Conversations with Poppi: Baptism and the Spirit

Solveig: Bring up something.

Poppi: Let’s talk about communion some more.

S: Okay. But why don’t we talk about baptism? That’s a lot more interesting as a conversation.

P: You think so? Why?

S: Well, communion to me is just one basic fact; baptism has more of a story to it.

P: What story?

S: Like the story of why baptism became baptism.

P: And what’s that story?

S: I want you to tell it to me.

P: The idea of washing someone to make them clean is a sort of obvious one, isn’t it?

S: Clean of what?

P: That is the point.

S: Clean of evil.

P: Clean of evil or whatever you want.  Strictly speaking, all that water does is to take dirt off. But that makes it an obvious symbol of getting rid of anything that feels dirty. When we know we have been up to things we shouldn’t have been, we feel a bit dirty.

S: Yes.

P: So many religions have used water and washing as a symbol for starting over again, getting rid of all the old dirt and starting clean.

S: That what the Jews celebrate on Yom Kippur.

P: Now, in Jesus’ time, in Israel there were groups of Jews who had developed different ways of ritual washing.  One of them was the group around a man named John the Baptist. Remember him?

S: Yes—which is why it’s called baptism.

P: Baptize is just Greek for “wash,” so to baptize someone is to wash them.  John the Baptist was out in the wilderness calling on people to repent—that is to say, calling on people to start over, to get rid of their old dirt, to start afresh. As a way of doing that, he called them to come out to be washed in the River Jordan. And Jesus too went to be baptized.

S: Yes. Of course, there was nothing for him to wash away, exactly.

P: And everyone has always been puzzled why he did it.

S: Maybe he wanted to encourage people? And … we don’t know, but maybe he wanted to give John the Baptist a blessing?

P: Can you think of anything else?

S: I’m sure I could if you give me about two minutes.

P: Okay, you’ve got your two minutes. (long pause)

S: Maybe he had never met John the Baptist.

P: He could have met John without being baptized.

S: Maybe he thought that he wanted to start over even if he had done it wonderfully. He could have just wanted to start over and do things differently than he had done before, even if he had done it wonderfully.

P: That’s very good, I think. Do you remember what happened when Jesus was baptized?

S: Well, he had just been washed, and he is standing there in the river with the water up to his knees. And then he had a vision of the heavens opening, and he heard God the Father saying, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.” And he saw a dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit joining him and God the Father. Right after that is when he began to preach and teach and heal people. So the baptism really was a way of ending one way of living—even if it was a wonderful way—and take up a new beginning.

S: Okay. One other question: What is the Holy Spirit? Because you say Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but how can the Holy Spirit really be anything?

P: We say that someone is very spirited …

S: It means they have a lot of happiness. They are not so glum about everything or dull—like in the Phantom Toll Booth.

P: Right. So anybody who is lively …

S: Has spirit.

P: So don’t you suppose that God is livelier than anybody?

S: I’m sure he see when you stumble on the street and says, “There goes that old professor again.”

P: God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is God’s liveliness. When we say someone is lively, we don’t mean they jump up and down all by themselves, but that they get other people involved. Right?

S: Right. “I’m begging you, come over here. It’s wonderful. Celebrate.”

P: So you talk about a sports team having spirit.

S: Right. And that’s when they drink the one big bottle together.

P: Right! If a sports team didn’t have a common spirit, they wouldn’t have any fun playing together, and they wouldn’t play very well, either. The quarterback in the football game has to know where the people he wants to catch the ball are going to be; there has to be a kind of wordless communication between them, a common liveliness, a common goal.

S: So we need a common goal to be happy.

P: Exactly. So the Spirit is God’s liveliness. Now, there is another point, and this is the complicated one. If I am lively, my liveliness is not itself a person.

S: No, your liveliness is the spirit.

P: But in God’s case, his liveliness is God all over again.

S: Right. and …

P: That makes three. There is Jesus and his Father and …

S: Their Liveliness. Father, Son, and Spirit.

P: Does that help you any?

S: Yes. That helps.

Robert W. Jenson, Conversations with Poppi about God

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