Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:9-24; Luke 3:15-22
I bring them up because the image that I keep coming back to when reading today’s readings is from the Decemberists’ song “July, July.” The lyric goes:
And I say your uncle was a crooked French-Canadian
And he was gut-shot runnin' gin
And how his guts were all suspended in his fingers
And how he held 'em
How he held 'em, held 'em in
Simon the Magus you may not know. He is on the margins of the story of Acts we read today. A magus is a magician or wise man, like the three magi from the East who came to visit Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. Simon is a crooked French-Canadian living in Samaria, and Luke records in Acts that he did all sorts of magic tricks to impress the people of the city. They believed he was great and powerful, a man sent from God. When he sees how the Holy Spirit seemed to be given by Peter and John laying hands on people, he offered them money to give him the power to do likewise. He saw the apostles as competition, and Holy Spirit as just another magic trick to impress his neighbors and make a name for himself. Simon the Magus is another man who feels his guts are all suspended in his fingers and he is willing to give the apostles money if it will help him hold them in.
In contrast to these two men who feel their power and privilege slipping through their fingers stands Jesus. All four gospels point to this moment—the moment of his baptism—as the point at which his ministry begins. It is in his receiving of the Holy Spirit and his hearing the voice of God that he is given the power or the desire or both to do what he has been sent to do: to save the world with the love of God.
The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed the figure of a pelican on our Christmas tree over the last several weeks. The Early Church used a Pelican as a symbol for Christ because they believed that mother pelicans, in times of dire need, would wound themselves so that they might feed their chicks with their own blood and keep them from starving.
When we are baptized, we are not baptized into John’s baptism. His baptism is one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, a washing away of guilt like dirt from the body. John saw his baptism as the outward sign of an inward commitment to turn from the way of sin and live as God desires us to live. Jesus’ baptism is different. By entering into this baptism of repentance, he fundamentally changed it. Now it is not an outward sign of our inward decision, but an outward sign of God’s action to adopt and accept us; a sign of God’s preexisting love for us. Because we share this baptism with Jesus, we, too, hear in our baptism the words of God’s promise: “you are my beloved children; with you I am well-pleased.” We, too, receive the Holy Spirit which gives us both the will and the ability to live as Jesus lived: with an open hand.
This is because in baptism, the order of life is reversed. Everything in our world teaches us that if we don’t act to protect ourselves, nobody else will. We live in fear of our life slipping away between our fingers because the direction of life is unambiguously a movement from the womb and the waters of birth to death and being laid in the tomb. We must hold onto life like the uncle in the song.
But we have been baptized into Christ’s death; our lives now move in the opposite direction. Instead of moving from watery womb to earthen tomb, our life begins in the watery tomb of baptism, and moves ever towards new life in Christ—towards the womb of God. For us, even the grave itself holds only the promise of new life. Baptism is a physical sign of this promise, just as the flood of water from our mother’s womb is a sign of new life about to begin.
I can’t help but notice that although the Samaritans had been baptized, they did not receive the Holy Spirit until the Jewish Church in Jerusalem overcame their prejudice against the Samaritans and sent Peter and John to officially recognize them as fellow workers in the Church, as full siblings in Christ. It wasn’t that Philip baptized them incorrectly or wasn’t qualified to do so; I think that the Holy Spirit chose to show up only when that relationship was made whole. An essential part of baptism is the birth into a family, just as an essential part of being born is being born into a family. Baptism—like birth—by its very nature creates relationship.
To be baptized is to be born into a life like Jesus’: a life that is eternal so that it can be shared. Jesus lived for others, giving his presence, his time, his love and even his own self so that we might come to see that in him, we are all one—men and women, Jews and Samaritans and Greeks, Protestants and Catholics and Evangelicals, citizens and immigrants, wealthy and impoverished. It is in the giving of Jesus’ life that its abundance is finally experienced; and it is the same for all who have been baptized into his death. With him, we daily rise to eternal life, but it is life that cannot be recognized as eternal until it is shared, until like our brother Jesus we offer our presence, our time, our love and even our selves for the good of our neighbors.
The life of baptism calls us to such compassion. Interestingly enough, in Greek, the root of the word “compassion” is the word for bowels or guts, because one’s guts were believed to be the seat of a person’s emotions. That might sound funny to you, but we still speak of the heart in the same way. So the life of baptism offers us the opportunity to live life, as it were, with our guts suspended in our fingers—but instead of trying desperately to hold them in, we are invited to open our arms wide and share all that we have and all that we are, trusting in the promise of baptism.
That promise is a mystery. We don’t really know how it can be true, don’t really even know why God would extend it to us, but it is, nevertheless, a promise in which we place our trust. It is a promise that, to once again quote the Decemberists, “We will remember when we are old and ancient, though the specifics might be vague.” Whatever life may bring—even in the midst of persecution or suffering, even, somehow, in the midst of death itself—it is the promise that because we are God’s beloved children and recipients of God’s promise the life that we live always has been—and always will be—eternal.