The Holy Spirit interrupted me in writing this and now I have rewritten this first segment. There is more to come, I promise…
Forever Stone is an ‘adventure’. Our Guide is the Holy Spirit. This time our journey is headed down some trails that are not well traveled. There will be some ‘rough’ sections. Please ask the Holy Spirit to help you through the rough places. Ask Him to guide you as you read the following essay. While you can leave the trail, I ask that you stay with it. There is a beautiful view at the end of the trail.
A few years ago I enrolled in an on-line seminary, taking a few courses for personal enrichment. These were courses designed for those who are called into ordained ministry and, as such, were very rigorous. I was glad I merely audited the courses. In one of these courses I was required to read The Church of the Holy Spirit by Nicholas Afanasiev. (My copy is an e-book through Google Play Books.) If you are from the “West” and you would like a really difficult reading challenge, I would recommend The Church of the Holy Spirit by Nicholas Afanasiev. The “East” thinks differently from the “West”. The Greek and Russian Churches do not think with the same history and assumptions as the Roman and Protestant Churches.
Fr. Afanasiev was, for me, very difficult to comprehend. I struggled to finish his book. And that struggle was, ultimately, very rewarding. One of the things that made this a very difficult struggle was that Fr. Afanasiev poked into things in my life that I thought were completed. After I finished reading the book, I found myself back on a journey that I thought finished. The Holy Spirit “assisted” me with the remainder of that journey and now I ask you to join me in that journey.
So, let’s take a ‘hike’, go on an ‘adventure’ with the Holy Spirit as our Guide. I have not planned this hike, I’m just going to report what happens on it. I will confirm that the “facts” reported here are correct. There are, apparently, a number of people going on our adventure. We would like to have you join us. We will cover some of the points in my journey, but I’m sure the Holy Spirit will take us to some other points as well. To get in the spirit of this hike, pretend that you have parked your vehicle in the trailhead parking lot. There is a yellow brick road going up the side of the mountain…
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…The trailhead is almost at the top of a nice ridge of mountains. After everyone gets their backpacks and hiking sticks we make the short climb to an overlook where we can catch our breath after the short, quick hike up to the top.
This overlook is 1 Peter 2: 1-10. From this place we can look out over the landscape and one very interesting point is Exodus 19:6. God told the people of Israel that they were to become a nation of priests, a holy nation. As we take in the view, we notice the information plaque which indicates that the overlook is named “The Priesthood of All Believers”. We can see so other very nice places including one spot that seems overrun with visitors. The information plaque identifies it as “John 3:16” One of our group says, “Oh, no wonder that trailhead parking lot is full to overflowing. Now I’m glad I took this hike instead.”
A quick search and we see the blaze marking our trail on a tree. Some of us comment that, while the trail up to the overlook is well used, few seem to take this trail down into the valley below. As we go around a bend we get a view of the Jordan River flowing South to the Dead Sea. And we may pause a moment to consider that the abundant life we find in the Sea of Galilee does not transfer with the river to the Dead Sea.
As we look out over the valley, we see that out trail appears to be headed down to the river. The trail looks steep and not so well maintained as some of the more traveled paths. There’s even a sign warning us to watch our step. Apparently there are some loose rocks.
As we get closer we can see that there are people being baptized. And we begin to discuss the meaning of baptism. Lots of opinions are offered. The consensus is that Baptism is a very interesting Sacrament. There is in some way, an imparting of Grace; however, this is a bit obscure. Opinions vary here, but obviously, something does happen during Baptism. Most of us know what our denomination says about baptism, but few of us really understand it. Some would say that it is through Baptism that we are ‘washed of our sins’ or that we are ‘incorporated into the body of Christ’ or that we are ‘buried and risen with Christ’ or even that we are saved and cleansed through Baptism. But, when pressed hard, these same people admit that these things are not accomplished by Baptism, but by our acceptance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some of the more scholarly of us note that Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and many other saints of the Church taught this. We all agree that Baptism is a Sacrament. When the Great Commission of Matthew 28 is mentioned, we all seem forced to agree that you don’t have to be a priest, just a Christian, to baptize someone. But not everyone agrees with this. One person is sure that Baptism is an adoption ceremony. Even though some are fairly certain of their opinion, others seem skeptical. Perhaps it’s just because it’s the first day, but while no one seems to have a satisfactory answer, everyone does seem willing to listen respectfully to other opinions.
Some loose gravel on the trail starts to slide down the hill. A few of us are grateful for the walking sticks that help keep our balance. One or two of us is assisted by a neighbor in keeping balance and staying on the trail. And someone in the group even says that we did not get into the loose gravel until we started talking about baptism. Many of us laugh at the correlation. Another person asks the Holy Spirit to guide us. We all pray quietly as we take careful steps.
The Holy Spirit seems to be saying “Have patience. The trail is steep and the gravel is loose. Tread carefully. Maybe one of you will share about your Baptism?” We take extra care as we proceed down the hill. Each of us is remembering our Baptism. Occasionally, someone slips a bit on the gravel. Then, when we reach a more level place, one of the group begins to share about his Baptism.
“I do not remember it,” says one older lady, “I was baptized as an infant. When I was fourteen I participated in Confirmation. I have always wondered if I was saved by my infant baptism or by my confirmation.”
A gray-haired man said that he accepted Jesus when he was ten and was baptized the next week in a creek close to the church. He laughed and added, “I sure was glad it was summer!” Everyone laughed. Then he said, “I’ve always felt blessed that Jesus revealed Himself to me. I remember the baptism, because I wore my good clothes into the creek. But what I have never forgotten is meeting Jesus.”
Then a man of about thirty volunteered, “We had a baptismal pool behind the altar. They said it was heated, but it still felt cold to me.” “Yeah, that’s right,” someone offers an agreement with him, “That baptismal pool was quite chilly. But we had warm towels given to us.” A few murmurs and then the only sounds were the sounds of the forest and our feet and walking sticks.
A small hill blocks our view of the river for a short while. When it comes into view again an athletic-looking young man said, “I was baptized as an infant. But they made me go through these classes before I could be confirmed. Everybody in the classes said they were saved because no one wanted to cause trouble. I know ‘cause we talked about it after the third class.” There was quite a bit of murmuring following his confession. Someone asked, “So, you were baptized, but you’re not saved?” The young man blushed, then said, “I accepted Jesus two years ago.” Then a young girl spoke up, “Well, I was also baptized as an infant. Then I met Jesus on a retreat when I was fourteen. The priest made me wait a whole year and I was confirmed on Pentecost when I was fifteen.”
After that no one spoke for a while. We hiked slowly down the trail and took a break at a small pool of water with lots of rocks around. Everyone sat down and pulled out water bottles and gorp. The Holy Spirit pressed hard on me, and I finally spoke up.
My family began worship in a Baptist congregation. Eventually we moved to a Methodist congregation: it was very much closer to our house, it had a Boy Scout Troop and some of my Dad’s friends attended church there. When I turned 13 I learned that I was to be baptized. There were some “classes” that I had to attend, and then the event would occur. Well, I attended maybe two of the classes and was baptized as scheduled. Eventually, I realized that had been put through a ritual without understanding what that ritual meant. So I made an attempt to “wash it off” (I was thirteen…) and promised God that if I ever understood what it was all about, I would get properly baptized. And, eventually, as a much older adult, I did tell a preacher about my original baptism and he agreed that I should be properly baptized.
Let me state outright that at the age of thirteen I did not think I was saved, even though I prayed and talked to God. However, after I ‘washed off’ the baptism, I did succumb to a number of temptations. I believe that it was the prayers of my grandparents and parents that helped me with the spiritual struggle that was the result.
Even though the United Methodist Church practices infant baptism, I began to believe that this was not the proper way to proceed with that ritual. From my own experience I thought that a person needed to know that he/she had been saved before baptism made sense. To complicate things for myself, I moved my family to a new denomination, the Charismatic Episcopal Church, and soon learned that they, also, practiced infant baptism.
When a priest in my new denomination explained that infant baptism was like infant circumcision in that it provides spiritual protection for the infant, I accepted that. It made sense. There are, I knew from personal experience, many demonic spirits in this world. It is wise to protect the infant.
As I finished my tale, several people indicated that they were even more confused. While the first discussion had been about Baptism being a Sacrament and/or a cleansing ritual and/or being incorporated into the Body of Christ, no one had any such personal explanation. Another younger lady, who had the demeanor of an experienced hiker, spoke up, “So, why is it that our personal experience of Baptism is different from the theological definitions?”
With her question on each of our minds, we felt the Holy Spirit urging us to look at the Jordan River Valley. We could easily see the river draining out of the Sea of Galilee and flowing down to the Dead Sea. One of the older men, named Tom, spoke up, “Well, I think this river valley is a clue to baptism. Everyone is baptized up near the Sea of Galilee, but the water flows down into the Dead Sea. Perhaps the water is cleansing?”
“I don’t think that’s it,” said an older lady, whose name was Gladys. “There are at least two of us who were baptized without being saved. And more who were baptized as infants. Baptism does not save anyone. And a couple of us went through Confirmation without being saved. I don’t think the water has much to do with it. Besides, if the water is cleansing, then why is the land like a desert as you get closer to the Dead Sea?”
The athletic young man, named Jason, spoke up again, “Okay. Let’s see if we can make a list of what we know. First, as I and others have testified, baptism is not an act of salvation. So that’s one point. Second, some think babies should be baptized, as some form of protection. But it didn’t stop me from lying at my confirmation or prevent the sinful life I led until I was saved. Then some of us think we should only be baptized after being saved. That would make baptism a public witness of something that has already happened. So what’s the big deal? Why is it so important? Isn’t the fact that I’m saved much more important than the fact that I’m baptized? So why does one Church concentrate on baptism and another one concentrate on being saved?
A young girl, named Lucy, spoke up now, “In either case, it seems, nothing truly miraculous happens at the time of the baptism, nor at the time of confirmation. It is just a public ritual confirming that the one baptized is now a member of the Church. If the child is not born into a Christian family, why would the parents want it baptized? So the infant baptism is merely a confirmation that the parents are Christians who intend to provide a Christian oriented home for their child. But they would do that anyway. The miracle occurs when the person accepts Jesus as Savior. That event is usually a very private event. The public ritual of Baptism is simply confirmation of the miracle of salvation. Baptism, it seems, is a membership ritual.”
We had reached our camping spot near the shore of the Jordan River. Everyone was setting up tents and camp stoves were being fired up for cooking. Our dinners had, apparently, tabled the discussion.
That evening a few of the group told the stories of their meeting Jesus. These stories of personal salvation were a blessing to each of us. But each of us, as we listened, could not help but ponder the labyrinth of confusion.
The next morning Amos, an older man whose gray hair was very thin, spoke up first, “We seem to have left it last night that baptism was a membership ritual. Yet that cannot be. It is a Sacrament. Something does happen at Baptism. That’s why it is such a big deal. That is why it is such a controversy among the denominations. Baptism is not merely a public confirmation of salvation. It actually is a Sacrament that does impart God’s Grace. We have forgotten something very important: that it can be performed by any baptized Christian. What does that mean? How can that work? How can a lay person perform a Sacrament? Isn’t that what the priest or preacher is supposed to do?”
We all looked around at each other. He was right, so far as it went. But instead of bringing us closer to understanding, he seemed to have added to the labyrinth of confusion.
Breakfast was cooked, the site cleaned up and the tents packed up. We were headed to the ruins of ancient Jericho. It would be a relatively easy downhill stroll. And we had the whole day to get there. And so we meandered down to Jericho. Much of the discussion centered on the Joshua story of marching around the city and then blowing the trumpets and the walls falling down. Everyone had a different opinion. Some thought it was an earthquake; properly timed, for sure. Others thought the spies had planted explosives in Rahab’s house, which was in the wall. Many were sure that it was just a God thing. The pros and cons of each argument were offered; mostly as a procrastination for the real subject. And, it seemed like the Holy Spirit was content to let us ramble around; almost like there was something in our discussion of Jericho that had bearing on the topic of baptism.
We arrived in Jericho in early afternoon. Instead of pitching tents, we found rooms in a hotel and went exploring: some into the city and others to the ruins. We could spend days exploring this city, but our Guide tells us that we need to continue our hike. So, the next morning we were back on the trail, headed toward the Dead Sea.