“Receiving the Holy Spirit”

Baptism of the Lord

January 11, 2015


Text: Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7


          This morning in Acts we read about Paul’s first visit to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. The first thing we are told Paul asked them was if they had received the Holy Spirit when they came to believe.

          That is not the first question I would have thought of asking. I also have good reason to believe that I am not alone in this. For many Christians today, the Holy Spirit is sort of an afterthought.

          The disciples at Ephesus answered Paul, “Holy Spirit? Never heard of it.” It wasn’t that many years ago that much of mainstream Christianity could have responded in a similar way. Although the church throughout the centuries of its existence has baptized people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, most Christians had very little idea who the Holy Spirit is or why he is important. The recent stress on the Holy Spirit began with the Pentecostal wing of Christianity, which began to emerge just over 100 years ago. However, at first most other Christians considered these folks to be strange, since they emphasized activities like speaking in tongues and other forms of ecstatic experience that seemed pretty far out in left field to most Christians. It wasn’t until the charismatic movement brought a similar type of experience to Catholic and mainstream Protestant churches starting in the 1960’s that many Christians showed a renewed interest in the Holy Spirit.  

          As he continued to question the disciples at Ephesus, Paul found out they had received John’s baptism. Paul explained that John’s baptism was for repentance and forgiveness of sin. He also explained that John had come to prepare for the one who came after him, Jesus, as we read in our Gospel lesson. Paul told them Jesus was the one they needed to believe in. After having heard Paul, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Paul placed his hands on them, they received the Holy Spirit, and the twelve or so people involved started speaking in other languages and prophesying.

          Now for many Christians this description raises difficulty. Most Christians have never spoken in tongues. In the past most of our Pentecostal brothers and sisters have taught that unless one speaks in tongues, one has not received the Holy Spirit. They are less likely to say that today; in fact, several years ago it was reported a survey had found that 60% of the members of the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the US, have never spoken in tongues. Pentecostals today tend to emphasize the total work of the Holy Spirit, not just one particular gift. Yet in some quarters a myth persists that if you haven’t spoken in tongues, you haven’t fully received the Holy Spirit.

          Acts also tells us the people Paul met in Ephesus prophesied. People often misunderstand what this means. Prophecy is not fortunetelling. Nor is it predicting the future. A prophet is one who speaks on God’s behalf in light of the present situation. Anything that a prophet says about the future needs to be understood as a statement on God’s behalf about the consequences of continuing on with Things As They Are. We are not told what the newly Spirit-filled baptized believers in Ephesus actually said as they prophesied. I take that to mean that whatever was said was relevant specifically to that time and place and not considered worth recording for posterity.

          I would also venture a guess that most of us don’t consider ourselves prophets. How many of us can imagine ourselves standing up and saying something about a matter, and assert that we are speaking for God? Probably not many. And since that is the case, again we may find ourselves wondering if we have really received the Holy Spirit.

          Looking at it a little more broadly, however, it occurs to me that speaking for God is simply one way of representing God in the world. It so happens that one of the promises we make when we are baptized and whenever we reaffirm our baptism reads as follows: “According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?” This is consistent with Paul telling us that we are to be ambassadors for Christ, which means the same thing. We are to represent Christ in the world according to the grace given to us, according to the gifts God has given to us. Not everyone has been given the gift of public speaking. Not everyone has been given the gift of writing well. Not everyone has been given the gift of analyzing the signs of the times and what God might have to say about them. But there are many other ways of representing Christ in the world. We represent Christ in our care and compassion for those who are hurting or in trouble. We represent Christ when we offer forgiveness and hope to people who have messed up so badly they believe God has given up on them. We represent Christ when we stand up for those the world rejects. These ways of representing Christ also are gifts from God, for they are among the ways God’s purposes in the world are accomplished. Some people are more gifted at them than others. Paul elsewhere reminds us that God has given his people a variety of gifts to bless the church and the world.

          We have already received the Holy Spirit when we were baptized into Jesus Christ. The work of the Holy Spirit in an individual life is not always dramatic or showy. In most people, the Holy Spirit works in quiet, subtle ways to accomplish God’s purposes.

          The gift of the Holy Spirit is central to our baptism. When Jesus received John’s baptism, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and the voice of God spoke, “You are my beloved Son; I am well pleased with you.” In Christian baptism we receive the Holy Spirit and are claimed as God’s beloved. We are so claimed in order that we may represent God and thereby bless the world.

          In a few moments we will be reaffirming our baptismal covenant. As we do so, we reaffirm God’s claim on our lives, God’s Holy Spirit at work in us, and God’s call to represent Jesus Christ in the world. Let us faithfully use the gifts the Holy Spirit has given us, whatever they are, to do so.


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