Fire and Water

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In baptism, we are used to thinking about water as the star of the show. Babies and adults alike are either dunked or sprinkled with water from baptismal fonts. When Christianity was new, they said baptisms should always be in flowing water - either rivers, or indoor fountains. Whatever the water, they thought it should be deep enough to drown in. That’s because baptisms are a sort of mini death and resurrection. When you get dunked, you are dying to your old sinning ways, and when you rise, you are washed clean of your past transgressions. The water cleanses you. We get dunked, or dabbed, three times, to symbolize the three days Jesus spent dead. And when we rise, we are reborn, ready for the gift of the holy spirit, so we can live a new life as part of a Christian community.  

The water reflects the way the Bible sees water. It has two aspects: one threatening, the other life giving. In the Bible, deep water is always seen as dangerous. It’s where you can drown. It’s the abode of demons, and sea monsters like the one that swallowed Jonah. But flowing water, like the Jordan river, that is life-giving water. Like the water that flowed out of the rock in the desert that Moses tapped on. Jesus calls himself that flowing water, the water of life. Like that river that pulses through our veins as blood. Good water flows.  

But in our scripture today, we hear of another primal element: fire. John the Baptist warns that Christ will come with the Holy Spirit and unquenchable fire. That doesn’t sound life-giving or loving at all. It’s like a sour note played in an otherwise beautiful melody. We’re thinking about babies, and parents and water and all the cuteness that comes with a baptism, and here’s someone talking about fire. We instantly think of hell fire.  It’s a buzzkill. It seems to invoke judgement and separation, and hatred and punishment. So, it’s easy to turn away from passages like this, and conclude that we’d be better off without this talk of holy spirit. What we need is a more evidence-based approach to who we really are, which is beings of flesh and bone, brains, and body. 

 In our time, we tend to think of ourselves as a body that carries around our mind. Like a driver in a car, where our body is the vehicle our consciousness drives. But scientists tell us that our consciousness itself is created by the chemical reactions in our brains. That means that our entire being is best understood as our body, with our brain and all that happens in it being just another part of our body.  

There’s no need for this spiritual way of speaking since we can understand human nature better by studying our physical selves. We are made of water, flesh, cells and neurochemicals. So, when we get depressed, we take anti-depressants, when we get anxious, we are prescribed serotonin uptake inhibitors. Science teaches us that we are ultimately entirely made of matter, so to treat our problems, we just need to change our matter: adopt a different diet, change our neurochemical balance, get in better shape. All problems are physical, so all solutions are physical, too. 

 This way of seeing ourselves has led us to use the metaphor of the machine to describe our bodies. We have learnt how to train our bodies to do amazing things by treating ourselves as machines. Nowhere is this more obvious than in sport. Last week the Olympics concluded in Tokyo, where a host of world records were smashed. Sprinters and jumpers, runners and soccer teams pushed themselves to the limit, often in scorching heat, to do their best for their countries. It was a weird Olympics without any fans in the stands to cheer them on. But those years of training still paid off. Months of discipline, eating just the right combination of foods, practicing daily, relying on the results of sports medicine and science resulted in new world records set in track, swimming, and weightlifting, among others. [1]   [1] 

 One of the athletes who everyone was expecting to reap in medals was this woman, America’s favourite gymnast, Simone Biles. Standing just four feet, 8 inches[1], she had wowed the world in previous Olympics. The Americans expected her to sweep the medal round, or as one journalist put it, “Biles’s corporate sponsors, fans and the news media expected her to collect gold medals like refrigerator magnets.”[2] She is a young woman of astounding strength, whose legs alone signal that she can do things the rest of wouldn’t dream of trying.   [1] [2]   

And yet, when the time came to perform, she faltered. She withdrew from all of the team competitions, sticking only to a few of her solo events. When asked why, she explained that she was suffering from mental health challenges that made it difficult to perform and concentrate. In the air, she was experiencing the twisties, where she couldn’t keep track of her position. She knew that a mistake dismounting from the rings, or the balance beam could result in broken limbs, even a spinal cord injure. So, she did what she thought was right. 

Her frank admission cast mental health into the spotlight, something that is overdue in sports. But consider what this means for our model of who we are as humans. There was nothing wrong with Simone’s body, it was just as strong as ever. Afterall, she did still win silver and bronze medals, in Tokyo, no mean feat[1]. But we humans cannot be understood as just the state of our physical bodies. We are also creatures composed of mind, of what the Bible calls spirit. Simone’s body was willing, but her spirit was not. The pressure, the expectation of the world to perform, it affected her spirit. Late in the games it was learnt that during her time in Tokyo, she was informed that one of her aunties had died.[2] Of course her spirit was affected. Think of that – a few words heard over a telephone can completely alter the ability of a world class athlete to perform in a competition she has been training for four years.  

We are not machines, Friends. Machines have no spirit. It doesn’t matter how much you yell at your misbehaving printer or a flat tire, that machine is not listening. There’s no one in there. Human beings are composed of matter and spirit, mind and body. spirit and body are like tango dancers, pushing and pulling each other across the dance floor, reacting to each other’s every move. If the spirit is crushed, the body cannot perform at its peak. Many times, it can’t even get out of bed. We can’t get out of bed. And it is a two way flow. Not all mental ailments are ideas, they can have physical causes, which is one of the reasons the pills can work. But there are times when you hear devastating news, or someone else’s expectations clash with your own, when your spirit says no, and your body must follow your lead.  

That day in the Jordan river, the relationship between spirit and body took centre stage. John the Baptist was different from other prophets. He didn’t warn the nation of Israel to change its ways. Instead, he spoke to individuals about their own personal behaviour. He told the soldiers and the tax collectors to stop ripping people off. To find a loving way to do their job. But John said something else – that someone else was coming, who would go beyond washing them clean of their sins. John could use the water to help them get a clean slate. But this Messiah, he would baptize them with spirit, and with fire. [1] [2] 

 John and Jesus together signal a complete shift in the focus of spirituality. It will no more be about the actions of a nation. Instead, it will be about the feelings, the spiritual state of individuals. Jesus comes to give us the holy spirit. Jesus understands that behaviour is inspired by our spiritual state. A person who obeys the rules yet resents them is not the same person who sees the rules as a blessing. It is no longer enough to go through the motions. Jesus is calling for a change of mind for the people of Earth, one based on love and compassion.  

That sounds good, but why does John say Jesus will bring the spirit with unquenchable fire? When we hear the word fire in the Bible, we think of hellfire. But when the Bible uses symbols, they are always twins. Water can be deadly or life giving. Fire can be dangerous and punishing, but it can also be purifying. Fire, unlike water, doesn’t stop at the surface. Fire gets inside of the things it touches; it goes to the very center. It can burn off the dross, leaving only what is best, and what is needed. That’s the kind of fire the holy spirit brings. It comes to get inside you, to burn away the ideas, the fears and anxieties that hold you back from being a thriving, full person. The water can wash off the dirt, but the fire gets deep inside you. If inside you there are voices that tell you are garbage, that you aren’t as good as other people, or that other people are inferior – the holy spirit can give you the courage to see those demons for the liars that they are.  

The metaphor of fire was carefully chosen, for fire doesn’t just burn away, it can also ignite. When you can feel like you are worthwhile and loved, it is much easier to reach out and help others. And that doesn’t mean you’ve achieved earned this salvation– the holy spirit isn’t interested in your resume, or whether you got that promotion. It burns inside of people who realize that they are loved just the way they are, in all our shortcomings and normalness. The people who are often filled most with the holy spirit are the humble ones, who realize they don’t have to be special to be loved by God. They are good enough just as they are. Humility is  the fuel that enables the holy spirit to burn brightly.  

That kind of fire can be contagious, too. it can leap from person to person. People can become inspired to act in accordance with the spirit, and suddenly things can move very quickly. It’s been delightful to see how our own congregation and five other churches have leapt at the chance to help the kids of Thorncliffe Park in the backpack project. In a short time, all sorts of wonderful relationships have been created, as though a holy fire is spreading from person to person, church to church, neighbourhood to neighbourhood.  

We humans are a fusion of matter and mind, body and spirit. That’s who we are, that’s our curse and our blessing. The state of our spirit, how we feel, can determine whether we can get out of bed, yell at the kids, or listen to them, help another person, or condemn them. Jesus came to show us how to be better humans, composed of matter and spirit. He wants us to understand that what’s the matter with us is mostly a question of spirit, not matter. He teaches that our spiritual state will determine how this life goes, for us, for those close to us, even for entire nations.   

 That’s why when we baptize people like baby Macey and Heather, we offer water and fire. Water for our earthly being, and fire for our spirits. Fire to signal that God wants us to thrive, not to be defeated by the dangerous spirits of the world, both inside and outside us. Jesus gets baptized to show us the way. God offers us love in the form of the holy spirit, which is called by Jesus the advocate and  the comforter. Human life is more than going through the motions. God wants us to thrive, and to surround ourselves with people who can help us. This doesn’t mean that we give up on anti-depressants and psycho therapy. But it is important to receive that help knowing that we are truly and deeply loved by God. That we are worth being treated, that we don’t deserve to suffer alone and in silence. God offers us the water of repentance and the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit to help us get back on the beam, to get back into life, when we are ready.  

So, Heather and Macy, we welcome you to this congregation, which seeks to be open to God’s love, and put that love into practice. We look forward to getting to know you, to meet your spirit, to see you through all the growth and trials you will experience in the years to come. And when you can’t fell the spirit, we hope you will feel comfortable enough to come here to be replenished, through prayer, service, communion and conversation. We are blessed to have you among us.