By Bruce G. Epperly
Epiphany proclaims a democracy of revelation. All people shall experience God’s glory. Revelation is built into reality and an omnipresent God, defined by relational love not unilateral power, seeks the well-being of all creation and humankind, no exceptions. Still, ubiquity does not require uniformity. All are touched, all are welcomed, and all are inspired. Yet, some spots and some persons more fully express God’s vision for humankind. This is not just a matter of our responsiveness; it is also the character of God’s call to us. The Celts speak of certain places as “thin places,” environments where heaven and earth, divinity and creation, are transparent to one another. As Jacob notes following his mystical experience of a ladder of angels, “God was in this place” – Beth-el – the gate of heaven.
This Sunday we celebrate the baptism of Jesus in a pluralistic age. We are confronted, when we talk about baptism, by the reality of seekers and even fellow Christians who have not been baptized. We are also reminded that baptism is not uniform in practice – some traditions emphasize unmerited grace through infant baptism, while others accentuate the importance of decision and community through believer’s baptism. Both are clearly authentic and both have precedent in the biblical tradition.
Genesis, Chapter One, reminds us that divine creativity – the source of our quest for salvation – emerges with the beginnings of the universe. In the language of myth and poetry, Genesis 1:1-5 describes the creation of the earth as the interplay of movement and word. A divine wind blows over an unformed chaos bringing order, beauty, and the prerequisites for future creation. This is not about chronology but creativity. Divine creativity always works within the elements of the universe, seeking forth to bring forth the best from them. Even the primordial chaos is attentive to the divine voice.
Out of water our lives emerge and from the waters of baptism, we experience spiritual refreshment.
Psalm 29 describes God’s creative and powerful voice. A divine vibration moves through all things, animating and inspiring them. The broad environment of our lives is God-inspired and God-filled. We don’t have to worry about the regularity of the universe or the patterns of seedtime and harvest. They are reflections of God’s faithfulness in the non-human as well as human worlds.
Acts 19 focuses on the relationship between baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit as an experiential reality, that is, experiencing the mystical and ecstatic movements of the spirit in our lives. As Paul baptizes a group of Ephesians, the Holy Spirit takes hold of them, giving them the power to speak in tongues and prophesy. This scripture is challenging since few of us today identify baptism with ecstatic experiences. We don’t expect a dove coming down from the sky, a voice of affirmation, or the ability to speak in strange tongues as the result of the act of baptism.
Still, the passage suggests that we should be on the lookout for mystical experiences whenever we celebrate the sacraments – visible signs of an invisible grace. Lacking such Pentecostal experiences does not make us lesser Christians, but we should be open to going beyond our spiritual comfort zones to experience God more fully in the world.
Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus’ baptism, but God’s words to Jesus reflect God’s care for our lives – “you are my Son or Daughter, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” While sacraments awaken us to God’s love, they don’t define the scope of God’s love. In the interplay of divine call and human response, sacramental moments may lead to life-transforming experiences, bringing wholeness to body, mind, spirit, and communities. Sacraments create a field of force around us and our loved ones that enable God and us to become partners in creative transformation and personal and planetary healing.
Still, baptism is not an occasion for Christian superiority or exclusivism. There is salvation – and revelation – outside the church. Even those who have not been baptized – seekers or persons currently alienated from the church – are God’s beloved people in whom, with whom, and through whom God is still moving. Every cell and every soul is the object of God’s creative-responsive love.
Baptism reminds us that God’s graces are “new every morning.” While typically a once in a lifetime experience, each day can be a celebration of our baptism, whether in modern prayers or the morning shower, an opportunity for renewal, refreshment, transformation, and cleansing. The Creative Wisdom who moves in the first moments of creation is still moving in our lives, luring us forward by the vision of wholeness, justice, beauty, and shalom.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.