by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow
The first time I saw someone make a paper airplane, I was absolutely fascinated. I couldn’t tell how he had done it! – it looked to me as though he’d just taken a simple flat piece of paper, moved his hands a bit, and 1-2-3, there was this marvelous three-dimensional thing that could fly through the air! How was that even possible?!
Now, to put this in context, I was a pretty young child at the time; and the person making the plane made it very quickly, so it looked to me like it was almost instantaneous. But I was still pretty amazed. It was later, when he gave me a piece of paper, and showed me how to make a paper airplane myself – fold here, then fold here, then turn it over, then bend it back – it was later that he broke that amazing action down into simple, understandable steps, and showed me how to do those steps myself, and I began to understand what a paper airplane is and how to make them whenever I want.
And since that time I have come to understand that there are a lot of things in life that are like paper airplanes in that regard: complex, wonderful, amazing things, that look kind of mystifying when you see them all at once, but that you can actually learn to do for yourself, once someone breaks them down into simple steps that you can follow.
Our scripture readings for today, on the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, are a kind of breaking down into simple steps the complex and amazing work of living a life that is co-creative with God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
At first blush I’m sure that sounds just about as incomprehensible to us as that first paper airplane was to me. “Co-creating with God,” “living in the power of the Spirit,” are certainly things that are way beyond the likes of ordinary Christians like us, right? Those are things for saints, mystics, or at any rate people who have the time and the temperament to devote themselves to religious life, not people who have jobs and families and lives in the world like we do. And anyway, what do those big, metaphysical, theological words even mean – co-creating; living in the Spirit – how do those things even connect with the lives we lead?
But that’s why the scriptures today break them down and show them step-by-step: to show how that’s connected with us, and how we can do that too.
Our reading from Acts, for instance, shows that living in the power of the Spirit is the baptismal right of all Christians, absolutely all Christians, bar none. It’s not just for apostles or saints or miracle-workers, but for all who turn to Jesus. Paul, traveling to Ephesus, finds twelve believers who had been baptized into the repentance of John, but who had never taken the next step – who didn’t even know there was a next step! – who had never received the Holy Spirit that comes with baptism into Jesus. So Paul baptizes them, and lays hands on them, and they begin to speak in tongues and to speak God’s word, just like the apostles themselves had on their first Pentecost. These twelve weren’t anything special: they weren’t notably holy; they weren’t eyewitnesses of Jesus; they weren’t specially wise or talented or heroic. They just believed in Jesus, and acted out that belief in baptism, and the power of the Spirit came to them to transform their lives. Those twelve Ephesian believers are a reminder to us that all Christians baptized into Jesus are given the power of the Holy Spirit, whether they think of themselves as especially spiritual or not.
And that’s because of what we hear about in the Gospel reading. Jesus was baptized by John, and as he comes up out of the water he has a vision of the Holy Spirit coming to him, and the voice of God calling him Son and Beloved and Pleasing. In that moment there began a whole new kind of relationship between humanity and spirituality, as the Spirit of God rested on the Son of God in the human being Jesus. And ever since that moment, because of Jesus, the Spirit of God can come into our humanity too and make us Sons and Daughters who can speak the words and do the deeds of God.
And that leads us back to what we hear in the Genesis reading. In this first act of Creation, this first work of creating that God does, we see how the Spirit works, and therefore how the Spirit works in all moments of creation, and therefore how the Spirit can work in us to make us co-creators with God.
When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void, one vast, dark, undifferentiated, unformed, uniform, chaotic mass. A wind from God moves over the great deep – and since in Hebrew “wind” and “spirit” are the same word, that also means the Spirit of God hovers over the depths. And God says “Let there be light” – and that word of God make a difference, where before there was only one thing, now there are two things: darkness and light – and the Spirit of God, which hovers and holds things together, draws the darkness and the light into relationship, so that they are not merely antagonists and opposites, but darkness and light become day and night, evening and morning, together one whole cycle of day. And all the rest of Creation depends on that orderly cycling of the day-and-night relationship.
It is the work of the Holy Spirit in Creation to bring differences into relationship, to make new dynamic wholes out of the bits and pieces and possibilities of life. And that Spirit came to Jesus, and that Spirit comes to those baptized into Jesus. And so that Spirit is at work in us whenever we draw differences into relationship. That’s what all those big, metaphysical, theological words mean; that’s the amazing, complex reality that emerges from simple, learnable steps: the Holy Spirit is at work in us to draw differences together into relationship.
And the thing about that is, it’s happening all the time. From the simplest, most basic, most down-to-earth bits of our daily experience, to the highest, grandest, most exalted, most spiritual moments our souls can reach, the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in us, drawing differences together in relationship, creating wholes that are more than the sums of their parts, and empowering us to be co-creators with God of ever-greater connections of relationship. Wherever we see life-giving relationship, there we see the Spirit; and the more we see the Spirit, the more we can join in the Spirit’s work.
So I want you to think for a moment about your own life, about your own experiences. Where do you see differences coming together into relationships around you? Different members of your family coming into relationship to raise kids or have fun or make a household? Different people in your office or your workplace coming into relationship to do good work? Different groups or constituencies coming together in the neighborhood or the town or the church to create relationships to bring equity and cooperation and mutual well-being? Where do you see differences coming together in dynamic relationships around you? And are there ways you can help those relationships to form and function and flourish?
Can you picture that in your life? If so, then you have pictured yourself co-creating with God in the power of the Holy Spirit. Whether you think of it as being specially spiritual or not, if you can bring differences together in relationship, then you are co-creating with God in the power of the Spirit.
You can do the most amazing things, if you learn the steps by which they’re done. Baptism, and our scriptures today, teach us the steps of co-creating in the Holy Spirit. Let us learn how to walk those steps together. Amen.