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Almost Christian

San Williams

January 8, 2012
Acts 19:1-7

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Baptism of the Lord Sunday
Almost Christian
.   That provocative term is actually the title of a recent book by Kenda Creasy Dean. The book is based on the results of the National Study of Youth and Religion. The study found that, on the whole, American teenagers are positive about Christianity, but at the same time apathetic about genuine religious practice. Dean calls them semi-religious; that is, they have a tacit religious outlook, but they tend to lack a consequential faith, one that gives them a personal sense of God’s love and enlists them in lives of service, compassion and justice. The blame, Dean insists, doesn’t belong to the teens, but to the churches where their faith was formed.  She contends that if our teens are almost Christian, it’s because we’ve offered them a watered-down theology and modeled a lackadaisical faith.

But that term almost Christian is by no means restricted to today’s teens. Most, maybe all, of us feel vulnerable to the charge of being almost Christian.  Maybe we come to worship on Sunday, but in truth we don’t give a lot of thought to God during the week.  We may pray seldom, or not at all.  You may be among the growing number of church goers who can’t say the Apostles’ Creed without your fingers crossed behind your back. Or when we ponder Jesus’ teaching about such things as loving our enemies, practicing unlimited forgiveness, embracing a compassion that extends even to those whom we dislike or despise–it’s hard not to wonder if maybe all of us fit the description of almost Christian.

Well, this morning we read about some early disciples of Jesus at Ephesus who were almost Christians.  Yes, they had been baptized and they were bona fide members  of the church but, according to Paul, something in them was still lacking, incomplete. These disciples at Ephesus were Christians…well, almost.

So what was missing in these disciples at Ephesus?  The problem can be traced back to  Apollos, a native of Alexandria, who had spent time preaching and teaching in Ephesus. In the verses just preceding the ones we read, Luke tells us that Apollos was a persuasive, eloquent and enthusiastic preacher.  But he was not adequately informed about some matters.  Not surprisingly, it took two women in the congregation, Pricilla and Aquila, to take Apollos aside, and, in Luke’s words, “explain the Way of God to him more accurately.” One of the areas in which Apollos needed instruction was in the whole matter of baptism.  He only knew the baptism of John.

So when Paul visited to the disciples at Ephesus, he quickly realized that they hadn’t learned to distinguish between baptism by John and baptism in the name of Jesus. We read how Paul acted quickly to correct the situation.  He baptized them in the name of Jesus, whereupon they received the Holy Spirit, prophesied and spoke in tongues.

But what, exactly, is the difference between John’s baptism and baptism in the name of Jesus?  One way the difference can be explained is to visualize John standing by the Jordan River and calling people to come to him.  Jesus, on the other hand, rose up from the Jordan and, in the power of God’s Spirit, took God’s love to others, especially those who felt marginalized, unworthy or outside the reach of God’s grace.  Unlike John, Jesus didn’t ask people to come to him.  Rather he went out to them.  Filled with God’s Spirit, he embodied the out-going, inclusive love of God reaching out to everyone.  Jesus was the very incarnation of God’s goodness and justice embracing the whole world.  That was the difference between John and Jesus.

Thus, baptism in the name of Jesus equips us to share in God’s outreach–proclaiming good news to the poor, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick—all the ways that the Spirit empowers us to take God’s love to others. To put it succinctly, what takes the almost out of Christian is the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift that empowers  us to join with Jesus in his ministry of love, peace and justice.

Now, it’s true that, in the case of the disciples at Ephesus, the gift of the Holy Spirit enabled them to prophesy and speak in tongues. But we should never conclude, as some Christians have, that speaking in tongues is the sole evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. My own hunch is that one simple act of kindness rings more bells in the kingdom of God than a thousand people speaking in tongues.  Luke’ point, I believe, isn’t to tie baptism to speaking in tongues, but rather to tie it Pentecost. That is, in our baptism something as new and powerful as Pentecost is happening again.  People baptized in the name of Jesus, with water and the Holy Spirit, are called, commissioned, equipped and empowered to be about God’s healing work in the world.

So friends, our challenge today is to claim the Spirit’s presence give at our baptism.  In truth, we are not lacking any spiritual gift.  If many in the churches today seem to be almost Christian, it’s not because God has withheld God’s Spirit, but only because of our reluctance to claim the Spirit that has been fully given.  After our Affirmation Hymn this morning, you’re invited to come forward in an act of baptismal renewal.  The acolytes will bring water from the font and stand on either side of the chancel.  This act of baptismal renewal is an opportunity to claim the Spirit’s presence in our lives and rededicate ourselves to Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice.