I’m starting to think about my sermon for this coming Sunday. It’s the day in the church year when we tell the story of Jesus’ baptism (the ‘Feast of the Baptism of the Lord’, as we call it). But there’s a problem.
This is the year when most of our gospel texts are from Luke. But Luke doesn’t seem to be very interested in the fact that Jesus was baptized. In fact he doesn’t describe it at all: he describes what comes after it:
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22, all references from NIV 2011).
Luke’s gospel is full of references to the Holy Spirit – more so, perhaps, than any of the other gospels – and this emphasis continues in his second volume, the Book of Acts. He doesn’t discount water baptism – he makes it clear in Acts that the early Christians practised it – but his major emphasis is on the baptism in the Holy Spirit. In Sunday’s Gospel, out of all the things he could have chosen to emphasize about Jesus, he chooses the fact that he will baptize his followers with the Holy Spirit:
“I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16).
This promise is fulfilled in the Pentecostal experience in the Book of Acts. Jesus tells his followers:
“Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5).
A few days later the fulfilment comes:
When the Day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole place where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:1-4).
And this is not just a one-off experience; in chapter 4 it happens again:
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly (4:31).
This was not something the early Christians had to take on faith; it was something obvious to people who were watching. In Acts chapter 8, Peter and John lay hands on some new Christians in Samaria, and immediately they are filled with the Holy Spirit. A local magician, Simon Magus, sees this and is so impressed that he offers the apostles money if they will give him the power to do that – to lay hands on people so that they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Does this happen to people today? In the Anglican Church we are so in love with an ordered liturgy and getting the service finished on time that I fear we are not prepared to give the Holy Spirit room to work in this way. But sometimes he seems to just reach out and make room for himself, to remind us what it’s all about. I remember a friend in a previous parish telling me about his adult confirmation experience. He had experienced a Christian conversion in his thirties and had then offered himself for confirmation. When the time came in the service, he went forward and knelt before the bishop, who laid hands on him and prayed. As the bishop was praying, my friend felt what he described as ‘an electric shock of power’ that came from the bishop’s hands and spread through my friend’s entire body. The sense of the presence of God was almost overwhelming to him, to the point that it scared him (as often happened in the Bible when people experienced it).
I also remember reading about this sort of thing in David Wilkerson’s book The Cross and the Switchblade. David was a young Pentecostal pastor, and in the 1950s God guided him to leave his church and move to inner city New York to do evangelistic work amongst the street gangs and drug addicts. He simply shared the gospel with young people, helped them commit their lives to Jesus and experience the power of the Holy Spirit for themselves. He used the same language Jesus used – ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit” – to describe this. Some time after he began his work he was discussing what had been happening with a group of former addicts who had become Christians through his ministry. He asked them when they first began to experience freedom from their addiction. Over and over again, they replied, “It was when I was first baptized in the Holy Spirit. That was when I started to get free”.
So if baptism in the Holy Spirit is so powerful, and if it is still available to Christians today, why don’t we give much attention to it in the mainstream Anglican Church? True, we’ve preserved the rite of confirmation, but a ritual (and one that has all too often taken place in the context of parents telling their kids “Time you were confirmed”) is a pretty poor substitute for the sort of thing that Acts describes, and that David Wilkerson’s young friends experienced.
Yesterday when we were discussing this passage at our deanery clergy meeting, one of my colleagues said, “I think that the baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire is the one I really want, but that the baptism with water is the one I’ll settle for”. Maybe 2013 is a good year to stop settling for less than what God wants to give us. I think it might be for me.