Let’s Keep It Mysterious
Baptism is central to the Christian faith. It is the means of grace that connects us directly to God through Jesus Christ. Furthermore, in our Lutheran tradition it is considered the means of grace that is essential to our salvation. In our tradition we believe that baptism is the means through which God comes to us, adopts us as his child, promises to be with us through thick and thin and wraps us in the comfort of Christ’s Holy Spirit. With all of that being said our understanding of baptism only scratches the surface of all that baptism symbolizes and imparts unto us because with-in baptism there is still the mystery of God and the enigma of how God chooses to work in the world. Just because we have a beautiful biblical grasp of baptism doesn’t mean we know everything there is to know about it and thank God we don’t.
Today’s readings from Genesis, Acts, and Mark all contain passages that have led to bitter disputes between Christians. Genesis deals with creation, Acts addresses the belief among some Christians that in order to receive the Holy Spirit one has to speak in tongues, and in Mark the belief that that only way to salvation is through belief and baptism into Jesus. Now, before I say anything more I want you to all know that I believe God created the heavens and the earth, I believe that we receive the Holy Spirit in baptism, and I believe that the only way to the Father is through the Son. With all that being said I am not so arrogant as to think I know exactly how all of this comes together or how God works and I don’t want to know. I want to live in the mystery and beauty of God’s work. Sometimes we mix up mystery with riddle or puzzle in the belief that if we just put all the pieces of scripture in the right order we can understand exactly how God works and operates. Mystery isn’t a puzzle. Rather, mystery is open and without answer. Mystery is a little like going down the preverbal rabbit hole and seeing where it leads you.
The first mistake we make as 21st century Christians is in thinking that the bible was written specifically for us. It wasn’t. The Old Testament, in the form we have today, was written in about 538 B.C. for Middle Eastern Jewish people. Ancient Semitic people saw, experienced, and understood the world differently than you and I. It is just a little arrogant to insert our postmodern western understanding of science, literature, history, nature, and the world into a text that spoke to people more than 2500 years ago. Maybe the first order of business is to ask how the text spoke to its original audience in order to place it in the right context for us. This is especially true for Genesis 1 and creation.
Genesis actually has more than one creation story. Genesis actually has two creation stories, and some would argue that the flood story is also a creation story. Each creation story was written for a specific purpose and that was to highlight different ways God worked to bring about the creation of the world. Today’s lesson is actually the second creation story written although it is the first in the bible. The Garden of Eden in Genesis two is actually the oldest creation story in scripture. What Genesis one highlights is the process through which God creates. God creates through speaking, which is beautiful because at the time all the other Middle Eastern myths about creation had creation occur through bloody battles between gods and humans were just the mere slaves of these gods. In Genesis 1 the world materializes through the combination of water, spirit, and God’s word. Even more amazing is that the first to be drawn out of this concoction is light. The original light of creation isn’t the sun, moon, or stars. Rather, the first light of creation is the light that brings forth all life from that point on and some would say it is the light of the world that is illuminated in Jesus. How? Well, that’s a mystery, and a beautiful mystery I might add.
Some, would say that Genesis one is a blueprint for all of creation, but would you really want to take such a beautiful evolution of creation and minimize it to a textbook? Genesis 1 is poetry not science and poetry isn’t to be parsed out and scrutinized it is to be experienced. Let Genesis 1 wash over you in the light of creation that always brings about fresh understanding and insight and not the stagnation of an old science book.
In Acts we have Paul in Ephesus where he happens upon some Christians who had not been baptized into Jesus, but only into John’s baptism. Upon receiving the baptism of Jesus, where you are baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they begin to speak in tongues and praising God. Over the years this passage has brought about quite a bit of confusion especially since the Great Awakening in the United States and the rise of fundamentalism. The biggest confusion emerged over the understanding of baptism and the belief that people can be baptized more than once. The second big confusion is over the misguided belief that one needs to speak in tongues in order to receive the Holy Spirit.
In our tradition you are baptized once and it isn’t about your desire, right frame of mind, or intention. Rather, baptism is God’s good work in you and what God promises you and not what you promise God. Baptism is a sacrament and in the sacrament God comes to us, claims us and adopts us. Furthermore, baptism is grace and if one has to do something to earn that grace, well then it’s no longer grace, but an earned reward. Therefore, we can re-affirm baptism, and remember our baptism, but one can’t be re-baptized. It’s kind of like renewing your wedding vows. I mean when you renew your wedding vows you’re not getting married again, you are affirming that you are still committed to the relationship. That’s what remembering your baptism is all about, it is reaffirming that God is committed to this very wonderful and gracious relationship.
When Paul baptizes the Christians in Ephesus he doesn’t re-baptize them because they had never been baptized in the first place. These believers of Jesus had only received the baptism of John, for the forgiveness of sins, and not in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Furthermore, when they begin to speak in tongues it is because they had received the Holy Spirit and not to receive the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, this is the only instance of speaking in tongues after baptism in all of scripture and it is not descriptive of all baptisms. And just to be clear when you were baptized you received the Holy Spirit, no strings attached.
Finally, Jesus’s baptism. Why was Jesus baptized? According to other gospels it is to fulfill all righteousness. However, in Mark Jesus doesn’t give any reason for being baptized. However, John does say that one will come who is greater than he and baptize with the Holy Spirit. We soon find out that it is Jesus that John is speaking about. From that point on we have to extrapolate from God’s own words as to why Jesus is baptized by John. In Jesus’ baptism God says, “You are my Son the beloved. In you I am well pleased.” So, according to the Gospel of Mark the mystery of Jesus’ baptism by John is something that is between God and Jesus since God is speaking directly to Jesus. Maybe it’s okay if we don’t quite get it and perhaps we are supposed to live with the mystery because in the end even our own baptism is a bit of a mystery and that’s just fine.
God’s relationship with the world through creation, through the law, through Jesus is a bit like all relationships a little unpredictable. It is okay to live in the mystery of life and not have all the answers because let’s face it our answers tend to miss the mark. Scripture isn’t a mathematical equation or a science book. Rather, all of scripture is a constant revelation of God’s love for the world through Christ. Scripture isn’t stagnant or ridged. Scripture is alive and beautiful. When we become ridged in our understanding of faith then we miss the big picture, which is that God so loved the world he gave his only Son. How it all works and fits I have no idea; however, I am just happy to be included. Maybe if we could all just be at peace with God’s mystery then maybe we could all be at peace with each other. How we can achieve this goal is the biggest mystery of all, but something tells me that Christ knows the answer and that’s good enough for me.