The last two verses of our Gospel reading for this morning pack a LOT in. Jesus joins the crowds coming to John the Baptizer for baptism. After receiving baptism, Jesus withdraws a bit for private prayer. Suddenly the skies open up, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and God’s voice speaks from heaven, calling Jesus God’s beloved and well-pleasing Son.
That’s a dramatic baptism!
Our reading from Acts describes another baptism, almost as briefly. A group of the hated Samaritans have become followers of Jesus. The apostles weren’t quite sure what to make of them. Did they, did God, really want Samaritans as part of the group?
The answer was, yes. The Samaritans were already baptized when Peter and John arrived. Peter and John lay hands on them, and suddenly the Holy Spirit descends on them, too. More drama! But this time drama with ordinary people, people like us.
Two thousand years later, we still baptize. Last year the baptisms we did here at Saint David’s were mostly private because we were worried about COVID. But we baptized five people ranging in age from newborn to ninety. After the baptisms themselves, I laid hands on the newly baptized and pronounced perhaps my favorite words from our Prayerbook: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever” (308).
In those baptisms, the Holy Spirit was not as visible as at Jesus’ baptism. But still, the Holy Spirit descended. The Holy Spirit touched the people being baptized. The Holy Spirit claimed them as God’s beloved and well-pleasing children.
For five of us, that happened in the last year. For the rest of us, it was longer ago. But whenever it happened, we were touched by the Holy Spirit. We were claimed as God’s beloved and well-pleasing children. And we were commissioned to live as God’s people in the world, by the ongoing power of the Holy Spirit.
That’s good news. But what difference does the Spirit make in our lives, day in and day out?
One of the ways the Apostle Paul describes the difference is as “fruits of the Spirit,” things like love, and joy, and peace (Galatians 5:22). Paul says the Spirit that we receive in baptism, that continues to swirl around us all the time, fills us with these fruits. Whenever we experience love or joy or peace, we are experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
My favorite example of a specific fruit of the Spirit in my own life came on a backpacking trip fifteen years ago. But I have to warn you, when I first told this story to my son, he said it was without doubt the worst story he ever heard. It’s become a running joke in our house. All I have to say is the word “peace” to make him groan. I tried it again this week, and it still works. So, you are forewarned. Don’t expect much drama.
I was still pretty new to backpacking at the time, and a buddy and I planned what was, for us, a long trip. I was anxious.
Just as we were preparing to leave, my friend’s grandfather died. Naturally he wanted to attend the funeral. I understood, of course. But I really wanted to go on this trip. We agreed that I would start without him, and that he would meet me a couple of days in.
In the confusion of my departure, I planned poorly. Once I got to the trail, I realized that to meet my friend on time, I had to cover more than fifty miles in two and a half days with an absurdly heavy pack.
So, for two days, I hiked as hard as I could. I started early. I took very short breaks. I pushed all day. And, about mid-morning on the third day, I realized I was going to make it on time.
I stopped by a pretty little creek. It was a beautiful spot on a beautiful day. I took off my boots and rested my feet in the water. For the first time since the trip began, I relaxed. I felt at peace.
When I first told Benjamin this story, I stopped there. He asked what happened next. I told him that was it. I felt at peace by the creek. That’s when he told me it was the worst story ever.
That was fair. Me sitting peacefully by a creek is not much of a climax, especially to a teen-age boy. It was a powerful experience for me. But I didn’t know how to communicate it.
Here is what I would say now. While I was sitting beside that creek, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on me, and God filled me with the peace that passes understanding.
That’s better. But it’s still not the whole story.
My friend and I hiked together for several days. When we reached our final stopping point, the plan was for his wife to meet us and drive me back to my car.
But that didn’t work out, which put me in an awkward spot. I could get a hotel room and take a much-needed shower. But then I would have to put back on clothes I had been hiking in for ten days, which wouldn’t be good for anybody.
In the end, everything was fine. But along the way, I wasn’t feeling a lot of peace. What I was feeling was an intense combination of irritation at her, embarrassment about my smell, and self-pity.
The situation was what it was. But I was missing something important. The Holy Spirit, who had blessed me with a sense of peace beside the creek a few days earlier, was swirling around me the whole time, continuing to shower me with peace. I just didn’t get the Spirit’s peace somehow.
There is a strangeness here. The Holy Spirit offers us the various fruits of the Spirit all the time. And sometimes we feel those fruits like I felt the peace that passes understanding by the creek. Other times we don’t feel the fruits in the same way, like I didn’t at the end of our trip. But always the Holy Spirit is there and the fruits of the Spirit are available to us.
In my irritated, embarrassed, and self-pitying moment, it would have helped to remember that, to remember that the Holy Spirit was with me even then, to remember that the Holy Spirit had blessed me with peace that I could feel just a few days earlier. It would have helped me to open myself up to the work of the Spirit in and on me at that very time. And I might have been a little more peaceful, maybe even a little joyful and loving.
My problems on that hiking trip were no big deal, certainly not in the grand scheme of things. Right now, many of us are facing considerably more difficult challenges.
Our Gospel reading speaks especially to our hard times. It reminds us that we have been and continue to be touched by the Holy Spirit. Our reading invites us to reflect on times when we have been conscious of the fruits of the Spirit in our lives. And it calls us to open ourselves up to the ongoing work of the Spirit even now, even when we struggle, particularly when we need peace the most.
As we move into this new year, at what is a challenging time for many of us, my prayer is that we can all experience the work of the Holy Spirit in us in new and more powerful ways. And I say that in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan