When I was your age…
Things just aren’t as good as they used to be…
Back in the good old days…
I’m sure Scotland has some phrases of its own, but it’s a fairly universal instinct to recall the past with a type of selective memory.
Back when I was your age, all kids used to have good manners, they never told lies, and always did their chores on time.
Things just aren’t as good as they used to be. I remember when cars never broke down, when ten pounds would buy you food for weeks, and how it never used to rain in Scotland.
Back in the good old days, kids didn’t get rides to school from their parents. When I was young I had to walk to school….in the snow….barefoot…carrying hundreds of books…and it was uphill both ways.
Something about our memory makes these recollections suspect. Certainly the past had many commendable and noteworthy aspects. Some, better than today. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll recall also that the past was far from perfect.
It’s a delicate balance, remembering the past and taking from it lessons for today. On the one hand, perhaps there is something to gain from memories, memories of the relationships formed in days gone by when families gathered around one radio rather than scurrying off to different rooms to watch different televisions. On the other hand, I’d rather not go back to the days before indoor toilets and central heating.
Recalling the past is a delicate balance.
In today’s reading from Acts, Peter gives a sermon of years gone by. I don’t think minute-long sermons were particularly common in Peter’s day, but his sermon is a short one, only 205 words in English.
Peter preaches the gospel in miniature, but don’t be tricked. Sometimes big things can come in small packages.
Peter preached that God was working in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus taught the true way to live, and accepted a perfect death. But God raised him from the dead and beckons us to follow him still.
Peter tells us, and the gospel writers agree, that Jesus’ ministry began after first being baptized in the Jordan River by John. Today is what some churches call, “Baptism of our Lord Sunday.” Today we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, and in the Sundays leading up to Easter, we’ll read of Jesus’ ministry following his baptism.
This morning’s gospel reading from Matthew gives a few details of the baptism–like John’s initial refusal and Jesus’ insistence that he be baptized by John “to fulfill all righteousness.” Details like, after Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and a voice exclaimed, echoing the words we just read from Isaiah 42, This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.
Each gospel writer gives a different emphasis to Jesus’ baptism–John’s gospel skips it altogether–but it’s Peter’s description in Acts that fascinates me. Peter preached that at Jesus’ baptism,
“God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power.”
It’s the “and with power” phrase that sticks out, for we don’t usually think of baptism and power. There’s power of attorney, the power of the pound or Euro, horsepower, and people power, but you don’t hear much about power and baptism.
We might do well here to remember a story from two chapters before Peter’s sermon in Acts, a story about Peter and baptism that must inform Peter’s sermon that we read today. The story is set in a small city and concerns a magician named Simon the Sorcerer.
Simon the Sorcerer was wildly popular in his town. The locals loved watching his magic, and he became a rich man. The people even said that a divine power had come upon him. And they started calling him The Great Power. Not a bad nickname, The Great Power.
Along came Philip to that town, a follower of Christ who preached the good news of God. Well, the townspeople believed the good news, and were baptized by Philip including, even Simon the Sorcerer.
After hearing what God was doing in this place, Peter and John decided to pay the town a visit. They eventually arrived, preached and taught about Jesus, and prayed that the power of the Holy Spirit might come upon the townspeople. Well, it did. And boy was Simon the Sorcerer impressed.
So Simon said to Peter, “How much to buy this power of the Holy Spirit?” “What?” Peter said. “The Holy Spirit, how much will it run me?” Well, as you might expect, Peter was pretty angry and he yelled, “May you and your money perish, for you thought you could buy the gift of God with money.”
The story does later end with a repentant Simon, but it’s a cautionary tale about the thirst for power in general, and about the particular power of the Holy Spirit at baptism.
At a baptism, we remember God’s graciousness and pray for the Holy Spirit to make the baptism effective. Without the Holy Spirit making real God’s promises for us, much of what we do as Christians would be empty rhetoric no different than political pandering.
That’s why, before we read from scripture or preach, we pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal God’s word to us, that God’s will may be discerned and not our own.
That’s why, before we celebrate communion, we pray for the Holy Spirit to bless the elements and lift us into God’s presence when we celebrate the holy meal.
That’s why, when we celebrate a baptism, we pray for the Holy Spirit to bless the newly baptized and instill in her the gifts of the Spirit.
We read in Acts, Jesus was baptized with the Holy Spirit and with power. Sure, the Holy Spirit part makes sense–by the power of the Holy Spirit the baptism was made effective. But Peter preached Jesus was baptized by the Holy Spirit and with power. What sort of power was Peter talking about?
January’s issue of the Church of Scotland magazine, Life and Work, chronicles one example of the Church of Scotland’s waning power in the culture today. For 400 years, Inverness Presbytery has celebrated a “Kirking of the Council” ceremony held at Old High Church to bless, confirm, and commemorate the city council and its work.
A controversy arose, however, after last year’s ceremony during which the Provost refused to read Scripture and announced his intention to suspend future Kirking of the Council ceremonies.
(You have a good word for what happened next: a “row”)
After much discussion, the Presbytery, quite sensibly, has elected to continue the ceremony in future years, making clear that it is a service held at the prerogative of the church. The church will invite council members to attend, and the council members and provost may attend if they so wish, but it will not be understood as part of the council’s official business.
We could take the saga of the Old High Church’s Kirking of the Council as an example of the decline of the church’s power. We could claim “things were better in my day” or say, “when I was a child, every member of the council attending the kirking, especially the Provost.” We could claim these blurry memories, or we could take another approach: one of hope, one of faithfulness, dare I say, one of Biblical warrant.
Peter said, Jesus was baptized with the Holy Spirit and with power. But let’s not forget the sort of power to which Peter referred. Peter was preaching when the church was in its infancy. Today there are over 2 billion Christians in the world. In Peter’s day, there probably were probably a few thousand, if that. By preaching the gospel and professing belief in Jesus Christ, Peter daily risked his life. Peter’s call came not with a manse and pension, but with mischance and tension.
And what sort of power did Jesus, the one baptized with Holy Spirit and power express? A backwards power, and upside-down power, a power that cared not for city councils or provosts, but for the outcast, sinners, the poorest of the poor. A power that showed its ultimate strength on the cross where the power of love and forgiveness reigned supreme.
Yes it is true: the baptism of Jesus, God incarnate, was a one-of-the-kind baptism. It’s not every Sunday God’s voice shouts down from heaven and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. So we shouldn’t jump too quickly from Jesus’ baptism to ours–comparisons of ordinary sinners to Jesus always get bit dangerous. But, thoughts of Jesus baptism, of any baptism, should lead us back to considering our own. The history of our baptisms might be a bit fuzzy, but it’s holy history nonetheless.
Growing up with a family firmly rooted in the American and Scottish Presbyterian church, I was baptized as an infant. (It’s the practice of most Presbyterian churches to celebrate baptisms of infants for, among many reasons, the baptism of children emphasizes that God’s grace was given to us before we can even understand it.)
In fact, my grandfather whose funeral I attended last week administered the sacrament. Certainly we have pictures from the baptism day, treasured pictures at that, but I don’t remember a lick of my baptism. So what I know of it comes from my family and those who joined us at the service. And like any memory of an event almost 25 years past, I’m sure these stories aren’t completely accurate.
At home, you’ll often hear the phrase, “Remember your baptism, and be thankful.” Remembering one’s baptism is less about the trees than the forest; remembering one’s baptism isn’t about the how it occurred, but remembering that it occurred. It’s so one can say, “Back when I was a child…I was baptized.” “Back when I was your age…I had been baptized for years.” “Back in the good old days…I was baptized, and I’m thankful for that.”
Friends in Christ, we too have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and with power.
These days, the power of the Church might be waning, and the power of our memories might be tricking us, but with the Holy Spirit the power of our baptism is stronger than ever.
Our baptisms signify that we are accepted by God, no matter what we do.
Our baptisms mark us as followers of Christ.
Our baptisms call us to work for peace and service of God.
Our baptisms remind us of our true identity, as children of God.
Our reading from Acts ends: Even while Peter was still preaching, the Holy Spirit touched all who heard the word. And the Jews–the powerful ones–were astounded that the Spirit had been poured out on the powerless Gentiles. And then all were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
We have been baptized into this same faith. Today we could sit on our hands and recall church history when we remember everything was better, or we could put our baptism into action and show God’s love which we received even before we were born. We could complain about rude provosts, or we could share our baptismal faith and begin a new type of blessing ceremony: one that welcomes the powerless not the powerful, one that joyfully forgives others, one that moves from a blurry past into a future of loving service of God.
All glory, honor, and praise be to God forever and ever. Amen.