Get the Whole Story

Concord United Methodist Church, Jan. 7, 2018

Mark 1:4–11 (CEB)

4 John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. 5 Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. 6 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9 About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. 11 And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Acts 19:1–7 (CEB)

19 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul took a route through the interior and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2 He asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you came to believe?”

They replied, “We’ve not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

3 Then he said, “What baptism did you receive, then?”

They answered, “John’s baptism.”

4 Paul explained, “John baptized with a baptism by which people showed they were changing their hearts and lives. It was a baptism that told people about the one who was coming after him. This is the one in whom they were to believe. This one is Jesus.” 5 After they listened to Paul, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in other languages and prophesying. 7 Altogether, there were about twelve people.

According to the commentator William Barclay, Paul spent more time in Ephesus than any other city during his missionary travels, staying almost three years. Ephesus was the home of a famous temple to the goddess Diana, and was home to a lot of pagan superstitions and beliefs.

But in this story, Paul finds, not pagans, but disciples. Normally, when the term “disciples” is used in the New Testament, it refers to followers of Jesus. And it’s really sort of funny that it turns out there are 12 of these disciples. Where have you heard the phrase “12 disciples” before? But these disciples haven’t received the full gospel message yet. They’ve received “John’s baptism.” I don’t know whether that means that they were baptised by John, or baptised by someone who was baptised by John, or maybe even more generations than that.

They may have heard about Jesus — it’s not really clear — but they don’t know anything about the Holy Spirit or what happened to Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost. They aren’t in communication with the church, and they don’t have a complete knowledge of or understanding of what we would consider the basics of the Christian faith.

John the baptiser was a cousin of Jesus’ through his mother, and John preached a message that the Messiah was coming and called on the people to repent. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.

According to the best information I could find online, Paul visited Ephesus in about the year 52, 53 or 54 A.D. That’s 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. It seems strange to us that these people might still be, in effect, following John, 20 years later, without knowing the full story of Jesus’ ministry. But information flowed more slowly and less completely at that time.

Whatever the situation, these people were following John when they could have been following Jesus, the messiah whom John had promised them.

One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1950 version of “Cyrano de Bergerac” starring José Ferrer. There have been many other versions, including the movie “Roxanne,” starring Steve Martin, which retold the story in the modern day. That one is good too, but my favorite will always be the one starring José Ferrer. It’s just a perfect match of character and actor. To me, José Ferrer is Cyrano and Cyrano is José Ferrer.

You probably know the story. It was originally a play, written in the 1800s by Edmond Rostand. There was a real Cyrano de Bergerac, but he wasn’t exactly the same as the larger-than-life character created by Rostand. Cyrano de Bergerac is a brilliant man, both a poet and a heroic soldier. He secretly loves a distant cousin of his, Roxane. But Cyrano has another distinguishing feature — his comically-huge, pointy nose.

Roxanne loves him as a friend but isn’t attracted to him, probably because of that nose. And she has no idea of his feelings for her. She’s attracted to a handsome young soldier named Christian, and — adding insult to injury — she asks her friend Cyrano to watch after Christian when he, too, joins the Army. Christian wants to woo Roxanne, and while he’s a good man he’s not the sharpest tool in the tool box. So he asks for Cyrano’s help. Cyrano writes beautiful love poetry for Roxane, which Christian delivers — either as letters, or, in the play’s most famous scene, standing in the bushes outside Roxane’s window, with Cyrano whispering each line just before Christian proclaims it out loud.

Roxane falls deeply in love with what she thinks is Christian’s poetic soul, not knowing that the words actually come from Cyrano de Bergerac. Christian dies in battle, and Cyrano keeps their secret. It’s not until Cyrano is at death’s door that Roxane figures out what was going on, and even then Cyrano continues to deny it.

Roxane had a misplaced admiration for Christian when it was really Cyrano who was her true love. John’s disciples in Ephesus also have a misplaced admiration — or, maybe it’s better to say an incomplete admiration. They are still focused on the message and baptism of John, rather than the message and baptism of the one whom John came to represent.

John the baptiser’s message was one of repentance, and that repentance is the start of our spiritual journey and crucial to understanding our relationship to God. John’s message also looked forward to the messiah. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, John the Baptist is referred to as the last of the Old Testament prophets, even though he’s right there in the New Testament. But I think that description is quite accurate. Those Old Testament prophets also preached a message of repentance, and promised deliverance somewhere down the road. John had exactly the same message — he called for repentance, and he promised a messiah.

“I baptize you with water,” John told the people, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John also had the sort of outsider attitude that many of those Old Testament prophets displayed. He wore garments made of camel’s hair, and survived by eating locusts and honey. Now, when we say he wore garments of camel’s hair, that probably doesn’t mean a woven garment. There were garments made of camel hair, but they were expensive, something that might be worn by a wealthy person. No, what that probably meant was that John was wearing camel skin, with some of the hair still on it. John had a rough, mountain-man sort of appearance.

John the baptiser knew that something special was coming, but he didn’t have the whole vision. John seemed confident of Jesus’ identity as the messiah at the time he baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. But later, when John was in prison, he seemed to have wavered a bit, and sent some of his followers to ask Jesus whether Jesus was truly the messiah, or whether the messiah was someone else down the road.

John did not live to see Jesus’ death or resurrection, did not live to see the Holy Spirit transform the disciples’ lives. Jesus was the answer, the fulfillment of the message that was put out by John and by all of those prophets before him. If that group of believers in Ephesus only had the baptism of John, they didn’t know the whole story.

It’s like they’ve seen the coming attractions preview for a big movie but they haven’t actually seen the movie itself.

John’s preaching, and John’s baptism, emphasized repentance followed by holy living. But our attempts at holy living, outside of God’s grace, without the Holy Spirit, are doomed to fail. Last weekend, many people made New Year’s resolutions. About 45 percent of us make New Year’s resolutions, but out of the people who make them, only 8 percent are still keeping them by the end of the year.

John’s message, by laying bare the truth of our sinful nature, was meant to prepare the hearts of people for the message of grace and forgiveness that Jesus and his disciples would spread. John’s baptism, for the people who received it, represented an admission of sin and a willingness to seek out new life. But neither the message nor the baptism could be complete without a relationship to Christ.

As I said, John’s message wasn’t the whole message; it was the trailer, the “coming attractions” preview. It can be fun to watch comming attractions previews. Sometimes, the release of a new trailer for “Star Wars” or “The Avengers” is a really big deal. But the trailer doesn’t take the place of the movie itself. If all I see is the trailer, I haven’t had the real experience of seeing the movie.

The message of Jesus is a message of grace. It starts with repentance, and with the confession of sin that John’s followers understood, but it is so much more than that.

John Wesley wrote about three types of grace that have become part and parcel of our Methodist theology: prevenient grace, justifying grace and sanctifying grace.

Prevenient grace is the grace of God that has always existed in our lives, even before we were introduced to the gospel message.

Justifying grace is the grace that offers us forgiveness of our sins and restoration of our relationship with God. Now, in the United Methodist tradition we acknowledge that some people experience this justifying grace in different ways. It’s not always a thunderbolt moment; sometimes it’s more subtle than that. But it’s a recognizable transformation.

Sanctifying grace is the ongoing presence of God that allows us to live lives of holiness. Wesley used the often-misunderstood term “Christian perfection.”

Wesley did not mean to say or imply that Christians are without sin. But he believed that once you have given yourself over to a relationship with Christ, your life is re-prioritized, and your heart becomes dedicated to obedience, to love of God and love of your fellow human beings.

This isn’t a simple matter of willpower. It’s not like all of those made-and-broken New Year’s resolutions. It’s a process of God’s grace, working in our lives.

Sometimes, though, even Christians — who are supposed to be familiar with the whole story — fall into the same trap as these disciples of John. They think that our Christian faith is all about human effort, and that leads either to guilt or self-righteousness — or guilt masked by self-righteousness. But that’s the road of the Pharisees, and it’s a road that Jesus condemned throughout his ministry. Sometimes, it’s our road; we behave more like disciples of John than like disciples of Jesus. Sometimes, we behave more like the Pharisees than like disciples of Jesus. We pretend that we don’t really know about grace yet.

Paul showed the disciples in Ephesus where their focus really belonged — on Jesus. He preached to them, and laid hands on them, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They went from being people who understood John’s message to people who lived the message of Jesus.

What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? How can we be confident that we are following Jesus, and living lives that would please God? John Wesley struggled with that question. In the early years of the Methodist movement, Wesley wrung his hands about his own status, saying he couldn’t even be convinced of his own salvation. This confused and annoyed many of his family members and associates, who tried to snap him out of it.

Eventually, Wesley understood his own salvation, and the grace on which we all rely. He expected Christians to live lives of holiness, but he understood that we require God’s help to do so.

To live in grace is a precarious thing. It means keeping our focus on God rather than on ourselves. It means that we want to be holy, we want to live in that sense of right priority and right action, but it also means that we realize we are not holy, that we are utterly dependent on God’s prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace. It means that we recognize, fully, the love and forgiveness that God has given us, so that we can extend that same love and forgiveness to those around us.

To live in the Holy Spirit, to be true followers of Jesus, means that we find our freedom by losing our freedom, by giving up control of our lives to the almighty, and sometimes inscrutable, will of God.

It means that even as we try to live responsibly and be good stewards of the resources God has given to us, we recognize that material things are meaningless, and that God loves us whether we have five pennies or five billion dollars. It means recognizing that everything about our lives is a gift from God, and everything in our lives should be given back to God, in the service of God.

The story of these 12 disciples, these disciples baptised by John, ends with them sharing their faith — prophesying and testifying to what God has done for them, sharing their faith boldly and without fear or embarrassment.

Do I live up to those last few paragraphs? Heck, no. I fall short of God’s grace on a daily basis. I have to repent, over and over again. But God takes me back, over and over again. And the farther I progress, the more I can see the road stretch out ahead of me, and the more I recognize how far I have yet to travel.

And yet, the more we recognize how far we have to travel, the more we come to realize that God’s grace travels with us, and the Holy Spirit lives through us.

John called us to repentance, and it was an important and necessary call. However, the way forward isn’t following John, but following Jesus.

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John I. Carney

John I. Carney

Author of “Dislike: Faith and Dialogue in the Age of Social Media,” available at http://www.lakeneuron.com/dislike