Sunday, January 10, 2021

Baptism of Jesus

 Acts 19

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when[a] you believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”

“John’s baptism,” they replied.

4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues[b] and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.

It began with a vision, as these things often do.

Sometime after the Council of Jerusalem, St. Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia, and in this vision, the man spoke:

“Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

So he does. Paul begins this leg of his journey in Philippi, where he meets Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. Her heart is open to the Good News that Paul shares, and she is baptized—her and her entire household.

Thus begins Paul’s entrance into Europe, an initial success that will soon become something else altogether. The latter half of Acts 16 reads like a Hollywood screenplay—an accidental healing, some swift justice, a violent earthquake, and a surprizing conclusion where Paul and his companion Silas talk their jailer off a ledge and help him find new life in Christ.

Their travels continue—Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth—to places that will become synonymous with Paul’s ministry, and places that will illustrate the challenges he faced. By the time Paul reaches Ephesus, it becomes obvious that he’s a step behind another evangelist, Apollos. And this is where we pick up our story:

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

They answered, “No, we haven’t even heard that there’s a Holy Spirit.”

So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”

“John’s baptism,” they replied.

“We haven’t even heard there’s a Holy Spirit!” This confession has to be one of the most delightful responses in scripture. You can almost hear Paul’s internal “Oh my goodness!” as he struggles to understand what they do know, and what they have done to adhere to the faith. And the point of the story, it would seem, is to allow us (and them) to understand the difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism. With this they receive Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends, and the story continues.

I will leave off a discussion about the baptism Jesus receives at the hands of John the Baptist, and why the one-without-sin would submit to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Instead, I want to dwell a moment longer with the unfortunates who didn’t even know that there was a Holy Spirit. They didn’t know, they said, because no one told them.

It’s important to note here that Paul didn’t ask them if anyone told them about the Holy Spirit. He asked if they received the Holy Spirit, which is a whole other matter. Experiencing the Holy Spirit, as they finally would, is quite different from being informed. Paul didn’t want to know what information they had, he wanted to know what experience they had—in this case, an experience of the Holy Spirit. In other words, they didn’t have the answer because they couldn’t understand the question. How could they? They didn’t know the Holy Spirit.

I share all this for a couple of reasons. First, to illustrate that our faith is based on experience and not just knowledge. It’s helpful to understand the basic tenets of the faith, but more important to feel the tug of the Holy Spirit as we pass through this life. To know that Jesus walks beside us, and to feel the presence of a loving God. They received the Holy Spirit and then began a new life in Christ Jesus.

The second reason is topical, here at the end of a very long and troubling week. What we witnessed in Washington was alarming, infuriating, tragic, and sad all at once. I feel like I still lack the words to sum up what happened, and put it into some sort of faith perspective. Obviously it’s a story about sin and human failure, and the power of words to distort and inflame. But it’s also a story about mistaken belief, and the extent to which people can be manipulated to say and do things they might otherwise never say or do.

It also leads me to ponder populism, which we increasingly associate with the right, but can belong to either end of the political spectrum. With populism, people join a movement—always a powerful thing—and then paint their hopes (and fears) on the populist leader. The populist leader can then direct their followers in an appropriate direction, often for good, or they can do the opposite.

The malevolent populist will use vague and misleading rhetoric to inflame his followers, and direct them toward a particular goal. And goal may not be the right word here, because the populist may only want chaos, or to maintain power. The point here is that those who follow the populist may or may not understand or follow the goal. Instead, they may simply have taken the rhetoric and interpreted it in such a way that they come to believe that the populist will deliver on those hopes and fears.

What I think I’m trying to say here, is that it’s easy to write off everyone who falls for the malevolent populist, and to deride people who seem to finally (!) understand the danger that this particular populist poses. It’s harder to try to imagine that many were truly conned, or fell into a cult, or were manipulated by mass media and social media. Of course, some are criminals and should be treated as such. And some are enablers and should be banished from public life. But many—too many—were misinformed about the goal or the nature of the project, and will someday suffer the regret of being part of such a terrible era.

There are many more things to say, of course, and these will be said in time. One topic is white privilege, and the extent to which Wednesday was a master class on the way protest is met depending on the race of the protestors. And there are other learnings. For today, we pray for America, and we pray for the families of those who died, and we pray for peace.

Finally, we pray for the Holy Spirit. We pray that the Holy Spirit will enter and transform hearts, that the Holy Spirit will reveal a way forward in troubling times, and we pray that the Holy Spirit will provide comfort in an anxious time.

And may we, who know the Holy Spirit, pray always that others receive the same gift. Amen.


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