The words from Isaiah were surely words of comfort and assurance to the weary Israelites. They were weary from being in exile, far from their land, their home, where their God resided. Even upon their return, things were not as they had been, and it was unfamiliar. But these words from God through the voice of the prophet remind the people who they are and whose they are. As people created by God and for God’s glory (as the psalm also reminds), they need not fear.
To be created, formed, redeemed, protected, valued, honored, and loved by God — that alone is enough for us to take as good news. This God in all goodness and glory is on our side. As the favored ones, we have nothing to fear. “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid” (Canticle 9, First Song of Isaiah 12:2, BCP, p. 86). Strength and blessing are promised to God’s people. All prosperity is ours and ours alone.
Is it, though? Is that the full picture of our inheritance and our future? The fullness of our present moment?
If our strength and peace as children of God were solely about our believing in the Word or even about our baptism in water in the name of the Trinity, then perhaps that would be all we need. But of course there’s more to the story.
We’re told that Samaritans accepted the word of God. In the reading prior to the verses we read in Acts today, the Samaritans saw Philip proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ, healing the sick, raising the lame, casting out demons, and they believed in Jesus Christ, Son of God. They were baptized, but it didn’t end there. Peter and John are sent to them. They lay hands on them, and then they received the Holy Spirit. Now they can continue the good work in the name of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
But there’s even more to the story.
A man named Simon had practiced magic among the Samaritans, and they had been impressed by him, “amazed” (Acts 8:9). Like the Samaritans, Simon found himself being impressed by the works of Philip and realized that he, too, believed and was baptized. Simon stayed by Philip’s side.
When Simon saw what happened with the apostles laying their hands on the Samaritans, he saw something he wanted. He offered money to the apostles. “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may received the Holy spirit” (Acts 8:19). But Peter denied his money, incredulous that Simon thought he could buy God’s gift. Peter proclaims that Simon’s heart is not right before God, implores him to repent that he might be forgiven–if it’s possible at all. Simon does ask that Peter pray for him, that the curses not come to pass. We’re not told how Simon’s story ends.
So if we believe in the word of God, are baptized, and receive the power of the Holy Spirit–with good intentions, of course–then we’re good, right? Then we can rest in our blessedness?
It wasn’t like that for Jesus. It certainly isn’t like that for us.
John the Baptist said he baptized with water, but one more powerful than himself is coming to who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
We like baptism by water. Christendom might not agree on the amount of water, the place, or the age of baptism, but there’s agreement upon water and the invocation of the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to make a baptism valid. We exercise a lot of control and predictability in our baptisms so that they fit nicely within our services and our understanding of our traditions.
But when we start talking about Holy Spirit and fire, people back up really quickly. Trial by fire. Baptized by fire. These phrases don’t necessarily conjure up positive connotations. We’d rather go back to Isaiah and our psalm where we can focus on God loving us and giving us good things; let’s not complicate things.
As soon as we let go to give God the glory, to give God space to work in our lives, we complicate things, and things get out of our control.
Unlike Simon, John the Baptist knew his power would decrease, and gave way to one who is greater. John didn’t seek power or greatness for himself. Not only does he prepare the way for the Lord in his humility, but he also maintains integrity, not bowing down to Herod, calling him out for his cruelty and for taking his brother’s wife. John’s honesty didn’t garner Herod’s favor and actually got him imprisoned and eventually beheaded. John’s simple actions ran contrary to the societal norms. Jesus’s simple Way ran contrary to the norms of the first century. They still do.
Where things run contrary to one another, where there is conflict, there is friction. Friction heats up and can cause fire. Fire can be destructive, but it can also be restorative. Fire can refine things to burn off impurities. Fire gives us heat, energy, and light. Fire is necessary for life. We say our love and our anger burn, and they can burn in destructive or life-giving ways.
When we who are baptized acknowledge that we also have been empowered by the Holy Spirit–gifted in individual and particular ways–and put this power into work in our lives for the glory of God, things are going to get complicated. There’s going to be fire.
The ways of God are simple: Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves. The ways of the world are simple, too: look out for Number One to be the best. Until these two ways are reconciled, there will always be friction. We have the clearest case of it right now in the fight about a border wall. Except here, we don’t have friction, we have stand-off, realized in our government shutdown.
Richard Rohr in his book about the Trinity, The Divine Dance, says that it’s divine wisdom to be three in one because where there is simply duality, there is likelihood of either/or, us/them, one way or another. With a trinity, there can be ebb and flow, a third way that maintains the whole, unity in diversity, a divine dance. With a trinitarian mindset, we can view the world not solely as us against them but recall that we and they are in relationship with God. Ultimately this puts all of us in relationship with God, drawing us all into the divine dance of giving glory and praise to the almighty, giving us all the responsibility of manifesting the kingdom of heaven here and now.
Remember that Jesus didn’t just stroll into the temple palace and blast the rulers for their disregard of Almighty God. Jesus walked among the people, igniting their power by healing their dis-ease, crossing social and demographic barriers, manifesting a culture where anyone could come to the table and break bread together. He was reminding them of their value, their belovedness. While this may have given a sense of strength and blessing of peace within, the tensions mounted outside in the communities.
But all who have heard the Word of God, who believe, who are baptized, and are gifted with the Holy Spirit feel the fire within–even if it’s latent or smoldering–and recognize the fire outside in all the battles being waged, small and large–too many for me to name. The only control we have is over our own use of our gifts and the fuel that we have to fulfill the promises that we’ve made in our own baptisms.
“When (we) walk through fire (we) shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume (us)”–if we realize that the fire is of God and see clearly ourselves in right relationship with God and one another. If we know we are God’s as much as the one we name “other”. If we can say to the “other” that they are as precious in God’s sight, as honored and beloved as ourselves, then we show whose we really are in all of our thoughts, words, and deeds.