Anybody here ever watch “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition?” It’s on TV on Sunday nights. Here’s the premise of the series: some poor deserving family is nominated for help to replace their awful little home, and a team of professional builders and volunteers and designers take down that old home and replace it with something amazing, in only seven days. The family’s lives are transformed by giving them the home they need, and then some, and all who help out feel uplifted by the experience.
Transformation is powerful, and we who are followers of Christ do know a little about the transformation business. We also know that the starting point for most all of us is in baptism.
What kind of baptism did you have?
Were you a little baby when you were baptized, so the only memories you have of the experience are photos in a scrapbook or a baptismal certificate tucked into the family bible? Did you wear a fancy antique baptismal gown that was worn by five generations in your family and was the liturgy very formal in a Gothic cathedral? Were you a teenager who responded to an altar call and were dunked into the lake at Bible camp? Were you an adult, who perhaps had not been raised in a church or whose church did not believe in infant baptism, and you stepped into a pool in a megachurch, surrounded by a praise choir?
Baptisms come in all different kinds. They share some similarities, of course. There is always water, whether it is in a font or a baptismal pool or a riverside. There are always prayers invoking the power of the Trinity. There is always a focus on how the one being baptized in transformed, but the exterior trappings may be different.
Transformation: that’s the issue that the Apostle Paul was dealing with when he was visiting Ephesus. He heard that some of the Ephesians had been baptized by Apollos, a well-known evangelizer for Jesus. “Great!” Paul thought. Then he asked a few questions, and got concerned.
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were baptized?” “Uhhh….What’s that?”
“The Holy Spirit. You’re supposed to have the Holy Spirit come upon you when you’re baptized.”
“Can’t say that we had any Holy-Spirit type thing when we were baptized. We did feel pretty clean afterwards, though. No more sin. That was sweet!”
You can imagine Paul sighing at this point and muttering under his breath, “Oh, Apollos, your heart was in the right place and all, but this is just not right.”
So Paul said to these Ephesians, “Tell me a little more about that baptism.”
“Well,” they said, “it was John’s baptism, of course. Apollos is a disciple of John, you know.”
“Ah,” Paul replied. “There’s the problem. Apollos baptized you as he was baptized by John. But John was not Jesus – he was the forerunner. He himself said ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but there is one coming after me who will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit.’ John baptized with the baptism of repentance, but he also told the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.”
Oops. Wrong baptism. So the Ephesians said, “Okay, let’s get baptized again, the right way. We are followers of Jesus.” And when Paul baptized them, they began to do all sorts of amazing things, including speaking in tongues and prophesying, all of which were signs that the Holy Spirit had indeed come upon them.
Here’s the opposite of what we talked about in the beginning of this sermon. Here the exterior trappings were the same, but the interior transformation was incomplete. It was as if the builders on Extreme Makeover simply slapped a pretty new exterior onto the old shack.
When I hear this story, I wonder if poor Apollos was just confused, if he thought John’s flavor of baptism was the same as Jesus.’ We know Apollos claimed to be a follower of Christ, although he seems to have never seen or heard Jesus.
He didn’t seem to understand that the way he was initiating new followers of Christ was not quite right – earlier in Acts, a couple of Paul’s friends, Priscilla and Aquila, had chastised him gently for not teaching accurately, and now he was once again off-track.
So was Apollos a bad guy? Was he a dishonest contractor who didn’t deliver the makeover he promised?
Probably not. He thought he was doing things the right way, and in fact, the way he baptized people looks like it was a lot like what we do. Dipping or sprinkling with water to wash away sins through the love of Christ. Sort of a power-wash for the soul. But Paul seems to be talking about something else, something so transformative that it isn’t just a power-wash, it’s an extreme makeover. People are radically transformed when this baptism occurs.
Does this mean that the way we are doing baptism now is incorrect? Are we doing things as Apollos did, or as Paul did? After all, it is unlikely that any of us began prophesying when we were baptized.
Well, wait a minute. When we speak of prophesying, what do we mean?
We hear that word, and we think it’s talking about predicting the future. But in the world of the evangelist Luke, who wrote Acts of the Apostles, prophesying is something very different – it’s about talking about the present. It is, as my seminary professor Ruthanna Hooke says, “to speak in God’s name on behalf of God’s work in the world.”
That’s not so odd: when you think of the ancient prophets of the Old Testament, they talk first and foremost about the way people are behaving in their time that is causing them to get into trouble. Yes, they talk about what will happen – consequences for their actions – but their primary focus is on naming what is going on in their generation and how it comports with God’s wishes.
It is about identifying the ways that we live, and the ways that we need to change, to transform, if we are to be in good relationship with our God.
So this gift of the spirit- prophesying – is not quite so rare as we think. We all know of folks who have that ability to do what we describe as “calling it as they see it.” The only difference between them and prophets is that those who prophesy couch their comments in terms of God’s wishes and God’s work and what we should do. If someone says, “we need to do something about those hungry people who beg for food, so let’s help out at Lamb’s Basket” that person is being prophet. If someone says, “we’re spending way too much on making ourselves looking good and nowhere near enough on helping others, so let’s start a program to help those in need,” that person is being a prophet.
If the only purpose of baptism was to cleanse us of our sins, that would be good, but it would not be enough. After all, we know that Jesus died on the Cross to redeem us from our sins. If baptism is only about our sinfulness, the sacrament is merely a remembrance of Christ’s loving act of redemption. But baptism is something more. It is about taking us, cleansed of our sins, reoriented toward a loving God, and lighting a fire in us to be prophets in that same sense that I described a few moments ago. It is about empowering us to speak and to act in response to the gift of redemption in a way that helps others who need our help.
It is an Extreme Makeover. Not a demolition of an old shack and a replacement with a fancy new home, but the demolition of a self-interested and easily distractable soul and its replacement with a soul on fire for Christ, on fire to transform the love that it feels from God into action to serve God and to help others.
Our baptisms are not simply an initiation, they are transformation. That is the gift that Paul is talking about. We are not just washed and polished up, we are changed into something new. What new thing will you be because of it?