The Gospels take a lot of short cuts through the life of Jesus. Whether they begin at his baptism, as does Mark, when he is already fully grown and ready to set out into the wilderness of temptation, and the rewards of ministry; whether they begin with a birth narrative, stables and shepherds, wise men and the temple; or whether they begin before time itself, like the Prologue to John, they all skip through his childhood and adolescent years (except for that one incident in the temple with the getting lost and giving his parents sass), straight to this moment. It is as though all is washed out, blinded by the luminosity of this moment of baptism, this moment when the heavens open and the glory of God, the Holy Spirit bursts forth in a flood of light. Like that moment of sun-blindness, all that has gone before is obliterated.
No wonder that Jesus immediately turned around and went into the desert by himself, bewildered by the blinding light, the voice of God ringing in his ears, the fullness of the Holy Spirit overwhelming him, as though he were still shaking off the river water as he retreated further from its current to the stillness of the wilderness, and its wild beasts, and its temptations, and its silent appeal to God. The descent of the Holy Spirit can be fearful; its weight astonishing; its lightness unnerving.
We know, we have been told at every baptism we have attended since the beginning of our memory, that this Spirit descends upon every unsuspecting child, every bashful adult who submits to the waters, who walks through the wilderness to find the river of life.
The Acts of the Apostles tell a slightly different story. Peter and John visit a community of believers who have been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, but who have not yet received the Holy Spirit. There are some complications to this way of telling the story. We can overcome some objections by pointing out that while Acts says these people had “only” been baptized in the name of Jesus, we baptize one another in the name of the Holy Trinity, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; Father, Son, Spirit. Additionally, we argue, all of our clergy are in apostolic succession, that is, the apostles laid hands on those who laid hands on those who laid hands on us at our ordination. So there is no fear that our baptism is incomplete.
But these legal responses leave a lot to be desired. They leave out the independent actions of God, which is a lot to be desired. How did these people come to believe, if not by the Holy Spirit whispering to them? And what of our insistence that, in an emergency, any baptized Christian can offer baptism to another. A friend who was a paediatric nurse quietly confesses to having baptized many a newborn in the neonatal ICU. It is not to be conceived of that the Holy Spirit was not present in those incubators, the breath of God in the ventilating machines, taking care of the most vulnerable children of God.
So it becomes as simple as this: there is more than one way to receive baptism. There is no set age, nor quality of water. A river, a lake, a baptistery or a font, each is as good as another at washing away worn out life and watering a new life into existence. There is more than one way to encounter the Holy Spirit: as a dove from above; confusing or delightful; belatedly recognized or discovered to have been within us all along.
There is one constant, and that is that no one baptizes themselves. There is always a community involved, to help a person in and out of the water, to pray for them, to believe with them. No one is left in the water alone. One of the gifts of needing the laying on of the hands of the apostles for the Samarians is that this way they actually get to meet the men who accompanied Jesus on his earthly journey; and for the apostles, it is a chance to keep in touch with the growing church; not to be left behind. We need one another, the old and the new, the green and the jaded, the weary and the spry.
Next week we will gather for our Annual Meeting and it is important for this community to come together, to reflect on our call to ministry in this community, and to plan for today and for tomorrow. In fact, I am going to put you all to work a little at next week’s meeting; we have some decisions to make together, and some discernment to be done.
The one consistent feature of our faith stories is that they never happen in isolation; we are created for relationship with God and with one another.
There is one character that we do not hear of in this little snippet of the Acts, but who was baptized with the others before Peter and John arrive, and who disgraces himself in the following verses. His name is Simon, and he is jealous of the power that he sees to deliver the Holy Spirit to his people. He wants to buy that power for himself. Even though he has been baptized, and has been blessed, he has yet to understand that we do not control the sacraments; they are God’s alone to grant. We do not apportion the Spirit; she goes where she chooses, and no mistake. We do not parcel out salvation. Jesus Christ has taken care to encompass the world already with that work.
Which is just one more reason why there is more than one way to be baptized, and more than one understanding of an encounter with the Holy Spirit: we do not define these things; God does.
But Simon’s story interests me because he does recognize the Holy Spirit arriving in this Samaritan village. He sees the signs and symptoms of the Spirit in the people with whom he has lived all of his life. Which makes me wonder: what has changed among them?
Paul lists the gifts of the Spirit as wisdom, knowledge, healing, faith, miraculous powers, prophecy, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, and their interpretation (1 Corinthians 12:7-10). Elsewhere, the Spirit is named as the one who intercedes for us, when we do not have the words to pray for ourselves; intercedes with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26). The fruits of the Spirit, we are told, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Jesus tells his disciples that the Spirit will give them the words to explain and defend their faith, against all opposition (Luke 12:12).
That covers quite a lot of ground. And yet Simon knew the signs and the symptoms, he saw the change in his neighbours. Do our neighbours say the same of us? And do our lives lead them to desire that independent action of God to which we bear witness? Do they want what they see that we have received, and recognized, and reflected inwardly and outwardly to our community?
There are many ways to receive and to recognize the Holy Spirit; but she is recognizable by the works that she wreaks in those who pay attention to her promptings, who pray for her guidance and her inspiration.
And so I invite us, then, to pray today for the coming of that Spirit like a dove, or in a flood, or however God’s Spirit deigns to descend. I invite us to face without fear the prospect of sun-blindness, bewilderment, or even quiet confusion, even the silence of the long dark night of the soul, which is another of the Spirit’s mysterious gifts. Ahead of our meeting next week; ahead of what ever we are called to face today, or tomorrow; in the face of God’s daily visitation, and in the faithfulness of God’s grace, I invite us to pray together today, Come, Holy Spirit. Veni Sancte Spiritus.