THE HOLY SPIRIT OUTPOURED
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON JANUARY 11th, 2009
Mark 1:10 “He saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove.”
At first the Baptism of Jesus seems to raise questions. In fact, it provides answers.
Firstly, as we hear the Father’s voice and see the Holy Spirit represented by a dove – all surrounding Jesus in the Jordan, we find here the first description in the Bible of the Holy and Blessed Trinity. And it emphasizes the core doctrine of the Trinity – three persons who are all different – but one God.
For the Trinity is here at the Jordan, present in a very personal way. We hear the Father, we see the Holy Spirit, and if we were there we could reach out and touch the Son. So here we have the Trinity.
The second answer provided by this event concerns the nature of Jesus, which for centuries was a problem. We are taught that he is both God and Man. Today at his baptism we encounter the Father saying: “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased”. So this day the Father establishes that Jesus is nothing less than his Son.
For 30 years Jesus has been wrestling with his identity – and now God the Father makes it plain. I am sure that as a child Jesus knew he was different – but he must have wondered why, and in what way? No doubt his mother told him the circumstances and significance of his birth – and the symbolism of the gifts of the Magi. Gold, denoting he is King of kings; Incense, denoting he is the Son of God; and the Myrrh, denoting that he is the Lamb of God.
No doubt in his teenage years of inquiry and discovery he was contemplating what these things meant. Even as he grew in wisdom and statue, as the Scripture says, he was still learning – and no doubt wondering. So today, at age 30, he comes to the Jordan – and this baptism marked the transition from his growing and learning to the beginning of his ministry and vocation as the Christ – the promised One.
He experienced this baptism not because, like us, he needed his sins washed away – but as an identifying with us, and with all humanity, who need ours sins washed away. This baptism identifies Jesus with the human-race he has come to save from sin. Hence Saint Paul says: God made him – who was without sin – into sin – for our sake. It was symbolic and it was identification.
In his humanity, no doubt all is not yet clear even on this day of baptism. But the Father affirms who he is by saying: “Thou art my beloved Son” – and then sends him out from the Jordan to begin his ministry. Jesus is not just God and Man – but perfect God and perfect Man. Therefore his baptism seems odd and raises questions. For a perfect Man does not need to be baptized – and a perfect God is the one who gives baptism.
His baptism is strange not just because for us baptism is when our sins are forgiven and washed away – but also in this event the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, and this seems unnecessary. For we know that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Did he need therefore a further outpouring of the Spirit if the Spirit was part of his life from the moment of his conception? And it does not make sense when we consider that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are both united in love, as equal members of the Trinity.
These are good questions about Jesus’ baptism.
Think about our own experiences of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. First of all we receive the Holy Spirit at our Baptism, though usually we are not aware. Then in Confirmation we receive a particular outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and this is very real to adults being confirmed. They often feel much like Jesus did with God saying they are beloved. They feel sent into a ministry as members of the Church. So there is a particular outpouring at Confirmation which follows Baptism. Also for many children the moment of first Communion is a moment when the Holy Spirit makes Himself present in their lives, and they become aware of God’s grace and presence.
Then of course after Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation comes the regular receiving of the Sacrament and our sharing in the Eucharist. Every time we come together for the Eucharist the Holy Spirit is being poured upon us. Right now the Holy Spirit is present in this Church – and when it comes time for the prayer of consecration, the Spirit will mightily descend and transform bread and wine into the very Body and Blood of Christ.
And what about the other Sacraments? Yes, in the other Sacraments the Holy Spirit is poured out. Those who have received the Sacrament of Unction know that, though they may not be completely healed, they feel a strengthening and power of the Holy Spirit. And those who make their Confession know that one of the results of that is the joy that the Holy Spirit gives in that Sacrament. I could go on – you see there is continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christian men and women.
Not only in those liturgical and significant rites, but also through our often quiet experiences of prayer. When we pray we may not feel the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit is there working. And particularly when we pray in times of anxiety, or trouble, or need, or problems – we find that we are being strengthened by the Holy Spirit. As Saint Paul says: “When we can not pray in words, the Holy Spirit prays for us beyond our understanding”.
And even if we aren’t aware of the Spirit in all those moments of prayer and the sacraments, when we come together as All Saints’ family in worship and fellowship, the Holy Spirit is present and being poured out too. Particularly in our fellowship occasions there is the presence of joy, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
So the Holy Spirit is continually outpoured in the life of Christians. Consider also that the Church could not exist without a continual outpouring of the Spirit within its life. And its ministers could not do the job they have been anointed to do, unless the Holy Spirit was being continually outpoured on them.
Saint Mark emphasizes this continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit in today’s event by saying “the heavens opened”. A better translation is actually “torn apart”. You can imagine what it must have looked like, with this thing that looked like a dove, and the sky falling apart. The Spirit came down obviously and visibly. That doesn’t usually happen with us – but certainly the Spirit descends upon us even though the heavens may not be torn apart.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit – like the very baptism of Jesus itself – is an image of what happens to us as Christians. When we were baptised we received the Holy Spirit. When Jesus is baptised He is identifying himself with us – in our need of baptism and in the continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit from then.
That is why at our baptism we are made members of the Body of Christ. If Jesus identifies with us in his baptism, therefore surely we identify with him in our baptism. The Book of Common Prayer says we are made “very members Incorporate in the mystical body of Christ”.
Today in his baptism, Jesus also is revealed as both Son of God, and Son of Man. Son of God through the voice of the Father – and Son of Man by his identification with all the baptised through being baptised.
Saint Mark says the Holy Spirit descended “Like a dove”. He doesn’t say it was a dove, but that it looked like a dove. A strange image we might think – until we recall the Book of Genesis in beginning it says that at Creation, the Holy Spirit “broods” over the waters like a dove. This image of the Holy Spirit going woosh over the waters is a connection to the Baptism in the River Jordan, where it broods again over the waters of the river.
At creation, the Word – Jesus – through whom all things were made – and the Holy Spirit, who broods over creation as a dove, have formed a long-standing relationship. Since creation the Spirit and the Son – the dove and the Word – are intrinsically related and joined. So, of course, at His baptism in the waters the Spirit will be present.
Also in Genesis, after the flood it was a dove that brought the news to Noah, and the dove has forever since been a symbol of peace – and particularly since World War 2.
As always when we look at this symbol we see God speaking to us not only in words, but in symbols that are obvious and easily understood. Particularly in the seven Sacraments of the Church God uses symbols that convey what they symbolise. This morning bread and wine – symbols of food and drink – will become our spiritual food and drink, for our spiritual growth and sustenance, God uses the symbol and gives us what it actually symbolizes. In every Sacrament the Holy Spirit comes down and changes these things of his creation into divine gifts of grace.
At every Sacrament the Holy Spirit comes down, not like a dove – but in water, oil, bread and wine. It is only through the Holy Spirit that these things of creation can change and become the means of grace. Think about the Eucharist. Through Holy Communion, through the Body of Christ, we are incorporated into the Body of Christ. So we become what we receive. Only the Holy Spirit can make this possible – otherwise it is nonsense.
The Holy Spirit makes all these wonderful gifts of grace in the Sacrament possible. The Holy Spirit transforms the bread and wine, and makes them divine. He transforms the waters of baptism and makes them the power of new life and new birth. He who was breathed over creation, re-creates, for he is as the Creeds says, he is the Lord and Giver of Life. And so he re-creates us in this Sacrament this morning.
The Holy Spirit who came upon Jesus in the Jordan, now comes upon the bread and wine so that Jesus might once again be present to his people, as he was on that day in the River Jordan – his first real manifestation as the Christ, the Anointed One.
The Holy Spirit has been working every day since creation. The baptism of Jesus reminds us that a particular work of the Holy Spirit began then. That work continues whenever Christians gather to celebrate the Eucharist. And that enables the work of the Holy Spirit to continue in the lives of all who follow this Jesus.