While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to 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.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them.
"Baptism in the Holy Spirit"
1st Sunday After the Epiphany: Baptism of our Lord, Year B
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” (Acts 19:2). Paul asks this question to the disciples he meets in Ephesus. It’s a way of saying, “Who are you and whose are you? Do we belong to the same Body?” It’s a powerful question and one we should not gloss over today in a culture that paints itself as Christian by default.
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” (Acts 19:2). This is the difference that baptism makes. It’s the difference that Jesus makes. The disciples Paul met in Ephesus had never heard of Jesus and his message. They did not know about the Messiah, about the Word who became Flesh. All they knew was the preaching of John the Baptist, that wilderness prophet: “Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord!” So when Paul comes to complete the message, to tell the second half of this salvation story, they are surprised and moved by the Good News of God meeting us in Christ.
And even though Christ has died, rose again, and ascended into heaven -- even though he isn’t here -- before he left, he promised another Advocate. He promised the Holy Spirit would come and spread the presence of God far and wide across the earth. And the Holy Spirit would live in and work through the people of the Church.
The Holy Spirit works where she wills. God is not bound by any human activity. But God has chosen to act in and through certain human rituals. Christians call these rituals sacraments, and the most basic sacrament is baptism.
“The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace” (BCP, 857). This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work in other ways. But it means that the sacraments of Baptism and Communion are “sure and certain” ways that God will give us grace. Jesus commanded the disciples to go and baptize, and then promised to be with them always. He commands us to eat and drink the bread and wine and then promises us a new covenant. The Sacraments are tied to God’s promises.
So in baptism, we prepare to receive the gracious gift of God’s presence. The Holy Spirit of God, Third Person of the Trinity, will live within you who are baptized. And in the water, you are “sealed by the Holy Spirit … and marked as Christ’s own forever” (BCP, 308). Baptism makes us full members of the Body of Christ, fully able to participate in the life of the Church.
And baptism asks something of us. A growing number of Christians in the last hundred years or so have associated receiving the Holy Spirit with demonstrating certain spiritual gifts. They’ll specifically latch onto the end of our Acts reading, chapter 19, verse 6: “When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (emphasis added).
Some Christians in Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions say that if you do not speak in tongues, then you have not received the Holy Spirit. They’ll say that this “spiritual language” is the only proof of your salvation. This is minority argument in Christian history. I don’t want to go into a polemic here, but the basic problem is that this line of thinking confuses one spiritual gift among many with THE gift of the Spirit. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:4, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit,” and then lists speaking in tongues as one example of a gift, but not the only one. Not to mention that it places the Church in a position of ultimate judgment and knowledge, rather than reserving that right for God alone.
I believe tongues are real, and I’ve seen it happen. But I don’t think every Christian can or should do it. Again, Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). So that isn’t the thing that God asks all of us to do in baptism.
All the baptized do share a certain calling. St. Paul teaches in Romans 6 that when we are baptized, we die with Christ and are raised with him. We share in his suffering and death, just like we share in his resurrection. So baptism always asks us to die to something, to give something up. I think the best way to summarize it is: In baptism, God calls Christians to die to self-righteousness.
John the Baptist says it famously like this: “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” (Mark 1:7-8). Baptism asks us to become like John, recognizing that we pale in comparison to Jesus. Jesus is the Righteous One, and we are all failures in our own way. Instead of letting us continue in our false sense of pride, John calls us to be honest with ourselves and admit that we haven’t gotten it all right. Only Jesus has.
Baptism forces us to give up the illusion that we are good enough on our own. We have to stop lying to ourselves about deserving all the blessings in our lives and earning our way up the ladder of society or whatever else. In baptism we recognize that only Jesus is perfect. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and nothing we can do can change that. Instead, we needed God to do something for us, and in baptism God does! God comes to meet us by sending the promised Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Risen Jesus.
On the Cross and in the Empty Tomb, Jesus did for us what we could never do for ourselves. He brought us into close relationship with God. He healed the divide that we created with our sin. He washed us clean and made us new creations. We aren’t stuck in old ways, but given something new by the power of God’s Spirit inside us. That is the greatest gift of all. Amen.