Holy Spirit Baptism

Holy Spirit Baptism

Acts 8:14-17 

The book of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts) tells of how the early church really took off after Jesus’ resurrection. The Apostles were ‘on fire’ with the Gospel message of Christ’s love and healing hope and were eager to spread it far and wide. Our reading takes us to a city in the region of Samaria where the Apostle Philip had been hugely effective in evangelizing many people to be baptized in the Name of Jesus as they converted to Christianity.

The rest of the Apostles back in Jerusalem were understandably nervous. They wanted to ensure that what was being taught always remained accurate, kosher to what Jesus intended, and so in this case they sent two of their number, Peter, and John, to check them out. They did a similar thing in Antioch sometime later, sending Barnabas.

Well, on arriving in Samaria, Peter and John discovered that there was indeed something missing in the faith-experience of the new converts. They had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus ‘only’ as the text tells us. ‘The Spirit had not yet come on them’. That was an important enough oversight for Peter and John immediately to pray that they would get to experience that. They then laid hands on those new converts and, we’re told, those new converts received, or were baptized in the Holy Spirit.

It seems that there are at least these two levels of knowing the reality of Jesus Christ in our lives: intellectually and experientially. Those new converts knew intellectually ABOUT the ‘Lord Jesus’. Here, by the Spirit, they were given to experience him as the risen Christ. It’s the difference between an explanatory/explanation-based faith, and an experiential/ experience-based faith. WHAT I THINK, AND WHAT I KNOW!

Let’s just stop there for a moment, allow ourselves to let that settle in… To what extent do I allow some things about God, and to what extent do I actually KNOW God?

It’s as we are touched by God’s Holy Spirit, or perhaps, it’s as an awareness of God’s Spirit is allowed to arise from within us, so there’s a deepest possible knowing, a certitude which by-passes our minds to impact us at an infinitely deeper cellular level!

Scripture teaches that we have the Holy Spirit as this parakletos, the One called to be alongside us, as our Advocate, our Helper. That’s what Jesus taught in John 14 and 15[i].

This sometimes quiet, sometimes very loud, inner voice that testifies to the ‘way’ of Jesus Christ which is being allowed to unfold from deep within us…

We’re talking about the empowering work of God’s Spirit – remember how the disciples were told to wait until they were to ‘receive power from on high?[ii]’ This is God’s Spirit given to empower those new converts and all of us with our clearest possible sense of identity and purpose, and that’s both as individuals as well as communally – our communal identity.

There is so much that is constantly messing with our awareness of that: our past experiences both good and bad, things that have happened or have not happened to us, abusive relationships perhaps. Things that have distorted our sense of self-worth, how worthy we believe we are to be loved, respected…

God’s Holy Spirit would do something about that:  Open our eyes… Open our hearts…

To be Baptized in the Holy Spirit, is to be plunged into a deep, cellular ‘knowing’ of Christ’s Holiness that is already in everyone/ everything…

I am always blessed to hear people describing their experience of this in their lives:

South African bishop Bill Burnett[iii], who was at one time Archbishop of Cape Town, before Desmond Tutu, shared: ‘When I became a bishop, I believed in theology [the truth about God], but not in God. I was a practical atheist who sought righteousness by doing good.’

One day, after he had been a bishop for some fifteen years, he went to speak at a confirmation service on the text ‘God has poured out God’s love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom God has given us’ (Romans 5:5). After he had preached, he writes, he came home, poured himself a strong drink and was reading the paper when he felt Christ saying, ‘Go and pray.’ He went into his chapel, knelt down in silence, and then sensed Christ saying: ‘I want your body.’ He writes that he could not quite understand why (he was tall and thin and said, ‘I’m not exactly Mr Universe’). However, he gave every part of himself to Christ. ‘Then,’ he said, ‘what I preached about happened. I experienced electric shocks of love.’ He found himself flat on the floor and heard the Christ saying, ‘You are my son.’ When he got up, he knew indeed that something had happened. It proved a turning point in his life and ministry.

Isn’t that something of what John Wesley experienced on Wednesday, May 24, 1738 at that Moravian Prayer meeting – what became known as the Aldersgate experience – when he described his heart being ‘strangely warmed’ by God’s Spirit?

That’s definitely similar to what both Thomas Merton[iv] described happened to him at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, and what Caryll Houselander experienced in a Tube train in London, except how for both of them it wasn’t just about an arising awareness of their own individual beloved selves, as Christ’s Holy presence connecting them to their communal identity: This is Christ in them and in everyone!

I know that Richard Rohr calls the Holy Spirit the ‘goodness glue’ that binds us into a common awareness of how we are all connected in this beautiful and sacred way!

That’s what Carryl Houselander saw that day while riding a London Tube[v]. It was also Caryll Houselander who elsewhere said:

It is part of God’s plan for us that Christ shall come to us in everyone. It is in their particular role that we must learn to know him. Christ may come as a little child, making enormous demands, giving enormous consolation. Christ may come as a stranger, so that we must give the hospitality to a stranger that we should like to give to Christ

Richard Rohr also says that that’s his only real definition of a Christian: one who can see Christ everywhere else and even in themself. But the reality is that so many of us, spend most of our time, NOT seeing! Like Philip’s new converts in Samaria, we may not even know it. We may have some good theories about God, and then think that’s all there is, while the reality is that we have so much of God’s indescribably, achingly beautiful Self happening everywhere: just here within us, within others, all around us…

Can I say it as boldly as: Christ is the beauty of Our God which never goes away regardless of how distracted we may be by our life circumstances.

But to know that, it’s we who need to have our eyes/hearts/lives opened enough by God’s own Holy Spirit if we are ever properly to appreciate it, own it, come actually to be defined by it.

The best of our Christian living is our lives compelled to move according to the dance-rhythms that Christ is always pulsing. The symphonic harmonies that holiness is Christ is always allowing to be played. How do we miss that? The point is that people didn’t know![vi] And so, they didn’t notice, and so, didn’t care. Do we?

How do we get to be filled with this empowering Holy Spirit of God – the ultimate Giver of sacred awareness – this Spirit that those early converts so clearly needed and then actually came to receive?

Scripture is actually quite clear here: WE are to ask for it, and to wait for it, and then we are to receive it. I’m not sure that it’s any more complicated than that! That is exactly what Jesus teaches us to do in Luke 11 – let me close with this utterly UNambiguous scripture:

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

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[i] But the Advocate the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:26) When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. (John 15:26)

[ii] Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:29)

[iii] From ‘Alpha: ‘Searching Questions’. I have changed ‘God’, ‘Lord’, ‘he’ and other male references simply to ‘Christ’.

[iv] Thomas Merton writes: I was at the intersection, when I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of (false) self-isolation. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud I have the immense joy of being (hu)man, a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way (using intellect alone to be) of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

[v] Caryll Houselander writes: All sorts of people jostled together, sitting and strap-hanging—workers of every description going home at the end of the day. Quite suddenly I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all. But I saw more than that; not only was Christ in every one of them, living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them—but because He was in them, and because they were here, the whole world was here too . . . all those people who had lived in the past, and all those yet to come. I came out into the street and walked for a long time in the crowds. It was the same here, on every side, in every passer-by, everywhere—Christ.

[vi] On April 8, 2007 Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post wrote about an experiment that they had set up in the Union Metro station in Washington DC. I believe it illustrates how we lose touch with the beauty of Christ always with us. They had a busker play his violin for 45 minutes: …two Bach pieces, one Massenet, one Schubert, one Ponce and possibly a Mendelssohn. Some 1097 people passed him by in that time: but only 7 stopped for a while to listen, and just 20 dropped some coins into his violin case, a total of $32. When he stopped, no reaction, no-one applauded, just silence as he packed up and walked off. The violinist was world-acclaimed Joshua Bell, and he was playing his Stradivarius violin valued at over $3m. Just 3 days earlier he had sold out the Boston’s famous Symphony Hall at $100 a seat and was about to do the same 2 weeks later in Baltimore. Seven years later he returned to play at that Union Station but having advertised this time. A very different outcome!