The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
Epiphany I – 8 January 2012
Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11
From the Book of Genesis:
The darkness was on the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
From the Book of the Acts of the Disciples:
St. Paul asked of some disciples in Ephesus, Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? And they said, No, we have never even heard of the Holy Spirit.
From the Gospel According to St. Mark:
In those days Jesus … was baptized by John. And when he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened and the Sprit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable I thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,
Although I entitled this morning’s sermon, Holy Water – Holy Life, a better title most certainly would have been, Holy Spirit – Holy Water – Holy Life – because, at the end of the day, it’s all about the Holy Spirit.
Now when I say it’s all about the Holy Spirit I mean just that – everything – literally everything in this life that lives – everything that’s good and right and true – all love that’s true love, all thought and speech that enlightens, all knowledge that stands the test of time – all efforts or enterprises that come to good results for the benefit of mankind, all success in terms of righteousness, faithfulness in times of adversity, health, healing, comfort, encouragement, godly happiness and everything that anyone who knows the difference between good and evil – and can actually tell the difference – well, those people know this one astounding and wonderful and miraculous truth – that nothing good happens without the Holy Spirit.
And that’s true for those who believe in the Holy Spirit and for those who do not. For anything good in the lives of non-believers comes only from the very Spirit of God Himself in whom they do not believe but nonetheless benefit from His gracious mercy. They benefit because God is good – not because they are.
The Holy Spirit gives life. As God’s Spirit moved over the face of the waters at creation, He did so to bring forth life. Without the Spirit – capital S – there is no life. The very fact that non-believers live bears witness to God’s gracious goodness. Yet the spirit of life causing them to live remains unknown to them as the working of God’s Holy Spirit. (I say this to help equip you to defend the faith when non-believers proselytize against us.)
Even believers may not be fully aware of the power of and the presence of the Holy Spirit. When St. Paul traveled to Ephesus, he met up with some disciples. He asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they came to faith. But they told him that they had never even heard of the Holy Spirit let alone received Him.
They had received John’s baptism – not Jesus’ baptism. And there’s a big difference.
John baptized with water for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit for the newness of life. Now, Jesus never baptized anyone in the same manner as did John. Jesus simply gave His Holy Spirit to all who received Him as their Lord and Savior. And when He gave the Holy Spirit to His church on the first Pentecost, He gave the church the power to impart the Spirit of living holiness into those who truly receive Him.
The Sacrament of Baptism thus became a vehicle for this imparting.
You see, just the forgiveness of sins – John’s baptism – is not the totality of salvation. It’s the first step – an important and essential step – but not the end result. Belief in – faith in – Jesus Christ is yet required. By faith, His Holy Spirit indwells and works salvation from the inside out. Alive in us we become alive in Him. And salvation is all about new and more holy life. That’s the purpose – holiness.
Jesus gave us two sacraments – Baptism and Holy Communion. Baptism is generally referenced as the Sacrament of Initiation or Entrance into the Church. Holy Communion is called the Sacrament of Christian Nurture. Holy Communion nurtures the grace imparted at baptism, renewing the believer and empowering him to keep the faith. Holy Communion is a kind of weapon in the ongoing battle between good and evil.
We might well say that Jesus, who had no sin, and thus no need for forgiveness, sanctified the water in His baptism so the water can sanctify us. Baptism enlists us into God’s army. Holy Communion strengthens us in battle as we fight as soldiers of Christ.
Baptism with water and in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is essential for the sacrament to be properly administered. Baptism with just water is not holy without the name of the One True God.
And should a baptism ceremony invoke any other name – including the popular in some circles designation of Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, the sacrament is not a sacrament but an act of willful disobedience. Jesus gave us His instruction and said If you love me you will keep my commandments. Surely, the sacrament of baptism as a part of the holy love of God should manifest our love for Him in obedience to His instruction.
Christianity is not first of all about us – it’s all about Him. It’s not about expressing ourselves. It’s about His self expressed through us. That’s called holiness. And the purpose of the Christian life is holiness – being alive in Christ as He lives in us. Hence, the Holy Spirit who through the Holy water employed in His holy name opens up the gates to a holy life.
But there’s more; the holy water of authentic baptism shares in the salvation power of the wine of Holy Communion. Remember in the account of the Crucifixion, the Roman centurion pierced our Lord’s side, water and blood poured forth. Both carry the power of salvation.
In some liturgical practice, water is mixed with the wine in a more authentic recapitulation of our Lord’s sacrifice.
As He commanded His disciples – and through them, He commanded us – to keep His sacrament, He instructed them to take the cup of wine and drink from it for the cup of wine was the cup of the new covenant in His blood that had been shed for the remission of sins. Water baptism for forgiveness of sins and communion for the remission of sins; the shared power of the sacraments.
Holy water – holy blood – holy life – in and through and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Again, the purpose is a new life of holiness – in fact; eternal holiness for nothing unholy can enter into heaven. Simple as that.
Now I know that many of you may very well be thinking that many people you know do not know the Holy Spirit. Baptized properly and, in many cases, active church people, the Holy Spirit seems to play no role in their lives. They exhibit nothing in the way they live that indicates that holiness is for them any kind of a priority whatsoever. And we may question the sacrament that is supposed to impart the Holy Spirit when we see no evidence of that.
We need to remember that God gives us these sacraments for our sake. The grace given may not be received. And in some cases, the grace may be received but later ignored or even rejected. Or another possibility; the grace is received, then ignored and then embraced at the right time – at a time of God’s choosing to manifest its power.
Furthermore, the Holy Spirit moves, acts and works on His terms – not on ours. He’s perfectly free in His holiness and cannot be bound by our demands, perceptions or expectations.
Having said that, let me give you an example of the mysterious and marvelous ways the Holy Spirit can work. I speak frequently with a man in his early thirties in whom I have seen the workings of he Holy Spirit. He grew up in a totally dysfunctional family – both parents being serious and abusive alcoholics. I will spare you the details but his childhood was anything but fun. Yet, he had been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church and had some Christian education.
He was always getting into trouble – fist fights, petty theft – expelled from school many times – always in trouble with minor violations of the law. Amazingly, he never went to jail although, by his own words, he should have. As he got older, total promiscuity dominated his life. Mixed with heavy and ever increasing drug usage and dealing, well he’s lucky he’s alive. He got into serious trouble not with the police but with the big time drug dealers. That’s a story in and of itself.
But luck had nothing to do with it. Although no one would have discerned the working of the Holy Spirit in this young man as a teenager and young adult, the Holy Spirit was in fact working. Six years ago, he truly and completely turned his life around – pardon the cliché. Repentance literally means to turn around. So the cliché works.
He goes to church regularly. He studies the Bible, has taken courses in Christian doctrine at his church, and has just been confirmed. Confirmation means the confirmation of one’s baptism – giving consent to the gift of grace already given – the grace already at work – the saving grace that alone can save.
He has met a great young lady. They will be married next year.
Now, what turned this man’s life around? What was the pivot point? As he tells the story, the only person about whom he really cared was his nephew. The little boy lived in a tumultuous unhealthy and abusive home. Our friend was determined not to let the boy get hurt by this environment.
One morning, passed out on the floor after several nights of total indulgence, his nephew – four and a half years old – found him and started to cry uncontrollably. He thought his uncle was dead. His uncle was his refuge, protector, and best friend. The one upon whom he could count. He functioned as the boy’s dad.
Seeing the broken hearted boy broke his heart and he stopped. He stopped drinking, dealing, shall we say tom catting, and cleaned up his act because of he wanted the love and respect of that child. He had a purpose in life greater than self-indulgence. He had been given a holy vocation – the protection of that child. And he became determined to do the best he could to fulfill that vocation.
But we have to go deeper. Where did that motivation to change come from? Remember, nothing that’s truly good and right and true can happen without the Holy Spirit. And that’s from where – or better expressed, from whom – this motivation – this power to cleanup his act came from. Sustained by the same spiritual power moving towards a life of greater holiness, his life has become a blessing to another life – in fact, to many other lives. And that is, once again, the whole point – a new and holy life.
We cannot judge how the Holy Spirit works. Our job is to walk by faith knowing that even the faith is a gift. So we trust in God as He gives us holiness in and through holy water – in and through holy blood – and in and trough His Holy Spirit in whom and through whom we live, both now and forever.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, we pray for the powerful movement of your Holy Spirit in this world – in individual lives and in the life of this nation – and of all nations. Bless us with a full consciousness of your saving grace in the manifestation of your Truth. Grant to us your redeeming mercy. And bring us to ever increasing holiness in and through your Holy Spirit. We ask this in and through your Son,
our only Savior,
Jesus Christ the Lord,