On a cold January morning in 2007 at 7:51am in the middle of the Friday rush hour a man in a ball cap and sweatshirt arrived at a Metro stop in Washington DC and began to play his violin. He performed six classical pieces in 43 minutes. During that time 1,097 people passed by. The fiddler was one of the finest classical musicians in the world (Joshua Bell) and he played some of the most elegant and beautiful music ever written on one of the most valuable violins in existence ($3.5 mil). The performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities. In a banal setting at an inconvenient time would people stop to notice beauty. In the end, only 7 of the nearly 1,100 people who passed by actually stopped to spend a minute or two listening. A senior curator from the National Gallery of Art in DC weighed in as to why this may have been the reaction. Mark Leithauser oversees the framing of paintings in the gallery and has held countless great works of art in his hands. His response was that context matters. A $5 million abstract painting hanging without a frame in a coffee shop might look more like the work of an art-school student than a masterpiece. Simply put, no one is going to notice it. A baseball cap wearing Joshua Bell hidden away in a metro station was unframed art. As we shall see from our readings this morning, the ministry of the church like the ministry of John the Baptist is a frame, of sorts, through which we view the Anointed One.
It is worth noting the phrase with which our gospel reading begins: “As the people were filled with expectation…” (15). Standing at the end of the prophets, John’s ministry as we know was an anticipatory one. Luke makes this abundantly clear in a number of ways, John exists to point to the Messiah, the Christ, the Lord’s Anointed One. Thus, the Church has come to understand John as the forerunner, or as the friend of the bridegroom. Indeed, for Luke, the ministry of John the Baptist is as important in the history of salvation as the birth of the Messiah. Both are the initiative of a gracious God. John’s prophetic ministry is, of course, rooted in Israel’s history and the prophets that have come before him. A few verses earlier in this chapter John quotes the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God,’” (4-6). Isaiah sheds further light on John’s ministry: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth…” (42:1-4). So, this expectation of the coming of the Lord’s Anointed was a part of Israel’s history from at least the time of Isaiah. How would Israel recognize this servant? He will be the one upon whom the Spirit of God rests. Seven-hundred years later John receives a similar message: “…the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit,’” (John 1:33). There is another passage from the second Psalm that is important for Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism: “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you,’” (2:7). These images from Isaiah and from the Psalmist come together in our gospel reading today, we witness the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus and the voice from heaven proclaim, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus of Nazareth is the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Prince of Peace who will bring God’s justice to the world. Further, this Messiah is God’s own Son and John’s testimony about this Messiah includes, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” (16).
Israel’s expectations included a Spirit-anointed messiah (Is 42:1) and a day when God would pour out His Spirit upon all flesh (Joel 2:28). John’s testimony of the messiah takes it merely a small step further, the one who is anointed by the Holy Spirit will baptize others with the Holy Spirit and with fire. What is it to be baptized with the Holy Spirit? Following Luke’s narrative, we discover that Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan foreshadows another baptism. Later on in Luke Jesus says to his disciples: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (12:49). This is, of course, a reference to the crucifixion which is Christ’s true baptism. Thus, for Luke, it is not only the Anointed One who will baptize others with the Holy Spirit but the Anointed One who has passed through death, defeating it by his own death. So, at the end of his gospel account Luke has the risen Jesus tell his disciples to wait in Jerusalem, “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised,” (24:49). This is where Luke begins his second book, Acts, with Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem, Jesus having promised them that something was coming from the Father. Here, Luke has Jesus expand on what this promised gift is: “for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now,” (1:5).
Shortly after this in Acts the Holy Spirit is indeed poured out upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost, an act which Peter interprets as those last days when the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh. With the outpouring of the Spirit the disciples become witnesses of the resurrected and living Jesus so that others might see and hear (Acts 2:33). To bear witness to Jesus is to act as a frame of sorts, drawing attention to risen Jesus in their midst. After Pentecost Peter preaches to the crowds who had witnessed the disciples being baptized with the Spirit. The reaction of the crowd to Peter’s preaching is, “what should we do?” Peter’s response? “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” (2:38). And they were baptized and received the Holy Spirit and became part of a community, “devoted…to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” (2:42). By the time we arrive at our epistle reading from this morning the word of God has begun to spread outside of the Jewish community, those in Samaria have accepted the word. In the next chapter, Saul will be converted, and in the chapter after that the first Gentiles will accept the gospel of Christ. How quickly the gospel explodes to include all people everywhere!
For our purposes here this morning I want us to note that to be baptized into Christ is to receive the Holy Spirit and thus to be gathered into the community that is the church. Paul works this out in the first century in some of his epistles. For example in his letter to the Ephesians Paul, arguing for the unity of the church says, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all…” (4:4-6). One baptism, that is Christ’s. Thus, when we are baptized we are baptized into Christ’s baptism. As Paul says elsewhere, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life,” (Rom 6:3-4). And again, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you,” (Rom 8:11). The Church Father Irenaeus continues this thought in the second century: “As dry flour cannot be united into a lump of dough, or a loaf, but needs moisture; so we who are many cannot be made one in Christ Jesus without the water which comes from heaven…For our bodies have received the unity which brings us to immortality, by means of the washing [of Baptism]; our souls receive it by means of [the gift of] the Spirit,” (Against Heresies, III. XVII. 2). To be baptized, is to be baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, it is to receive the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead. The risen and living Jesus gathers you by his Spirit into the Church and there we learn to walk by the Spirit in newness of life. And yes, we must learn this. We must learn to walk in the Spirit, we must learn to know and recognize the risen and living Jesus in the breaking of the bread, in the opening of the Scriptures, and in the ordinary mundaneness of our everyday lives. We cannot figure God out on our own, we cannot know Christ apart from the community which he gathers around himself by baptism and the outpouring of his Spirit. It may sound like a contentious statement to say that we cannot know Christ apart from the church, and indeed it is. But it is true, because the Holy Spirit is the gift of the Father and the Son to the church. Thus, it is only in relation with one another, and only as we receive the faith which has been passed on from the Apostles that we can recognize the risen Jesus in our midst.
I should stress, however, that the Spirit is not the possession of the church, nor does the church exist for herself. The church exists for the good of the world, the church is the community which anticipates the future reality of the whole world “ahead of schedule”, as it were. The work of the Spirit is gathered around the mission of God and as such it empowers folks to participate with the risen Jesus in this mission in and for the world. The task of the church, including us here at St. Matthew’s, is comparable to the task of John the Baptist, namely, to point to Jesus. There is a particular painting of the crucifixion of Jesus by the German Renaissance artist Matthias Grünewald that is well known for hanging over the desk of Karl Barth as he wrote what is widely considered to be one of the finest works of theology in modern times. In the painting John the Baptist points at the crucified Christ. There is much that could be noted in the painting, but one particularly interesting bit is the Baptist’s finger which is strangely elongated. It draws your eyes to it and then to where it points. It could be said that the church is a bit like John’s finger, always pointing beyond herself to Christ. Thus, the church is the community which, as Christ’s Spirit-filled Body, lives to “frame” the risen Jesus, providing a context in which we and others are invited to see and recognize and know the living and glorified Christ. And the Christ which John and which the church points to is not Christ the teacher, nor Christ the prophet, nor Christ the moral example, but the crucified and risen Christ. For whatever else we might say about Christ Jesus, the one thing we must say is that he was crucified for us, and was raised on the third day, and that he lives to pour out his Spirit upon those who are baptized into his Body, the church. And now, as we await the return of Christ Jesus may we who are baptized into his death walk in the Spirit. A new creation has begun, let us walk in it, for in-so-doing we point beyond ourselves to the risen and living Jesus. Amen.