction” (Eugene Peterson).
We are calling our new adult discipleship program The Walk, which we initiate today, by welcoming our eight new Walkers. It’s our modern version of an ancient practice called the Catechumenate, and our eight participants would be called Catechumens. It’s ancient in the mystical way that it integrates the mysteries of the sacraments as well as the holidays of the Christian calendar which connect us to the life of Christ.
On this first Sunday of Epiphany is the Rite of Welcome, when we rejoice in what we gain. On the first Sunday of Lent they will come before us again for the Rite of the Cross, and Lent is when we look at what we lose. They walk towards Easter, actually Easter Eve, when we will initiate the ancient worship service of the Easter Vigil, the time for baptisms and for confirmations of previous baptisms. That service will be quite wet. The Christian life is “walking wet.”
Thirteen years ago, when I came here, I told the search committee of my vision for The Walk. Well, now it’s time. God is slow, but God is always on time. I envision it as not just for these eight, but for the benefit of all of you who are hosting them, for the benefit of our congregation, that it may enhance the passionate spirituality that we have long desired. You will welcome them today and you will bless them. Enjoy them, project yourself on them, pray for them as they will pray for you, and let their walking wet encourage you in your own walk with God.
On them you can see God’s mission. I have been saying that God’s great general mission is to save and renew the world, including the creation that God made, and that you have your own part to contribute to that. At the same time God’s mission is to save and renovate each individual one of you. Each one of you is like the whole world to God.
I don’t mean that you are at the center of the universe, sorry. That’s what you have to lose. What you gain is the presence in your life of the God who is at the center of the universe. What you gain is light in your life, so that your life is not a formless void, nor deep darkness, but everything in you gets illuminated, so that you can see God’s purpose in what you thought was the void of your life, and God’s meaning in what you worried was the formlessness of your life. You gain peace with yourself.
It takes a while. You know it took billions of years for God’s creation to evolve the eye to see God’s light. God is slow, but always on time. It is God’s light that makes you able to see God’s light. It is God’s voice that makes you able to hear God’s voice. It is God’s Spirit that makes you able to believe it when God says this to you: “You are my child, my beloved, and in you I am well-pleased.”
Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.