Preacher Canon Robert Titley
For the Baptism of Oliver Ransom
Two and a half thousand years ago, Greek philosophers like Empedocles believed that everything that exists comes from four things: earth, air, fire and water.
It’s a neat idea – is there anything you’re going to encounter today that doesn’t exist because of one or more of these? – and all four are in this service. Let’s take them in reverse order.
- Water – Jesus in the gospel mentions ‘living water’, and that is what I’ll pour on Oliver’s head in a moment
- Fire – a rather small fire is what we shall give Oliverat the end of the service, in the shape of his baptismal candle
- Air – is the go-between among us, making everything possible – it’s air, for instance, that makes you able to hear these words now
- Earth – we’ll come back to that
These four elements are also in today’s story of how the Spirit of God comes upon the friends of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles says that it comes ‘like a mighty wind’ and rests on the head of each ‘like tongues of fire’, and Peter quotes the watery words of the prophet Joel, who (perhaps around the same time as those philosophers) looked forward to a time when God’s Spirit would be ‘poured out’. What he has in mind is more than the jugful we’ll use on Oliver. He says it will be poured out on ‘all flesh’, a monsoon of the Spirit, drenching every man and woman, every boy and girl. Water, fire, air – what about earth? We’ll come back to that.
Why are these elements windows into God? What do they tell about what the Holy Spirit is like? They have energy, and they are in the end beyond human control – as the England team, delayed by a storm in their pre-World Cup friendly, found in Miami last night. But there are also big differences between these natural forces and the Spirit. They don’t care about us – storms, floods, high seas and wildfires destroy all that is in their way – but the Spirit doesn’t destroy, it creates, and the Spirit does care. God’s Spirit is most discerning towards each one of us; St Paul speaks of how the same Spirit gives different gifts to different people, so that one has the gift of wisdom, another of leadership and so on (1 Corinthians 12). If the Spirit of God comes upon you, you receive the energy that brought the universe into being; but it comes to each one of us in a unique way. It will be shaped for me to receive it, shaped not according to what I want but what I need, what God wants for me.
How can you and I be ready to receive it? The key is humility. Not a buzz word these days, humility, but it’s not a grovelling, wimpy, ‘please-kick-sand-in- my-face’ kind of thing. It’s related to the word ‘humus’, that key ingredient of good soil. Humility is a fertile, earthy thing. It is ready to receive things, to let them be planted and take root, ready to let them grow.
So if today the Spirit can meet with my humility and yours, then we shall have all four elements – earth, air, fire and water – which wise minds of old believed to be the source of all life. We shall know what Jesus calls life in all its fullness (John 10.10), the life of the Spirit, the life that God will pour upon Oliver now, as he is baptised.
Empedocles http://www.kcl.ac.uk/ikings/index.php?id=488 ‘All You Need Is Love, and Five Other Things: Empedocles’. In this podcast, Peter Adamson of King’s College London discusses the Presocratic philosopher and his principles: Love, Strife, and the four ‘roots’, or elements.
Four elements and the gift of the Spirit See John V Taylor, The Go-Between God, 1972, p128