The Lord’s Baptism – Lectionary 01/10/2021

Acts 19:1-7

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said 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.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them.

Sermon Text

            Baptism is the first step into the church. While many people spend time in churches before they are baptized, we do not consider someone to be a member of the Church until they have received baptism. Being washed in water represents being washed in the blood, and the anointing of the baptizand with either hands or oil gives some sort of grace to the baptized. They are no longer who they were, they are someone new. God’s work through water and the Spirit allows them to start their life over, they are now a member of the household of God.

            Baptism has its roots in ancient rituals throughout the world. Every culture develops some method of washing away physical or spiritual impurities connected to their worship spaces. The Greeks would sprinkle water on themselves, or else swim through small pools connected to the temple they were worshipping in. Egyptians would wash themselves in the Nile as part of specific rituals connected to curing disease. Israelites and their Semitic neighbors all would wash in ritual baths before approaching their holy places, their sites of worship.

            John the Baptist was the first to make baptism more than just a repeated washing. While other Jewish religious figures would later adopt baptism as a means to differentiate gentiles generally from converts or God-Fearers, it was John that began the practice. The waters which were poured over a person, or which they were immersed into, marked the leaving behind of one thing and the start of another. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” was the call of John, a call for people to begin restoring their lives in line with God and God’s plans for the world. Such a call paved the way for the work of Jesus, allowing him to come into a world where people were already thinking of what they must do to be more in line with the Kingdom to come.

            Yet, despite the way we often understand John’s ministry as an antecedent to Jesus’s, the relationship between the two seems to be more complex than that. Despite the scripture’s insistence that John at several points deferred to Jesus’s authority and ministry, there were people who were committed to John’s teachings alone well past John’s death. These disciples usually worked parallel to Jesus’s disciples, not getting in the way but not helping either. By the time of Paul’s ministry throughout the book of Acts, both groups had a reputation for being troublemakers – both their leaders having been killed by Roman or Jewish authorities.

            Despite the usually parallel lives of these two groups, many of the first disciples of Jesus came from John’s sect. These “converts,” were not limited to apostles like Andrew and John, but to many unnamed servants of God. Likely among them was the teacher and preacher, Apollos. Apollos was considered by many to be superior to Paul in his teaching of the Gospel, leading to some in-fighting related to whether one should be believed over the other. Apollos himself leaves no writings for us to know how the two differed in what they taught, but a few accounts in scripture give us an idea about what these differences might have been.

            For one thing, Paul and Apollos came from separate sides of the Mediterranean world. While both were Greek speaking Jews, Apollos came from the capital of Greek Egypt – Alexandria – while Paul came from a prominent seaport – Tarsus. Both were likely trained by eminent teachers in their community, but we only know of Paul’s teacher by name, Gamaliel, the successor to Hillel, one of the founders of modern Jewish thought. These two highly educated apostles would have understood God’s word intimately and, once they had experience the saving work of Christ, been able to integrate their existing knowledge into their ministries. The two Greek Jews, Paul and Apollos, were two sides of the same coin.

            At some point Apollos began to follow the teachings of John the Baptist, although it is unclear when or how this transpired. He would eventually make his way from Egypt into Greece proper. Here he would hear of Jesus and become a minister of the Gospel. This journey took him to Ephesus where he would preach in the Synagogues. At this time, he met Priscilla and Aquilla, believers and close friends of Paul, who refined his teachings, especially regarding Baptism. We are told that Apollos only knew, “The baptism of John,” suggesting that while he was a Christian he still held a basic understanding of baptism – in other words it was an action that marked the repentance of a Jewish believer and nothing more. There was no baptism for gentiles and no giving of the Holy Spirit to the believer.[1]

            Paul and Apollos likely passed one another at sea because as Apollos left Ephesus for Corinth, Paul left Corinth for Ephesus. Paul arrived to find that the same confusion which Apollos had had about baptism was present among the disciples he had left behind. They were Christians, but they were not fully versed in the ways of Christianity. Baptism to them was what it had been to John the Baptist, and so they did not realize the fullness of God’s gift to God’s people. They did not know about the Holy Spirit visiting all the earth, about gentiles being welcomed into the Kingdom, about Christ’s plan to redeem all peoples.

            Paul came and brought this teaching and instantly growth began among the people. They were now able to minister beyond Jewish communities, and so the Church could grow. They received the miraculous gift of tongues so that they could speak to people they might not have been able to speak to before. In all things, the teachings which Paul brought opened up the eyes of the Ephesians and equipped them to better enjoy Christ and serve the world.

            The lesson for us today is that we who are baptized into the faith must not oversimplify what we are called to be and what we are called to do. It is absolutely critical that alongside our belief we have proper understanding about scripture, God, and the ways of the Church. For the people of Ephesus, learning the true meaning of Baptism was something that freed the Spirit to work among them. What sort of things can free us today? What are we missing in our understanding that might equip us better for ministry?

            That is a question we can ask ourselves as a group, but which we also must pursue personally. We who are called to be members of the Methodist Church are inheritors of a theological tradition with specific ideas about certain principles of the faith. There are Methodist views on Baptism, the Eucharist, even on what does and does not constitute Church. Yet, we oftentimes find ourselves fuzzy on these details. Matters so dear to the pursuit of a Christian life, and yet so far away from us somehow. Only through study, questioning, and fervent prayerful conversation can we really unlock the ways God is working in our lives.

            Yet, even as we are inheritors of the particular traditions, we as Christians are united with all believers through Christ’s Spirit, Christ’s teachings, and the Holy Scripture we all claim. Though every denomination, church, and parish are different, they all hold some commonality. We are not uniform, but we ought to be united. Some time after our scripture which we read today, Apollos’s followers and Paul’s followers began to fight amongst themselves over who had the definitive Christian teaching. Paul chastised both groups, “Who is Paul? Who is Apollos?” (1 Cor. 3:5.) Differences in teachings, even in beliefs on issues of faith, were secondary to the reality of a united Church which participated in Christ’s life. Our own discipline puts it this way, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

            If we are to put a single actionable item upon our life following our look at this scripture, I would say it should be this: To examine the aspects of our faith we are confident about and that we feel we do not know much about, and earnestly study both. Where we are confident, we must make sure we are not like Apollos, preaching only half of what is truly there. Where we are unsure, we must be like the disciples at Ephesus, attentive to the teachings of those who are willing to instruct us. In this way we refine ourselves personally, in growing in a truer devotion to God, but also collectively in our ability to engage with others in the name of Jesus.

            A word of caution comes alongside this challenge of course. Not every source of information is a good one and there are many preachers and teachers who are harmful rather than helpful. So, we must be discerning in our quest to learn, that we do not go with the first answer we get, maybe not even the second or third, but with the one which aligns best with the Spirit and with what we know about God. That is a difficult task, but it is one of the reasons that we exist in community together. To be able to hear one another’s thoughts and say, with love and with growth in mind, when we seem to be wending our way in the wrong direction.

            Together, in community and with the teachers who are among us, we can grow in our knowledge of Christ and his gospel. We who received the baptism of Christ, whether as children or as adults, are recipients of the Holy Spirit and have access to all manner of holiness and guidance as a result. When we work together, when we correct one another, when we correct ourselves, we allow for the miracle of the Gospel to spread out from around us, and through the power of Christ to save the world. Not only to some, not only to one race or nation or people, but to all who believe and are transformed. Let us learn, let us change, let us embrace Paul and Apollos and move beyond our present state, and into a more blessed one. – Amen.

[1] William Paroschi. “Acts 19:1-7 reconsidered in light of Paul’s Theology of Baptism.” Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol 47, No 1, 73 100

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