Baptism in the Holy Spirit (a sermon on Acts 19:1-7 & Mark 1:4-11)

Today I want to talk to you about Baptism in the Holy Spirit.

I’m guessing some of you might be puzzled by this phrase. I can almost hear you thinking, “What the heck is ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’?” We all understand baptism in water – we’ve seen it lots of times. Sometimes it happens when adults come to faith in Jesus and then step forward to be baptized to seal their commitment to Christ. But most often it happens to babies, when parents present them to be baptized, or ‘christened’ as it’s still often called. But what on earth is ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’?

If you feel confused about this, you’re in good company! In our reading from Acts today we heard that when Paul was traveling through what is now Turkey, he came to Ephesus and found some people who claimed to be Christian disciples. But when he asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” they replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2).

Christian people today often share their confusion. We understand about God the Father who created the world and everything in it. We understand about Jesus the Son of God who lived and died and rose again to save us. But we find it hard to understand or even imagine the Holy Spirit. This third person of the Trinity seems shadowy and vague, and perhaps it seems appropriate to us that we once called him ‘The Holy Ghost’! And as for the idea that you can somehow be ‘baptized’ in the Holy Spirit in the same way we’re baptized in water – well, that sounds really strange to a lot of people. But in fact it ‘s clearly taught in the Gospels and the Book of Acts.

So let’s think for a few minutes about water baptism and baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Baptism in water is something we got from Jesus himself; Jesus teaches us that it’s part of the process of becoming his disciples. He says in Matthew 28 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (18b-19). The early Christian missionaries enthusiastically obeyed this command; they traveled all over the known world preaching the good news of Jesus. People heard their message, and some believed it and wanted to commit their lives to Jesus and become his followers. So they were baptized and they joined the Christian community where they learned to put his commands into practice.

At first all those who were baptized were adults. Later on, many Christians came to believe it was right and good for children of Christian parents to be received into the Christian community by baptism, so that families could be united as followers of Jesus. But whether adult or infant, from the beginning baptism has been a missionary act. The Christian message goes out and those who believe and want to practice it are baptized – along with their children – as a sign of being reborn into the new life in Christ. It’s part of the process of becoming a Christian.

One of the difficulties about reading the Bible is that the different books were written by different people, and they don’t always use words in the same way. This is true with this phrase, ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’: it’s used by Paul in one sense, and the gospel writers in another. Paul only uses it once, in 1 Corinthians 12:13, and it’s clear that he means exactly what we’ve just been talking about – the experience of becoming a Christian. He says, ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’.

He’s talking about the experience of becoming a Christian: you put your faith in Jesus, you’re baptized, and you receive the Holy Spirit – in whatever order those things come for you! We’re all alike in this, Paul says – all of us Christians have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We should never take this incredible gift for granted. In Advent we were thinking about Mary becoming pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, and carrying the Son of God in her womb for nine months. She was literally a human temple – a place where God lives. But what was true of Mary in a physical sense is also true of you and me in a spiritual sense: as Paul says in another place, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. This is what Paul means by being ‘baptized by one Spirit into one Body’ – we put our faith in Jesus, we are baptized, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So a baptism service isn’t just about parents and godparents standing up and making promises. And an adult conversion – when a person turns from unbelief and commits themselves to becoming a Christian – isn’t just a human process either. It’s not just about human reasoning, human decision, or human willpower. No – the Holy Spirit is at work, coming to live in you, marking you as belonging to God, connecting you with God, giving you the power to follow Christ. It’s actually quite miraculous! So please – let’s not take it for granted! Let’s thank God every day that we’ve been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and let’s learn to recognise his presence and follow his leading.

And this leads me to ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ in the second sense – the sense in which the gospel writers and the Book of Acts use the phrase. In our gospel for today we heard about John the Baptist and his preaching of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People came to him from all over the place and were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins for all the world to hear. It was a powerful religious revival and it had some people wondering whether John was the Messiah that they’d all been waiting for. But he said ‘no’. Look at Mark 1:7:

‘He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”’.

The Greek word ‘baptizo’ means to be totally immersed, to be surrounded and filled with water, like a sunken ship sitting quietly on the bottom of the ocean – or to be overwhelmed, like a house swept away by a flood. This, says John, is what the Messiah is going to do for you. Baptism with water may seem pretty exciting, but it’s pretty tame compared to what you’re going to experience when the Messiah comes! You’re going to be totally flooded, overwhelmed, immersed, and filled to overflowing with the power of God’s Spirit!

In the Book of Acts, after Jesus’ resurrection, he himself confirmed this promise to his disciples. He told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for ‘the promise of the Father. “This”, he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”’ (Acts 1:4-5). And so it was; a few days later we read that the early Christians were all together in one place, when ‘suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’ (Acts 2:2-4). People heard the noise, and a crowd gathered, marveling because they could each hear the Christians speaking in their own language. Eventually Peter got up to speak, and the Holy Spirit used his words so powerfully that three thousand people decided to become Christians that day. They saw that God wasn’t just a theory or a theological symbol: there was a real God who did real things in the real lives of real people. They had seen it in the newly Spirit-filled Christians, and they wanted it for themselves.

And by the way, this wasn’t just a one-off thing in the lives of these early Christians – they had a similar experience in Acts 4, after they’d been persecuted for the first time by the religious establishment. We read that they gathered together and prayed, and when they were finished ‘the place where they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (v.31).

Experiences like these seem to be just part of normal Christian life in the New Testament. In our reading from Acts this morning Paul notices immediately when the Spirit seems to be missing. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” he asks, and they reply, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”. On further inquiry he discovers that they haven’t actually received Christian baptism yet, only the baptism of John, so he baptizes them. Afterwards we read that ‘When Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied’ (Acts 19:1-7).

So in the New Testament there’s this strongly experiential element to Christianity. It’s not just about belonging to an institution called the church, and going to its services on Sundays. It’s not just about reading the Bible and believing the creeds and the doctrines of the Christian faith. It’s not just about trying to put the teaching of Jesus into practice in your daily life.

No – New Testament Christianity is also an experience – an experience of knowing God. It’s an experience that makes absolutely no sense unless there’s a real God who does real things in the lives of real people. It’s about my life and your life being touched by the hand of God. It’s about God coming to live in us in a spiritual sense, so that we become temples of the Holy Spirit – places where God lives.

Some Anglicans are afraid of this kind of talk because it sounds rather Pentecostal to them. They think “That’s not why I go to an Anglican church; if I wanted that kind of thing I’d go down to Millwoods Pentecostal!” So let’s address this for a minute: is this sort of spirituality only for Pentecostals, or is it for us too?

The thing about reading the stories of the earliest Christians is that they weren’t Roman Catholics or Baptists or Anglicans or Pentecostals – they were just Christians. Their Christianity had a strong sacramental flavour to it – they had a very high view of sacraments like baptism and Holy Communion – something we associate today with the catholic traditions. They also had a high view of scripture and the importance of teaching, like modern evangelicals. They took the teaching of Jesus seriously and tried to put it into practice in their daily lives, loving their enemies and living simple lives with few possessions – something we associate today with Mennonite and Anabaptist traditions. And they also had a strongly experiential element – they expected the Holy Spirit to touch them and do remarkable things in their lives – just like modern Pentecostals.

Nowadays we’ve split up these emphases and made different denominations out of them, but the Holy Spirit won’t go along with that. The Holy Spirit doesn’t have many churches, he has one Church, the Body of Christ. All of these truths are part of the universal Christian faith, meant for all people in all places. We Anglicans are happy to share our gifts of liturgy and sacraments with other Christians. And we also need to be open to receiving from the treasures other Christians have been given.

I’m not going to describe for you this morning what an experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit is like, because there isn’t just one experience. God works in many different ways in the lives of many different people. Some people have experienced something very dramatic – an overpowering feeling of the love of God, maybe accompanied by something like the speaking in tongues described in our Acts reading. For other people it’s been something much more quiet and gradual, perhaps deepened as they’ve given more time to silent prayer on a regular basis.

But I do want to say something about the fear factor. I can understand it, because I’ve felt that fear myself. I like a form of Christianity where everything’s under control, where everything’s predictable. I can preach a pretty good sermon and do a half decent job of running a parish all by myself, thank you very much, without having to call on God for help! God’s so unpredictable; if I pray for the Spirit to come, he might and he might not, and I’m going to look pretty foolish if he doesn’t. So I’d rather just avoid the whole thing.

But I don’t think avoiding it is normal Christianity. Read through the New Testament, especially the Book of Acts, and see the place of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the early Christians. See how Jesus promises this gift to his followers, and how he reminds us that the heavenly Father gives good gifts to those who ask him. Ask yourself, “If I pray to be filed with the Holy Spirit, would God give me something bad in response?” And if you decide – as I’ve decided – that this is meant for us today too, then pray, and keep on praying, trusting the Father who loves you, until you also experience baptism in the Holy Spirit, as the early Christians experienced it and as Christians down through the centuries have experienced it.

Let me close with this thought. In Psalm 34:8 the writer says, ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’. He doesn’t say, ‘Think about eating’ or ‘Do a study on eating’, or ‘listen to the experiences of others who have eaten’. He says, ‘taste’. In other words, for this Old Testament writer the experience of the presence and power of God was as tangible as the taste of his food.

Now whether you’ve experienced that for yourself or not, I think you can agree that it would be a life-changing experience. So let me encourage you to cultivate your hunger for God. Don’t be satisfied with anything less than the touch of his Spirit. Ask, and seek, and knock, and keep on asking, seeking, and knocking until the Lord answers your prayer – and then come back and tell your brothers and sisters in Christ what the Lord has done for you.

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