“Our Mutual Friend,” was the last novel that Charles Dickens completed before his death. The novel opens when an old man who makes a living pulling dead bodies from the Thames, pulls out the pulls the body of a man he thinks is John Harmon. Harmon had been the heir to a vast fortune, but his inheritance had depended upon him marrying a girl, Bella, whom he had never met. The truth is that is that Harmon did not drown in the Thames; the body been that of another. Taking advantage of this case of mistaken identity, Harmon hid out under an assumed name so that he could study the effects of his father’s money upon the man who did receive it, and so he could get to know Bella better. Eventually, he does marry Bella, and he does inherit is father’s fortune, but he does all he does on his own terms. One commentator writes, “Harmon’s death and subsequent resurrection … is consistent with Dickens’s recurring theme of rebirth from the water.”
Last week, Hollie Nelson said to me that all the great themes of literature come from the Bible or Shakespeare. Naturally, the Bible is preeminent; and Dickens rooted many of his books in the Bible. “Great Expectations,” has an Advent theme. “A Tale of Two Cities,” seems to be rooted in a verse from Romans chapter 5, about how one might dare to die for a good man. “A Christmas Carol” is as good an illustration of the Christian’s new birth in the Holy Spirit as one can find in literature. Now if the idea of rebirth from water sounds familiar, it should. “Our Mutual Friend,” immediately puts one in the mind of Baptism in the New Testament, whether the baptism of John or the Baptism of Jesus.
There is, of course, a difference. In John 1:26 John the Baptist himself says, “I baptize you with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the throng of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” And in John 1:33, he adds, “I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”
John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and people went out to him from Jerusalem, and Judea, and all the surrounding regions to be baptized by him in the River Jordan. As John was baptizing—he looked for the one who was to come after him, he looked for the one on whom the Spirit would descend and remain. Of course, John’s view of the Spirit would have been entirely informed by the Hebrew Scripture, our Old Testament. There are four things about the to be considered therein.
1. The word for spirit was the word for wind, and the wind was associated with power and creativity. In the Genesis story of Creation the ruach of God was moving over the face of the waters, even before God said, “Let their be light.” Likewise, when the children of Israel are caught between the armies of Egypt and the Red Sea, ta strong east wind blew all night, and made the dry land and the waters divide. In John 3:8 Jesus made a word play on wind and Spirit when he said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”
2. The spirit was also associated with life, and the word “spirit” is used interchangeably with the word “soul.” Thus in Job 7:11 Job says, “I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” And in Isaiah 26:9 the prophet says to God, “My soul yearns for you in the night, my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.” Last night I went to bed thinking about baptism, and I dreamed of being invited to swim in a great pool, by a stranger, whose name I did not know. What does that mean? I think it was my subconscious mind, like Isaiah’s subconscious mind, seeking God.
3. Finally, the spirit is associated with God. It is the Spirit of God who inspires and empowers the prophets. Thus in Micah 3:8 the prophet declares, “I am full of power by the Spirit of the Lord.” And Isaiah 59:21 declares, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has appointed me to preach good news.”
The baptism of John is a baptism of repentance, marking the end of one’s personal rebellion against God, and it is a baptism of forgiveness, marking a restoration of relationships with God. The baptism of Jesus is all this and more.
The baptism of Jesus adds the dimension of the Spirit. And, for John, and for us, that means that the baptism of Jesus brings power, and life, and union with God.
Thus, in Acts 1:8, Jesus promises his disciples that they will receive power to witness when the Holy Spirit has come upon them. In Ephesians 1, the apostle says that the Holy Spirit is God seal upon us, and the guarantee of our inheritance, which is nothing less than eternal life in the heavenly kingdom, sharing the glory of God, until we receive possession of it. And in 1st Corinthians 6:19 St. Paul says that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, which we have within us, from God.
That raises a question: What is the baptism of Jesus? Well, it is about the water, but it is not. The 4th Gospel tells there came a time when Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John, but he quickly adds that Jesus himself, baptized on one, but that his disciples did the baptizing. (John 4:1-2)
The Disciples of Jesus Still do the baptizing, so what can we say about it.
1. Christian baptism is a sign. Circumcision was the sign of the old covenant. Baptism is the sign of the new. Paul makes this point in Colossians 2:8 when he calls baptism “a circumcision” made without hands. By the way, this text from Colossians 2:8 is the reason I believe in infant baptism. A Jewish child received circumcision when he was 8 days old as a sign that he belonged to God’s covenant people. People ask me if I believe in infant baptism; I do, with the same fevor that some believe in believer’s baptism.
2. Christian baptism is a symbol. It points to something beyond itself. We do not believe that baptism is just about the water. When we baptize, we implore God to do by his spirit, what we symbolize with the water.
3. Christian baptism requires faith. Adults are baptized on the basis of their faith. The children of Christian parents are baptized on the basis of the faith of their parents and the church. One thing is certain, for baptism to be effectual, those who are baptized, whether adults or children, must have faith after baptism.
4. Christian baptism has three modes. Some churches baptize by pouring. It is symbolic of God pouring out his Spirit. The Moravian church permits this, and I was poured. Some churches baptize by sprinkling. It is symbolic of the priest who sprinkled the people with the blood of the sacrifice. The Moravian Church permits this, and I have sprinkled all of the children I have baptized. Some churches baptize by immersion. It is symbolic of dying, and rising with Christ; who dies for our sins, and was raised to walk in newness of life. The Moravian Church permits this, and I married a Baptist who was baptized as a believer by immersion. Interestingly, the Moravian baptismal liturgy calls attention to dying and rising with Christ. Before every baptism, the pastor addresses the congregation saying, “You, who were baptized, how were you baptized?” And the congregation responds, “Into his death.” The Moravian Church recognizes all three modes of baptism.
5. Every baptism is for the whole church. The baptism of an adult, reminds us that faith is required of all of us who were baptized. Without faith on our part, our baptism is meaningless. The water alone cannot save us. The baptism of a child reminds us that God loves us long before we loved him. John Wesley called this prevenient grace, meaning “the grace that goes before.” It is the grace that Jesus was talking about when he said, “No one can come to me unless it be granted them by the Father.” It is the grace that we Moravian refer to when we say, “By my own reason and strength I cannot believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, or come to him, buy you, O, God, call us and enlighten us by your Spirit.”.
6. Of course, it is not the water that matters. Quakers, or Friends, do not baptize with water, because they say that baptism of the Spirit is the important thing. In Romans 8, St. Paul says that anyone does not have the spirit of Christ does not belong to him. In 1st Corinthians 1, he said that he was thankful that he did not baptize in Corinth, except for a few, because God did not send him to baptize but to preach the gospel.
7. Some will ask, “How can I know that I have received the baptism of the Sprit? In Luke 11:11-13 Jesus himself said:
10 For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
And if we know we belong, but feel estranged, then we have Psalm 51:
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11 Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will return to thee.
John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He practiced a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, in order that he might point to the One who came after him, the one who baptizes not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit. In John 7:39, we read that in Jesus lifetime, the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. Jesus had to fix the character of the Spirit for all to know by his life, death and resurrection. To want the Holy Spirit in our lives is to want a deeper experience of Jesus Christ. If I can borrow a phrase from Dickens, the Holy Spirit is our mutual friend, who binds us all together with Jesus Christ in the life of God, and inspires, and empowers us, to share our faith with those who still stand outside of the body.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.