Is Your Baptism Incomplete?
What does it mean to have an incomplete baptism?
That is the question suddenly confronting the believers in Ephesus we read of in our lesson from Acts.
Paul arrives and says 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.’ Then he 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 him, that is, in Jesus.’”
We might initially assure ourselves that this story has nothing to do with us.
We were baptized into Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the name of God the Father. Our Trinitarian credentials are secure.
But to read this text on that literal, surface level is to miss what it has to teach us.
Let’s take a step back and ask in what ways we were baptized into John’s baptism, why that was valuable, and what might still be missing from our baptism.
How are we failing to live into the full baptism of Christ?
As Paul says, John’s baptism was one of repentance.
That’s an important foundation stone of how we practice baptism today, although it can get a bit lost with infant baptism—what do babies have to repent of? Well, nothing.
But one of the most important realities of baptism is that it is not bounded by time and space.
Baptism is efficacious forward and backward in time.
It cleanses us of our sins for our whole lives going forward, and from our earlier years if we are baptized as adults.
Baptism is first and foremost a sacred washing—it is designed to symbolically actualize the way in which God’s love and forgiveness washes us of our sin.
The believers in Ephesus knew that much, and had received that much from John’s baptism. They had a clean slate.
But they knew nothing about the Holy Spirit. Why was that important?
Well, it’s not enough to achieve moral purity.
It’s not enough to have our mistakes and shortcomings wiped out.
While that may satisfy both our Victorian notions of propriety and decency and our egos with the satisfaction of being counted clean and correct before God, it does little to nothing to bring in the Kingdom of God.
Remember, John’s mission was all about preparing for the coming of the Kingdom. That’s what the baptism of repentance does.
But we need something else to help us actually make the Kingdom a reality.
And that something else is the Holy Spirit.
Repentance is part 1 of baptism. Anointing with the Holy Spirit is part 2, and it is critically important.
The Holy Spirit is not given to us to make us feel good or sound fancy.
It’s not even given to us to preserve our repentant and forgiven state, washed clean of sins.
We don’t get the Holy Spirit imparted to us so we can never sin again.
In fact, the purpose is the exact opposite.
We receive the Holy Spirit at baptism to empower us to go out and do the actual hard work of building the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God is at hand as Jesus says.
It’s not going to come sweeping in at the end of the world.
It’s up to us, as Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, to heal and teach and serve and feed all of God’s children we encounter.
And simultaneously, the Holy Spirit opens space within us so we can be healed and taught and served and fed by others.
The Holy Spirit is what makes Christian community possible.
It is the final ingredient in baptism.
We are named at Baptism: as created and loved by God the Father, cleansed and redeemed in Jesus Christ, and anointed and sent out by the Holy Spirit. It’s part of our Trinitarian identity.
So if we look at our lives, can we identify where we might be lopsided?
Do we have too much repentance, or not enough?
Are we actually living our lives as though we were empowered to bring in the Kingdom of God?
I think we don’t often appreciate how repentance and building the Kingdom are linked.
Repentance, admitting that we and our world are not measuring up in some ways, is not designed to make us feel awful about ourselves.
The point of repentance is not to breed self-hatred. Instead, it’s to kindle desire for something more.
If we just accept ourselves and our world as-is, saying, “Well, I guess that’s as good as it’s going to get,” we are missing out on the beauty of God’s vision for our world.
Repentance is a deliberate examination of what’s wrong to the end of starting to work toward something better.
But repentance alone is not complete either. It needs the fullness of Trinitarian empowerment to go to the next step.
A simple acknowledgement of our failures leaves us with nothing but guilt.
We need the gifts of the Spirit to help us get out there and start doing the hard work of caring for the poor, fighting for the oppressed, and being transformed by long, patient years of faithful prayer.
So spend some time this week thinking about the signs of full baptism: repentance, and Kingdom-building.
Where is your baptism incomplete?
If you need help figuring it out, ask someone else. The Ephesians had no idea they were missing anything until Paul came and told them.
One of the great benefits of Christian community is help in awakening to our blind spots.
And where you may err more in imbalance toward repentance, someone else is out there serving for all they’re worth.
If you’re the service type, who shies away from self-examination, there’s someone else in your community who is praying long into the night with deep desire for integrity.
That’s the other gift of Christian community—together, not alone, we create the fully gifted and active Body of Christ.
And remember what God said about the baptized Body of Christ: “You are my child, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”
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