Holy Spirit! Let’s Get Set on Fire and Drown!
Today we have an interesting juxtaposition: baptism and Pentecost. What do the two have in common?
There are four traditional baptism dates in the church year.
The first is Baptism of Our Lord, which takes place in January. That makes sense. Of course we would baptize people on the day in which we celebrate Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan.
The second is Easter Vigil, the Saturday night before Easter morning. This was the traditional baptism date in the early church.
The original purpose of Lent was to give people who wanted to be baptized time for instruction and preparation. They spent forty days learning about Christian life and discipleship, and then they were baptized at Easter Vigil, receiving communion for the first time on the Sunday of the Resurrection with great joy and festivity.
The third traditional baptism date is All Saints Day in November. The symbolism here is that when someone is baptized, we welcome them into the communion of saints, the fellowship of all believers, and all God’s people throughout time and space rejoice with us.
I’ve mentioned to several of you that I personally was baptized on December 26, the day after Christmas, which incidentally was in medieval times a popular date for baptizing illegitimate children.
You could sort of sneak them into the church when no one was there and avoid controversy and gossip.
I suspect my parents’ reason was more along the lines of having family in town for Christmas, but it’s kind of hilarious given that I turned out to be a priest.
But what about Pentecost, the last traditional date? Why baptize today?
Well, to answer that question, first we have to talk about what Pentecost is.
This is a very special feast day that celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Just as Christ was present from before time and forever, but only got introduced in corporeal form at a certain historical time and place, so was that true for the Holy Spirit.
It descended upon the apostles and gathered believers like tongues of fire on their heads, and they all began to proclaim the gospel in many different languages.
This is the first clue as to what will happen to Signe, Gabe and Esaias when they are baptized today.
They will now have the power to proclaim the gospel in their own language.
Are we ready to hear that?
(I’d particularly like to what Esaias has to say at this stage of the game.)
These children take up the language of the gospel today, just like the disciples did at the first Pentecost.
What can we learn from what they have to say?
We’re starting to approach the edges of what baptism really is.
Baptism is actually a very big deal.
Because we have these lovely cultural rituals around it like white dresses and cakes and little baptismal shells and towels, we’ve somewhat domesticated what is the central ritual of becoming a Christian person, of expressing that we trust Jesus Christ as our savior from the darkness.
Baptism is a symbolic reenactment of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
It is a mock drowning, in effect.
A human being cannot survive under water.
And so we plunge ourselves into water and die.
Luckily, it only takes a moment to do this, and then we have died to sin and death and arise up out of the water new creations, resurrected with Christ.
And that moment underwater is profound.
In that moment, we live all the Bible stories of water and danger—Jonah and the whale, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, Jesus calling Peter to walk on the water, the disciples lost at sea in a storm.
We live all those stories in that moment when the water comes pouring over our heads.
And there is one story in particular that connects us back to our original question: why are we doing this on Pentecost?
It goes back to the very first verse of the Bible. Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, and a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
That wind from God is the Holy Spirit.
The word in Greek is pneuma, which means breath.
The breath of God swept over the face of the chaotic waters, and the world was born.
Today the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, sweeps over the face of the waters in our font, and we have three new creations who will be born out of it.
That is why we baptize on Pentecost. Because water and the Holy Spirit were bound together since the beginning of the world.
But go back and picture again the Spirit moving over the deep at the beginning of creation.
The waters at that time were a place of darkness and chaos, and this is where the Spirit chose to go and create.
Another translation says that the Holy Spirit hovered over the face of the waters, like a loving mother, as though the Spirit was drawn there.
We might think of how that applies to our own lives.
Where do we find chaos and darkness in our lives?
Where do we find no calm, no ray of light?
The Spirit is drawn to that very place for the purpose of creating something new. How might that happen to us?
Of course the most visible symbol of the Holy Spirit in the story from Acts is fire, which is why we wear red on Pentecost.
We have our Paschal candle lit to bring us the light of Christ, and we will light three candles from it to give to Signe, Gabe, and Esaias, so they may take the light of Christ into the world.
We are human beings, and so we have to try to contain the immense power of God into objects and materials we can handle, like fonts and candles and baptismal shells and towels.
That’s what the sacramental life is, after all, channeling the power of God into humble ordinary things like bread and wine and water and oil.
But what we must never forget is that these symbolic objects are representing a power that we cannot control.
When we baptize on Pentecost, we are invoking drowning and getting set on fire.
That’s actually kind of terrifying.
We use water and fire not because they’re pretty but because they’re essentially uncontrollable by us as human beings.
These little candle flames and this little font represent fire like a forest fire raging across the land or a hurricane in an ocean.
That is the intensity of God’s love and desire for us.
And to act out our willingness to be utterly transformed by God, we plunge into the inferno and into the hurricane.
And so now perhaps you understand the profound act of trust and faith it is for Justin and Kristen to allow their children to experience this.
Baptism is not safe.
We are changed by it, that’s the whole point, and we are signing up for a life of being changed, being formed and transformed into who God created us to be.
Justin and Kristen will hand over their children to me to lead them into the water and the fire—that is my sacred task.
They as parents will be experiencing death and resurrection today also.
Their children will no longer belong solely to them, they have handed them over with faith to this community, to this church.
But their resurrection is that they are no longer alone to raise these children.
They have this church community surrounding and upholding them, loving these children and helping them grow up into the full stature of Christ.
And wherever Signe, Gabe, and Esaias go in the whole world, they will have the community of Christians to welcome them, and the whole community of saints through time and space as their home.
So we can see that this family is so very brave to let these children walk into the fire and the water today.
But they are not the only ones who have this opportunity.
That is the final reason why we baptize on Pentecost. It is to remind all of us that we have a decision point today and every day of whether we will risk the fire and the water because that is where God is.
In the chaos, in the danger, in the risk—that is where creation happens.
Sometimes the risk is taking a new job, beginning or ending a marriage, starting to discern a new call to ministry.
Sometimes the risk is talking to the unpopular kid at school, picking up the phone to call an estranged sibling, telling someone no.
But if we want life with the Holy Spirit empowering us to love and serve the world, we have to go to where the Holy Spirit lives, which is in the storm and the inferno.
And we have to see that the seeds of new life lie in the places inside ourselves where we feel like we’re burning or drowning.
Justin and Kristen had the trust to hand their children over to this raging force of nature that is the love of God, and these children had the courage to walk forward into it.
Can we follow them and let the Holy Spirit break over us?
Scripture says, “and a little child shall lead them.”
Let’s make that come true.