John 14:8-17, (25-27)
The Rev. Dr. Katherine Kelly
I once assisted at a baptism for just one child. He was about a year old and he was tall and thin and leggy and adorable. He didn’t cry or wiggle much. A perfect angel. After he was baptized, while the parents were drying his face and the priest was readying the chrism oil for his forehead, his foot was dangling and fell into the font. So, he flipped his foot and splashed everyone around him including the first three rows! We all burst into laughter! The parents were embarrassed at first but then realized our laughter was that of delight in this moment when we all sort of shared in their son’s baptism.
Today is a principle feast in the church calendar it is The Day of Pentecost. And it is a perfect day for a baptism because of our focus on the nature of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit came to the disciples on the Day of Pentecost through wind and fire and the Holy Spirit comes to us at our Baptism through water.
The Day of Pentecost was a Jewish festival that was celebrated fifty days after Passover. That’s what Pentecost means - fifty. So, they were being good Jews and honoring this feast when the Holy Spirit showed up and filled them with her power.
Some folks consider this the birthday of the church. Episcopalians everywhere today will have balloons and birthday cake! Usually they serve red velvet cake because it is red, the red color for this day which is the color of the Holy Spirit because of the fire and the blood on the doorways at the first Passover.
So, I want us to ponder three images of the Holy Spirit for a few moments and then we will baptize all these beautiful babies.
There is a story of a child of about 3 or 4 years old who was very excited about the birth of his baby sister. After the family brought the new baby home he kept asking to hold her and so they would allow this with much monitoring and guidance. Then he started asking to be left alone with the baby and the parents said “no.” But he hounded them begging to be left alone with the baby for just a few moments so finally the parents decided to allow the boy to go into the nursery while the baby was in her crib and they left the monitor on so they could hear him. This was before video monitors so they could only hear him walk into the nursery and it sounded like he leaned on the rungs of the crib and then they heard him say something. He said to his baby sister, “What is God like? I’m starting to forget.”
Surely this is how we feel about our children. They seem to have come straight from heaven and are so beautiful and innocent they must still be close to God. Why do we need to baptize them?
In our story from the book of Acts, there are two competing images of the way the Holy Spirit enters a room. One is through wind and one if through fire.
“Suddenly,” the scripture tells us, “from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” That’s amazing! Can you imagine that?
As we watch with empathy and sadness our brothers and sisters across the map getting slammed with tornados lately it comes to mind that this was like a tornado.
I have a friend from Pulaski who’s sister moved to Hampton when she finished school to be the editor of their newspaper so when their aging parents decided to scale down they moved from Pulaski to a condo near Hampton to live near their daughter rather than to Atlanta to be with my friend, her brother.
Their story is hard to believe. That there was a tornado on the coast of Virginia is hard to believe but there was and for some unknown reason both parents were found after the chaos in the back yard still sitting in their matching recliners. They had somehow both been air lifted from the home and landed upright in the back yard. The entire building was crushed to matchsticks but Mom and Dad were just fine!
Can you imagine winds like that entering a house where lots of folks were gathered and no one being injured? That is what we are told happened on this Day of Pentecost when the disciples were gathered to celebrate.
But can you imagine lighting a candle or starting a fire in such wind? Anyone who’s tried to get a campfire going on a windy day knows this. It would be impossible. And, well, maybe the wind had died down before the flames showed up but how did they have flames on them in all that wind?!
One of my colleagues has some industrial parishioners. At their church they made flames out of felt and pasted these tongues of fire to some plain headbands so that everyone in the congregation could where them this morning! Now, can you see us doing that? Maybe next year.
When I was on retreat last spring at Sewanee I spent three days listening to the wind and pondering this image of the Holy Spirit. St. Mary’s convent sits on the edge of a bluff on the western side of that plateau. And it was windy that week. Each time the wind would kick up and whistle and howl through the woods around us I would remember the Holy Spirit and wonder what she was up to.
I found a lovely and similar sentiment this week in the words of a priest in Australia. She said this about the waters of Baptism:
At some point in seminary, I was introduced to the ida of remembering my baptism every time I interacted with water. This idea has held so strongly through years of practice that it now comes without thought - rain starts falling and every drop on my head, every plink on the gutter reminds me I am loved even when I do not have the capacity to ask for it. Tear ducts become wellsprings within me, sometimes gushing open at the most unexpected moments. The rain on my back a reminder of the holiness around me, each tear a reminder of the holiness within me, grounding me in who I am and connecting me to everything else. It rains and I am loved. I cry and I am loved. I wash my hands and I am loved. Hard as I may try sometimes (and I guarantee I have certainly tried hard), I have realized that I simply cannot outrun my belovedness. None of us can.- Jess Cook
So my friends, these are some of the images used to try to describe the Holy Spirit. And they all fall short for the Spirit is mysterious and difficult to define.
Let me add one more though. Many talk these days of stardust. Physicists tell us that all matter is stardust. We are all made of stardust. It sounds like a line from a song, but there is some solid science behind this statement: almost every element on Earth was formed at the heart of a star. Joni Mitchell’s song from 1969 captures this image this way: “We are stardust, we are golden, but we’ve got to get our selves back to the garden.”
So as we turn our attention to these Baptisms we are about to participate in, let’s remember our own baptism. Each of us came into the church this way, through the Holy Spirit and the waters of Baptism.
We are not just symbolically washing these children in a rite that hopes for their atonement in Christ, we are making Christians out of them. We are taking vows, all of us, to raise these children in the faith, to model for them in the best ways we can what Christians do, how Christians act, what it means to be a member of the church.
Well, what is that?
We all want to belong to something. But what constitutes membership in the church? Hazing and rites of initiation are used in just about any group you might join. Everything from having to memorize a bunch of stuff to pass a big test to being forced to act silly to rituals of allegiance are used by clubs and fraternities and professional groups and religious orders. But what does membership in the church take? What does it mean to belong to the church? Is it just because we tithe or attend or help with something like coffee hour or altar guild or choir? What about discipleship? Service? Am I doing the Lord’s will? Is it enough? Is what I am doing, my offering, my little part in things effective? Is this what God is calling me to do and to be? How is membership in the church different from the Rotary Club or a Country Club?
Well, here’s the thing. It is different because of the Holy Spirit. To become a Christian means coming to understand on a deep experiential level the nature of this Spirit which came in like a tornado and left the first disciples on fire. So, in our best efforts to become one with the Spirit, we bless water and splash each other in the name of the Trinity in order to Christen each other, in order to name this child as Christ’s own forever.
You see, I am going to drown these children this morning. Well, not physically, but spiritually. As they each encounter the blessed water of baptism, like us when we were baptized, they die unto Christ and are raised with Christ in the resurrection. And the rest of us are about to take vows to raise these children in the faith as a community. Will we teach them the ways of the church? What is that? Is that all about social skills - to know which fork to use? Or is it about prayer, scripture and how to follow the workings of the Holy Spirit?
Stardust. Wind. Fire. Water. All of these images have been used throughout the history of the Judeo-Christian faith to attempt to describe the Spirit and yet none of them can quite capture the essence of the third person of the Trinity. You just have to experience her to know and even then the Holy Spirit cannot be penned down.
And these children have not likely experienced the Spirit yet. Or, perhaps their memory of God is beginning to fade and they need us to guide them. Perhaps no one has experienced the Spirit in the way the disciples who were gathered at that first Day of Pentecost did. I can’t say that I have ever been with other Christians praying and had the doors blown open by strong winds and then seen flames on each other’s heads. I have had my moments though of experiences with wind and fire and water and even stardust.
And so I try to tell these stories in order to share the spirit.
And so will you.
And so will these children as they grow.
Thanks be to God.