Sunday, June 10, 2001

"The Intercessor, Part 2"
The Holy Spirit as the challenge and giver of life

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, June 10, 2001
Text: Romans 8:1-17

He had lived on his own for nearly 40 years. His wife had died exactly 40 years before, as a very young woman. All his life, he had dedicated himself then, to one single task, and that was as the janitor of the school that I attended in Bermuda. A man that we affectionately knew as “Father Joe” made sure that all his life was dedicated to caring for the cleanest building and the shiniest students you have ever seen.

Some years later, after I had graduated from university and become ordained in the church, I returned to Bermuda for a vacation. “Father Joe” was one of the people that I wanted to make sure that I saw. He was by then an old man.

I went into his little apartment just behind the City of Hamilton and sat and looked at all the things that he had on the wall. There were photographs of students who had graduated from the school; teachers who had taught; various people that he had seen go through the school over his more than 40 years as the janitor there.

But there were no trophies on his cabinet; there were no degrees on his wall. There were no honours that recognized him for anything, save one thing that he had framed: That was his baptismal certificate.

You see, for “Father Joe” there was one thing in his life that was absolutely the most important thing for him: Namely that, as a child, his parents had taken the time to take him to church and to baptize him. But, more than that, he was a black man and he had been baptized in the cathedral in Hamilton.

For in those days, blacks were not allowed into that church. There was still official segregation in the days when he was a young boy. Nevertheless, for some reason or other, “Father Joe” had been baptized in the cathedral and, for him, that certificate was the one thing that he wanted mounted on his wall.

My friends, the baptism that we have into the church of Jesus Christ is as valuable as “Father Joe” considered it to be. It is one of the greatest gifts, if not the greatest gift, of belonging that any human being can receive. It finds its antecedents even before the New Testament times, for we are now finding out that, when there were converts to Judaism, many of them were cleansed from their Gentile impurities and brought into the Household, the Covenant, of God. So the word in Greek baptizô, to baptize, finds its roots even in earliest Christian days.

I didn't know this until recently, when I went back and started reading my Greek, but the word used to describe being baptized literally means ”˜to scupper or to sink a ship.”

I have never thought of that as the nicest image that we want, when we bring children up to the font. “Hey-ho, down she goes” is what we might say. But the root of it is simply to be immersed, to be covered; to be covered and immersed in the grace and the love of God.

The earliest Christians, particularly from John the Baptist on, began to baptize, baptizô, to immerse people in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, again as a sign of the cleansing of impurities and the spirit of belonging to God's covenantal household.

What we do when we baptize a child, however, is more important that just the outward immersing. It is more important than the liturgy that surrounds it. It is even more important than the promises that the parents make on the child's behalf. For what we believe happens at baptism is something spiritual.

When Jesus himself, for example, was baptized, according to one of the gospel traditions, a dove descended from heaven and confirmed Jesus for who he was. John the Baptist said: “When Jesus baptizes, he will not only baptize with water, he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

And so, on this second Sunday of a series on the Holy Spirit, the Intercessor, where better to begin than with the act of baptism itself? For when a child is brought forward, or when anyone comes forward and confesses his life to Christ, or when a young woman like Lara, or the many young people who were confirmed last week, have the laying on of hands, we believe that the Holy Spirit is present. We believe that the Holy Spirit is active - that what makes this event unique, what makes it powerful, is God's very act of confirmation by the power and the blessing of God's Spirit.

That is why I want to turn this morning to our text from the Book of Romans - not that the Book of Romans specifically speaks about baptism itself, but it does talk about our life in the Holy Spirit; and, as we are looking at our life in the Holy Spirit, there are a number of things that Paul points out that are of importance in terms of the life and the work of the Holy Spirit.

The first of these is that the gift of the Holy Spirit is:

I - God's act of acceptance. Ever since the very beginning of the church, the churches believed that, when we receive children into the church, when we receive believers into the church, we are following the tradition of the Old Testament and the covenant that God had with Israel. In fact, every Sunday, whenever we gather to worship, this is a covenantal act. It is a sign, it is a statement of belonging.

But more than it being a covenant, it's also an initiation into a covenantal family. As a Jew is circumcised, as a Jew is received into the covenant of Israel, so through this act of baptism, the Holy Spirit confirms that the child belongs to a family, and that family is the covenantal family that was created by Jesus of Nazareth.

Therefore, when we receive a child, we do so on the understanding that the Holy Spirit is confirming the acceptance of that child, not only into the family of their home, but into the family of the church.

I was told a lovely story, just this last week, of a little boy who attended his sister's baptism. After it was all over, he burst into tears in the back of the car and was wailing away.

Three times his father asked him: “Joey, why are you crying? Why are you wailing?” Joey wouldn't answer him; but on the fourth time when he asked him: “Joey, why are you crying?” he replied: “Because the priest says that we are to be brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys.” Now, doesn't that humble you, parents?

The covenant, though, is not just entering into a Christian home. It is our justification in faith: We are received, not by our own merit, but by grace. It is not something that we do over and over again, it is something done once and for all, just as Christ's gift was once and for all. We participate in the body of Jesus Christ, not because we have decided this, but because the Holy Spirit has called us and led us to this place.

So, my friends, this very act of baptism that we have just celebrated is nothing less that God's “Yes,” God's acceptance into a covenantal family. It is confirmed and it is sealed by the gift and the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is more than just acceptance, however. It is also:

II - God's challenge. Paul wrote to the Romans: “If you do not have the spirit of Christ, you do not belong to Christ.”

The true sign, then, of that acceptance and that belonging is the very power and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Paul challenges those early Christians. He says to them: “If you are going to receive the Holy Spirit, then you are going to live a different life. When the spirit of Christ is in you, you are going to be different: The way that you live, the way that you act, the commitment that you have to God's love and justice and truth, these are things that are the sign of the Holy Spirit working within you.”

It is a challenge. Paul says that it is like a conflict between living in the spirit and living in the flesh.

Now, by this distinction, he does not mean that we do not live an earthly existence. There is no sort of dualism in Paul; rather, I like what Karl Barth says about living in the flesh: “Living in the flesh is as if one asks no questions and does not desire to hear any answers.” In other words, in your daily living, you never ask God what you should do, you never seek God's guidance, you never listen for something, you never question yourself. You just go about and live your ordinary life, listening to the advice of whomever you wish, when you please, following your instincts and desires as they lead you and believing them to be the source of your guidance.

For the Apostle Paul, the true guide is the Holy Spirit. Therefore, there is no longer a debate about good and evil. One moves beyond good and evil. One moves into the life of the spirit and when one moves into the life of the spirit, and one seeks the guidance and the leading of the spirit, then one always asks: “What is it God that I should do?” And …“Empower me.”

There is a lovely story told of the comedian W.C. Fields. One day, W.C. Fields was caught reading his Bible. As he was reading his Bible, one person came up to him and said: “Mr. Fields, have you, after all these years, finally found religion?”

He said: “No, no, I am just looking for loopholes, that's all.”

So many people do that, in their lives. You know, even in moral arguments, always weighing the balance; trying to find a middle ground, something equitable, something that they can find acceptable and can live with.

For the Apostle Paul, it is not a balancing act. It is opening oneself completely and totally to the power of the Holy Spirit who leads one's life and who guides one's path and who challenges all one's assumptions in order that we may live in faithfulness to the one who sends the Spirit, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

But there is also a sense in which the Spirit is not only the guide, not only the one who accepts us, but ultimately:

III - The one who will give us life. In one of the most powerful passages in the whole of the New Testament, in the Book of Romans, Paul says: “When you receive this power of the Spirit, you are receiving the very same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.”

The very same power that emptied the tomb, the very same power that brought Jesus of Nazareth back to life, this is the power that is in you. No longer is there even a distinction between good and evil, there is not a distinction between here and there, for the power of God's eternal love has broken into your life in the here and now.

This was brought home to me a number of years ago, when one of the saddest and most difficult things I had to do was to go to the Izaak Walton Killam Hospital, a children's hospital in Halifax. As I look out on the congregation here, I can see people who were members of the church at that very time and that very day.

There was a little child that had been born prematurely in our congregation, with a terrible heart ailment that was incurable. One day at around three o'clock in the morning, I received a telephone call from the head nurse on the ward at the IWK. She said: “Reverend Stirling, I think now would be a good time for you to come to the hospital.”

So I put on my clothes and, on a snowy morning, I drove out to the IWK. I went into the magnificent unit that they have there for little children, the neonatal unit. It was obvious from the look on the parents' faces and on the doctor's face that this child's hours and minutes were numbered.

I put on a mask and gloves and asked for a little bowl of water. I wasn't really prepared, but I just asked the family whether they would want me, at this time, to baptize their child. They said: “If you do nothing else, Reverend, this is what we want.”

And so there, with the parents gathered around and the nurses as our witnesses, I put a little water on the forehead of this little child and baptized it in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As I turned and took off my gloves, and we recited the Lord's Prayer, the monitor went flat and the little child was gone.

You know, as I left and went home, shattered by that experience as anyone would be, the words of Paul in the Book of Romans kept coming back to me: That if this same power that raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead is in you, if this same power of the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ is the spirit that gives life, then do I not believe in my heart of hearts that in this baptism, the Spirit was as alive in that child as it is in the healthy child that we baptize on a day like this?

For the gift of God's Spirit is the gift of life. There is no longer a line between here and there, between now and then, if it is the same Spirit that raised Jesus Christ from the dead. If it is the same Spirit that raised Jesus Christ from the dead that is in you, if it is the same Spirit of Jesus Christ that blesses these children this morning, then like “Father Joe,” that is the single most important thing that you will ever put on your wall: that you are baptized into Christ's Church.


This is a verbatim transcription of the original sermon.