The Spirit and Baptism (it’s messy)—more thoughts about the Baptism of the Lord, Year C

Acts 8.14–17
Luke 3.15–17, 21–22

…when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. (Luke 3.21c–22a)

The Son of God is baptised, and the Holy Spirit comes down to earth. It’s the beginning of a new age, ‘God with us’!

But wait. Just a few spare years later,

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them…). (Acts 8.14–17)

Did the Spirit dry up? Was the Spirit upset, or asleep? Doesn’t the Spirit like Samaritans? Is there one law for Jesus, and another law for everyone else?

Or is this the way it’s meant to work?

There are those who say this is the way it’s meant to be. You become a Christian, you get baptised and then you wait for a ‘second blessing’. You are ‘filled with the Spirit’ at some later time, when you ‘speak in tongues’.

(You can see from the story though that the Apostles were concerned. This was not the way it was meant to work.)

Let’s talk about baptism (in water) and the Holy Spirit. Two things to say:

  1. Baptism and the Holy Spirit go together
  2. It’s messy. Quite messy.

Baptism and the Holy Spirit go together in the Book of Acts. But it’s messy.

Sometimes the Spirit comes with baptism, sometimes after baptism. Sometimes the Spirit can’t wait and comes before baptism. Messy.

It seems that the Spirit came with baptism on the Day of Pentecost. Peter is preaching and he tells the people:

Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In Acts 19, once some disciples of John the Baptist are baptised in the name of Jesus and Paul lays his hands on them,

the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied…

The Apostle Paul receives the Spirit before he was baptised (Acts 9), as does the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10).

In the Book of Acts, the gift of the Holy Spirit is linked to baptism, but the Spirit may come before, during or after baptism.

There’s no one-size-fits-all formula. It’s—you guessed it—messy.

And how does the Holy Spirit come in the Book of Acts? It doesn’t always say how, but often it’s in the gift of tongues or prophesying. So should everyone who is filled with the Spirit prophesy or speak in tongues?

And if you don’t, does that mean you aren’t filled with the Spirit?

It’s messy! We can’t say how the Spirit works, or when the Spirit comes.

Whatever Luke is doing in the Book of Acts, he isn’t setting up the rules for a Holy Spirit franchise. It’s too messy for that!

John’s Gospel says,

The wind* blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

Luke would agree. You can’t tie down the Spirit; but the New Testament does link the Spirit with baptism.

When we look at what the Apostle Paul says about baptism and the Spirit, we find ourselves in new territory, different from what Luke says in Acts.

As you would expect, Paul also links baptism and the Spirit—but in a different way to Luke. He writes:

For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12.12–13)

Baptism brings us into the Body of Christ, “Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female” (Galatians 3.28). And the gift of the Spirit unites us in Christ.

Paul doesn’t mention tongues or prophesying in connection with baptism. He says prophecy is one of the greater gifts and tongues one of the lesser gifts. But gifts like this seem less important to Paul than to Luke. Luke brings them right up to the front as evidence of the gift of the Spirit, but Paul gives them second place—to love.

He shows them “a more excellent way”:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13.1)

It doesn’t matter how much you speak in tongues, Paul says it’s nothing without love. In fact Paul says not one of the spiritual gifts matters if you don’t have love. Or, for that matter, if your life isn’t showing the fruit of the Spirit

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5.22–23a)

Paul says those who live by the Spirit should be guided by the Spirit. (Galatians 5.25)

So Luke says you tell if someone has the Spirit by manifestations such as speaking in tongues. On the other hand, Paul says that isn’t so important; what counts is that the Spirit draws us into love and unity.

Now that is messy; it’s still messy today of course. There are churches which emphasise speaking in tongues that question whether those of us who don’t have a gift of tongues are really Christian. There are people in this congregation who speak in tongues, and people who don’t. What do we do with this? Is that really a mess? Do we need to ‘fix’ it? In my opinion, we don’t need to. It’s quite messy, but we can live with it. Let offer a few thoughts.

Firstly: Paul’s words are very helpful. It doesn’t matter what gifts a person has, if that person fails to exercise them with love and care for others there’s something wrong. It’s all about the Trinity: the Spirit guides God’s people into becoming a Christlike community. So we don’t criticise people because they do or don’t speak in tongues.

Secondly: God is drawing us into relationship with him as well as with one another. God doesn’t give us ‘bits’ of the Spirit, a smidgin now and a big dollop later. God gives himself wholly and entirely to us. That’s the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

Thirdly: I believe Luke was trying to show that we can’t pin the Spirit down. We can’t ‘earn’ the Spirit’s presence. We can’t ‘get’ the Spirit by doing certain things, even baptism.

Fourthly, lastly and too many points (it’s messy!): Baptism and the Spirit are still linked. Baptism is always a public starting point in the life of faith. Doesn’t matter if you’re baptised at six weeks, six years or sixty years. The Spirit is at work in you, drawing you to the live of faith, hope and love. Don’t resist the Spirit’s work in your life.

That’s the life we’re baptised into.

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