A few years ago, I had the privilege of teaching a man, about my own age, who had been serving as a Pentecostal preacher since the age of 16. His inquiring mind, his love of scripture, and his yearning to be united to the Body of Christ across time and space led him to Anglicanism, and he was being trained to serve as a US Army chaplain. One morning at chapel we had heard Acts 19 read, as we have here this morning. On the walk across campus to breakfast, he ran to catch up.
“Padre”, he called out, “I got it figured out”.
“Oh, what have you got figured out now?”.
“I figured out why so many good, church-going folks know all the right answers, know how to pray, know how to read their Bibles, but can’t bring themselves to just trust it, to just live by it, you know?”
“Padre, sure they were baptized, but they were like those disciples in Ephesus. You can ask them anything, they can tell you the Creed, they can tell you what Jesus taught about forgiveness and sacrifice, but you ask them “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”, and they’re gonna answer just like those disciples: “no sir, we have no even heard that there is a Holy Spirit to be received”.
I think he was on to something.
I am a child of God.
We’ve been speaking about what it means to be a child of God, that glorious truth that, though we aren’t born God’s children by nature, we’re all invited to become God’s children by adoption.
Last time we spoke about what that means: that when God adopts us out of the broken system of this fallen world, he wants to re-shape us as we patiently (and sometimes painfully) unlearn the self-preservation and defensiveness we’ve picked up along the way; we picked them up as coping mechanisms, but all they accomplish is to cut us off, to drive us further and further away from others, and deeper and deeper into our own little world, where all we can see are the walls we have built with our own pain and pride. The deepest desire of our loving, perfect Heavenly Father is for us to learn what it means to be his child, to learn to be held, to learn to speak the truth, giving praise to the one to whom it’s due, and being quick to repent when we miss the mark, and to finally learn what it is to be loved, not because of what you do or what you’ve accomplished or what you’ve done, but simply because of who you’ve become: a child of God through faith in Jesus.
And, of course, the way that adoption is done, the outward sign of the spiritual grace of that is given, is baptism, which takes us to our lessons today.
Water and the Holy Spirit
Now it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t invent the general idea of baptism, a ritual washing to mark a turning from sin and a fresh start. No, after all, it’s one of those perfectly natural signs: water washes away dirt, so it’s the perfect symbol for washing away the dirt we cannot see.
That’s the idea of a ritual bath found across religions and cultures, and it’s also the idea of ritual cleansing in the Old Testament, and the baptism of repentance that John the Baptist preached. And don’t get me wrong, repentance and the decision to start fresh is definitely a good thing.
But there’s a problem: unless we accept the gift of the Holy Spirit, unless we allow God the Spirit to take up residence in us, to make us His temple, to guide and direct us as we trust – one day at a time, one step at a time – that we can put down our defenses and our instincts, that we can stop clinging to pride and pain, that we can let go of the things that define us and learn to answer instead to the new name we received at our adoption; unless we’re willing to do that, unless we’re willing to accept that new identity, all the ritual washing in the world has one fatal flaw: if we’re trusting in ourselves, then when we come up out of the water, we’re trusting in the same one who failed before. You can do it a hundred times, you could do it every day, but what changes, if we refuse to let go of the pain, pride, and self-preservation that defines the children of this broken world?
And that’s where Christian baptism changes everything.
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”, Paul asked?
“No, we didn’t even know that there is a Holy Spirit!”.
And that changes everything.
Guilt or Shame?
We drag a lot of dead weight around with us, so much that the world convinces us that it’s a good thing: we’ll call it ‘experience’ or ‘lessons learned’, as we drag a lifetime of pain, guilt, and shame around, weighing down each new opportunity or new relationship with all the “lessons” of the past, and then wondering why we’re so tired, why new opportunities and new beginnings turn out the same way the last ones did.
And I think here is the time to make an important distinction: we’re not just carrying the pain of the past; we’re not just carrying the guilt for what we’ve done or left undone; there’s another heavier load, much harder to shake: shame.
The good news of the Gospel makes it very clear that guilt and shame aren’t the same thing. They’re very different loads, and unless we’re willing to lay them both down, we’re choosing to go it on our own rather than living into the new identity we have as a new creation, forgiven and loved in spite of our past failings, in spite of our current struggles; forgiven and loved not because of what I’ve accomplished, but because Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, and Christ in me is the hope of glory.
Let’s be clear: as Christians, we believe guilt is a gift. Yes, you heard that right. Guilt, the knowledge or understanding that a thought, a word, an action, or silence, or inaction fell short of what was expected as those who love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and who love your neighbour as yourself, is indeed a gift. Guilt is that understanding, that acknowledgement that “yeah, I missed the mark there.” Guilt tells us that we need to repent and be forgiven, to hear the message “your sins have been taken away; go and sin no more”, that next time we’re in that situation, now we know we ought to act differently.
Guilt, in that sense, is wonderfully productive. It gives us our bearings as we learn patiently to model our lives after Christ, and when we fail – and we will – to repent and return to God.
But, in our everyday speech, we confuse guilt and shame – and it’s deadly.
Shame is a lie. Shame is deception, leading us further from the truth. And it sounds like this: shame tells us not to focus on the thing we did or said or didn’t do; no, shame tells us to focus on the one who failed. Guilt says “you lashed out in anger, you need to apologize”. Shame says, “what sort of person can’t even control their own emotions?” Shame says, “you’re a hypocrite”. Shame says, “what sort of a sister are you? Why even bother, you failed before, you’ll fail again”.
It’s familiar, but it’s an ancient lie. God says ‘I love you and I want to be with you, I’ve given you these boundaries for your protection’, and right off the bat the serpent says, ‘huh, I think he’s holding something back, don’t you?’. And there, right in the first pages of scripture, yes there’s guilt – no question, Adam and Eve did the one thing they were told not to do, there’s guilt and there’s consequences. But then what happens? Do they repent, do they return to the Lord humbly and admit their failing?
No – it’s the start of the pattern that plagues us all to this day. What’d they do? They ran and hid. And how did they feel? For the first time, they felt ashamed. And that shame caused them to try and put up a wall, to clothe themselves with something to cover their true identity; the shame caused them to run from the one who loved them and who would continue to love them and continue to provide for them and who promised to save them from their sin, all because the shame told them the lie that they needed to run and hide rather than repent and return.
Shame is always destructive. And it’s what makes this broken world go around. In every generation, we learn shame from our parents, as we learn not just to obey, but to fear hearing that we’re a disappointment. In school, at work, shame is the quickest and easiest way to put someone in their place and keep them there. Shame is so darn effective precisely because it takes the focus off of what we’ve done, and shifts the spotlight instead on who we are: “what kind of person, sister, brother, son, daughter would fail like you’ve failed?” Shame says your worth is defined by your failings.
Have you received The Holy Spirit?
And this is where Paul’s question to those disciples, those students of Jesus, is so important.
We’re all called to repent, to acknowledge our faults and confess them to God and to one another. And that’s hard enough – shame makes us wants to hide and put on another layer to cover it up. But, if we confess that failing, shame is there once more, that annoying voice in the back of your mind: “hmm, you’ve confessed that one before, haven’t you? Didn’t work last time. Won’t work this time; you’re a failure.”
And, you know what? If we’re being honest, if we’re talking about our own identity as a person bounced around in a broken world, maybe the shame’s right.
Except, in Christ, we are a new creation. We are given a new name, a new identity, we’ve been made children of God by adoption. That Father lovingly and patiently reaches out – but it’s up to us if we’ll finally accept our new home, our new family, or if, in spite of being adopted, in spite of all the love and hope and encouragement given to us, we’ll stubbornly continue to bear the weight, the bumps and bruises and scars, of who we used to be, back when self-preservation and pride were the layers we put on to hide our shame.
But the great solution to shame is found right there in the baptismal promises. Think about it: will you repent and return? Will you love your neighbour as yourself? Will you trust in God? What’s the response? Not “I will”. No. The whole point is that I’m no longer on my own, I’m learning to be loved and to trust in one who won’t let me down. What’s the response? I will, with God’s help.
In baptism we don’t just symbolically wash away our failings. No, we are a new creation, made a son or daughter of God, and God the Holy Spirit comes to dwell with and in us.
Whatever we’ve done, whatever our struggles, whatever the real hurt or pain or scars that we bear, the same God who wanted to be present with Adam and Eve at creation comes to be present with us, making us, even our crippled and wrinkled bodies a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Does it change our guilt when we fail? No – in fact, it should make us all the more aware, urging us towards love of God and neighbour. But, if we can just accept that gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, the lie of shame begins to melt away.
Shame says “What kind of a person would do that”. The Spirit says you are a child of God, that even while we were yet sinners, Christ died to save you from your sin.
Shame says, “you’re a failure”. The Spirit says to rejoice even in our failings, because Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, and God the Father will work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.
Shame says, “who do you think you are? You deserve the pain”. The Spirit says you are loved; Christ calls out “come to me all who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest”. And deep within our broken, bruised, and scarred bodies, the Spirit cries out – ‘God is faithful! You are a temple of the Holy Spirit! You are a child of God. What we shall be has not yet been revealed, but what we do know is that, by God’s grace, we shall be like Christ, and we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:1-2).
Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?
God is faithful – He’s sent us his free gift. Our task is just to accept it, and begin, perhaps for the first time, listening to that voice of truth.
To God be the glory, now and forever more.