Sunday, January 08, 2012

Baptism of Jesus

Acts 19
1 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when[a] you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues[b] and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.

In the ongoing war against heresy, I give you the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. With the self-appointed mandate to “equip Christians with the truth, to expose the error of false religious systems, evolution, to teach apologetics,” CARM makes it easy to spot the heretics in your backyard.

The first way they make it easy is by presenting a handy list, right there on the front page of their website, with all the biggies:

Arianism: Jesus was a lesser, created being.
Docetism: Jesus was divine, but only seemed to be human.
Donatism: Validity of sacraments depends on character of the minister (more on this later).
Gnosticism: Dualism of good and bad and special knowledge for salvation (modern publishers love this one).
Nestorianism: Jesus was two persons (Church of the East).
Patripassionism: The Father suffered on the cross (I preached this just last April).
Pelagianism: Man is unaffected by the fall and can keep all of God's laws.
Semi-Pelagianism: Man and God cooperate to achieve man's salvation.

Now, before you heretics begin heading for the door, I have to mention a couple of things that can allow you to stay. The first is the United Church reluctance to uphold specific statements as critical to membership. We are decidedly non-doctrinal in our approach, though we do have some doctrine. And while other traditions focus on systematic belief (you might call them catechetical) the United Church does not.

So while you imagine yourself at Timmy’s tomorrow bragging about belong to a non-catechetical tradition, there is another important element that separates us from other traditions. (“Convivial, not catechetical”) When I was ordained, long ago, I made a pledge that I was in “essential agreement” with the 20 articles of the Basis of Union. There is no need to cross your fingers behind your back, or do that sideways head-shake that has become so popular, only pledge “essential agreement” and voila, you get a pulpit.

Following the reformation assumption that we are all priests now, we can also claim to be equally subject to the idea of essential agreement. This means that if you want to indulge in a little Semi-Pelagianism, then go ahead. You are not alone, since the United Church was born of the Social Gospel, the idea that we can work to bring about the Kingdom of God, locating heresy in our very DNA. And since we’re “convivial, not catechetical,” we place more value in being “United” than being right all the time.

Now, if you already woke up this morning with heresy on your mind, you might have done a double-take when Jim read Acts 19. Essentially, the passage describes re-baptism, forbidden under the rules as described a moment ago. Donatism, this idea that the validity of the sacraments depends on the character of the minister, was an early debate that was settled when one point of view was labeled incorrect.

The Donatist controversy developed like this: Entire branches of the early church would fall into error, be deemed heretical, repent, then return to the fold. If you failed to do the last part, the repenting and the returning, you were deemed a persistent heretic and cast out. Now the problem comes when the church had a population of believers baptized by these leaders deemed heretical. Is there baptism still valid? Should they be re-baptized by leaders who are non-heretical? The answer was no, there was to be no re-baptism, since the poor believer might be continually soaked if they had the unfortunate luck of being baptized by a string on people given to error.

Armed with your heresy list, you can now see how Jim’s reading seems suspect. Paul gives them a baptism quiz, discovers that they were not baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and promptly baptizes them again. Or does he? There is no re-baptism if the first baptism was done incorrectly, and therefore the Donatist issue does not apply.

But it does lead us to another matter, not covered by the reading, but related to the theme of the day. We call this Baptism of Jesus Sunday, the day in the Christian year when I highlight the congregation’s failure to produce babies in a timely manner. It is also the Sunday when we recount Jesus’ baptism by John, the very same baptism that Paul is now calling inadequate.

So Jesus submits to the Baptism of John, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, and begins his ministry. So, is it valid? You could correctly argue that Jesus couldn’t be baptized in the name of himself (redundant) but you would be left with another problem. According to orthodox belief, Jesus is without sin, and would therefore have no reason to attend a baptism of repentance. Sounds like another sermon to me. We may not be able to solve all this today.

It might be enough to say that the gift of the Holy Spirit is confirmed in our baptism, a baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. Acts 19 is an early (and gentle) example to confronting incorrect belief and setting it right for the sake of the health of the whole church. Of course, this confronting would not always go so smoothly or gently.

Without recounting the entire and sorry history of the Christian church confronting heresy, suffice it to say that our ongoing obsession with heresy was often resolved with violence. And history records that the last person convicted and executed for heresy was Thomas Aikenhead, back in 1697. When I say “last person,” I mean under our legal system and in our religious tradition. After 1697, the people of Britain and Protestants generally have lost their appetite for destroying heretics.

But this hasn’t decreased our interest in heresy. Or maybe I should say “heretical thinking” and to illustrate this we need look no further than climate change. Now, before I say more, I want to be clear that I believe that we are cooking the planet with our greenhouse gases and need to ramp it back. Using one unit of energy to produce 1.1 units of energy (as we are doing in the tar sands of Alberta) is just stupid. Add to that list “fracking” and so-called “ethical oil” and you see a pattern of foolishness that oil makes.

However, I also don’t like ‘groupthink” and the extent to which religious orthodoxy has been pushed aside and picked up by others, most particularly people in the scientific community. The best example happened in the UK, with the airing of a program called “The Great Global Warming Swindle” by filmmaker Martin Durkin.

“The Great Global Warming Swindle” was shown on Channel 4, famous for shows like “Countdown” and “How to Look Good Naked” and something called “8 out of 10 Cats.” The Great Global Warming Swindle was an effort to add another voice to the debate on climate change, or at least challenge those who have determined that the debate is now settled.

Hauled before Ofcom, the government regulator for public broadcasting in the UK, Channel 4 was required to demonstrate how this program fit broadcast rules and in the end they could not. In effect, they were found guilty of failing to present the orthodox view that climate change is manmade when discussing how governments should respond to it. The fact that the whole point of the show was to question the idea in the first place seemed lost on the regulator.

So it seems the human urge to define correct thinking and make people adhere to it never when away at all. We just stopped worrying about correct religious belief and migrated the same human tendency over to the region of science. We claim to hold up freedom of expression as a high value, then get caught in trying to make people think the correct way all over again.

Heretics or not, we turn to the Holy Spirit for direction, for the sense that we are all broken and in need of redemption. We try to avoid telling people what to think, since our own thinking is a reflection of our limitations and occasion foolishness. And mostly we try to forgive: forgive ourselves for judging others, forgive others for judging us, and forgive God for making us less than perfect in the first place. Thanks be to God, Amen.


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