r m p




Baptized in the Wind


Old Testament Reading: Psalm 51:15-17

New Testament Reading: Colossians 2:16-23

Text: Acts 1:4-5

 During this Pentecost season, I find myself absorbed in the Pentecost account of the Book of Acts. This morning I am intrigued by what Luke says by way of alluding to John the Baptist and anticipating the Spirit-baptism of Pentecost, "John baptized with water, but before many days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." This statement echoes that attributed to John himself in the Synoptic tradition: "I baptize you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

I do not think this saying goes back to John the Baptist; I think it is a characterization by Christians of John as Jesus' inferior and predecessor. It means to put John and his baptism in the shade by contrast with Jesus and his baptism. And what kind of baptism, pray tell, might ­that­ be?

 The early church took over the practice of water baptism from the Baptist sect, adding only the feature of pronouncing over the baptized the name of Jesus or, later, of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Is that possibly the baptism referred to in the saying? 

That can hardly be: the whole point would seem to be that mere outward water baptism is being superceded by something different in kind and far superior, Spirit-baptism. Whoever said this did not envision Christians continuing to practice the soggy rite of John the Baptist. 

If we weren't so immersed in the traditional practice of the church over 19 centuries, we would see this. Among the few Christian denominations to have spotted it is the Church of the Prophet Simon Kimbangu in Zaire. As a result they do not practice water baptism. 

I believe that the saying stems from an early stage of the Christian movement when it was emerging from the womb of Judaism and finding its way in the Greco-Roman world. It was sloughing off the old Jewish rituals, which did not fit so well anymore. 

I can think of a couple of other passages that might come originally from this period. 

    "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" Jesus said to them, "No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; if he does, the patch tears away from it, the old from the new, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but new wine is for fresh skins." (Mark 2:18-19a, 21-22)

So it would seem early on, some Christians celebrated the novelty of their faith by dropping the outward forms of Judaism, including both fasting and baptism. In both cases, John's rituals are among those left behind. 

The passage from Colossians is another textual fossil attesting the same view. The point seems to be that the new Christian revelation has transcended the need for outward charades, no more symbol and shadow-play, but the straight truth; no more the shadow, but now the substance.

This is a tendency we find again and again in the history of religions: the attempt to strip away what is perceived as the dead ritualism and formalism of conventional religion, to soar free with an experience of pure Spirit. 

The Druze, for example, still alive and well in Israel, Syria and Lebanon, began as a new revelation laying aside all the metaphorical and ceremonial baggage of centuries of Islam. They even did away with prayer as an eternal formality. 

Or Hegel, who thought the advent of the Absolute Spirit of philosophy would render useless the old picture-language of religion.  Kant, too, prescribed a "religion within the limits of reason alone"--pure moralism, no dogma, no ritual. 

This is what I hear when I read the saying "John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with Spirit." The point seems to be that the true spiritual experience can and should be abstracted from the primitive and messy outward form. 

But religious reform movements are seldom able to stick to this Spartan regimen. Sooner or later new rituals are created to fill the vacuum left by dispensing with the old ones. (The Druze, inevitably, began to compose and pray new prayers.)

This has certainly happened by the time Luke writes Acts: no sooner does he have the apostles receive the baptism of the Spirit on Pentecost than he has them baptize some new converts

in water! The very thing that Spirit baptism should have rendered totally superfluous! Or think of Paul. In what may be a genuinely Pauline section of 1 Corinthians he makes the puzzling statement "God did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel"--an odd thing if baptism is as important as he himself seems to make it elsewhere in his letters. There we read that baptism is the very means of our becoming spiritually one with Christ! 

I suspect that these passages are later interpolations by some successor of Paul who had embraced, along with most other Hellenistic Christians, the sacramental baptism ideas of the neighboring Mystery Religions. You see? In the very text that tried to reject the outward form of baptism as something unimportant, someone has added passages reinstating it--and then some!

It seems, then, that religious people just cannot stand to be long without the outward forms. Put it this way: maybe we can't use the old wine skins, but we have to have some skins to hold the wine! 

And eventually the new skins are going to become old and tight, with no more room to stretch. And sooner or later we're going to need to accommodate new truth, new experience, new wine. So it will be time for fresh skins again! It's a cycle. Why deny it? 

Why do we need the wine skins of ritual? Done right, a ritual is an acted symbol. It has the  same sort of power a psychodrama has. Something happens in your acting out, when you take communion, when a bride and groom say "I do." A ritual behavior is a way of opening your hands to the power of the human tradition, or to the Holy. 

And though it is often a step toward rationalism to dispense with old rituals (as when the rationalist Liberal Harnack dismissed liturgy as a lot of "mummery"), keep ­this­ in mind. Rituals provide a kind of alternate access route to religious experience for those of us who find it next to impossible to believe the old doctrines any more.   

If you had rejected all rituals and thus were reduced to a religion consisting only of doctrines, and you could no longer believe in those doctrines, well then, I guess your religiosity is pretty much sunk! But with ritual you still have a way of plugging into those mysterious realities which the old doctrines no longer help you to understand. 

Where are we in the cycle of old and new wineskins? We are voyagers on a sea of religious discovery. We are engaged in a spiritual quest. We are connoisseurs of new spiritual wine, even if it sounds pretentious and conceited to say so. 

Many of us are eager, indeed desperate to reinterpret our inherited creeds and symbols and rituals. But we have not gone so far in our voyaging, say, as our friends across the street at the Unitarian Church. We still find the old rituals and scriptures to be valuable resources, rich sources of spiritual growth. 

We are not particularly eager to cast out these wine skins or to be without skins at all. We seem to believe that the ancient cask of the Christian tradition yet flows with a choice vintage. We want to embrace and affirm the ecumenical ocean of the Christian (as well as other) traditions. 

The spiritual adventure is to set sail with the wind of the Spirit at your back. There is no telling on what undiscovered continent you may end up. We ought to welcome the new, seek it like the air craved by the lungs of a suffocating man. But in that voyage to new religious horizons, it may turn out that the old rituals and myths may be just the sails you need to drive your ship onward.

Robert M. Price



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