First Thoughts on the Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Baptism of Jesus

William Loader

Baptism of Jesus: 13 January  Acts 8:14-17

 

This tiny snippet of the mission to Samaria gives us only a small part of the story. Simon the great, alleged to embody "God's power" (8:10), would need putting in his place according to Luke. Probably the second century movement associated with his name had its origins quite early in Christianity. Luke is doubtless putting that movement in its place. Our short passage also has a few problems, even if its focus is just on one aspect of the story.

 

Philip had conducted a mission to Samaria and done much the same kind of thing which Jesus himself had done. He had preached the good news of the kingdom of God and performed miracles of healing, including exorcisms. It was, then, real Christianity which reached Samaria. This fulfilled the instruction Acts 1:8 that the witness spread to from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria. Twice Luke makes Samaritans heroes in the account of Jesus' ministry, once in the famous parable and a second time when only a Samaritan of ten healed lepers gives thanks. John 4 may also allude to the early mission to Samaria.

 

The mission to Samaria was a great success according to 8:4-8. Simon appears in 8:9-13, but he is not yet a problem. He becomes a problem later in 8:18-24, wanting similar power to the apostles. Luke's narrative discredits him and shows him having no authorisation or blessing from the apostles. The message for Luke's day should be clear. That brings us back to a problem in our passage.

The Samaritan Christians had been baptised in the name of Jesus, but had not received the Spirit. Had this happened to Jesus, we would not be reading of the Spirit descending on him like a dove at his baptism. Baptism is normally associated with the receiving of the Spirit in Paul's writings. In Luke's stories of the early church we sometimes find them separated. The speech at Pentecost suggests that people receive the Spirit when they respond in faith and submit to baptism (2:38). In Acts 10, however, Cornelius and his friends receive the Spirit and are then baptised after that. Here people are baptised and then later receive the Spirit. What is going on?

 

For the early Christians three aspects belonged closely together: coming to faith, being baptised, and receiving the Spirit. They were seen as aspects of one total event, even though the sequence may have varied. Faith is primary. It comes first. Baptism normally followed soon after - inevitably with some delay. What about receiving the Spirit? If this was seen as producing some manifestation (Luke's common assumption), then this might happen before, during, or after baptism. The sequence did not really matter. The three aspects belong so closely together that Paul can sometimes use one aspect to stand for the whole event. A good example of this is when Paul talks about our being baptised into Christ (e.g. Rom 6:3). He never envisaged that the event of baptism alone did this, as though it achieved something magical. It was his shorthand for the whole event.

 

Separating the receiving of the Spirit from the moment of faith is somewhat strange. Paul never indicates a separation, because he sees faith as responding to the offer of a relationship by entering it and that meant becoming connected to Christ through the Spirit. Luke, however, tends to think of the Spirit less in terms of the fruits, which Paul enunciates in Gal 5:22-23 and more in terms of the gifts which Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 12. In effect he is saying: people do not manifest the gifts necessarily at once. They may come later. But, in fact, he is doing a lot more. He is intimating that the Spirit needs to be conveyed by the right people. Philip was not good enough. It needed the apostles to come down.

This probably reflects the authority problem which Luke is having in his day with people like those who followed Simon. One of the ways to deal with this was to claim that there are authorised channels for the Spirit. It really does have the effect of setting up "middlemen" between people and God who act as brokers. They need to come and lay on hands if the Spirit is to come to people. Luke's other stories run somewhat counter to this. In his story of Pentecost the Spirit does not need church leaders to dispense it. The same is true in Acts 10 with Cornelius and his friends. Luke may not have been aware that his political concern to argue for tighter control in the church (at Simon's expense - but also Philip and the Samaritans believers!) had the potential to create a monster.

 

It also created a theological anomaly and put much more emphasis on the manifestations of the gift of the Spirit than Paul would ever have tolerated. In recent times it has also led some Christian groups to speak of a two stage process of being a believer: first, conversion (with baptism in water) and then second blessing or being baptised in the Spirit. It becomes a belief that God virtually comes to us in bit and pieces, holding something back. It is usually we human beings who do the holding back! Such a theology runs counter to a relational understanding of faith according to which we enter a relationship and engage in the process of deepening it. Paul had to deal with these kinds of distortions in 1 Corinthians when he wrote his famous love chapter to try to shift the emphasis away from the gifts and wonders and onto love.

 

For many who belong to generations of Christian believers baptism takes place before a conscious faith even develops and such baptism also celebrates the movement of the Spirit in a person's life. This should never be distorted into an understanding of baptism as doing anything automatically or magically. Rather, when it occurs with families and small children, baptism really is celebrating that these children are being placed in the stream (the community) in which the Spirit flows and that this happens and will continue to happen, as they participate in that stream. Our understanding of the formative influence of communities on young human life help us make very good sense these days of what baptism of infants is celebrating.

 

At all the various levels of human development which follow there will be a response of faith appropriate to that level. Baptism, the Spirit, and the responses of faith should never be separated. For such people the baptism celebrated over them continues to be a symbol of the grace which has been reaching them and to which they now respond in ever new ways. It is not so very different even when a young adult is baptised. There is still much growing to do. A wedding does not make a marriage; nor does baptism make an ongoing relationship of faith or a walking in the Spirit.

 

Gospel: Baptism of Jesus: 13 January Luke 3:15-17,21-22

 

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