Holy Spirit and fire

Sunday 13 January 2013
The Baptism of Christ
1 Epiphany C (RCL)
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Luke has a highly developed theology of the Holy Spirit. He divides history into three major ages, each connected with the Spirit. The first age is the age of the prophets, which lasts up through John the Baptist, he being the last of the line of prophets. In this age, the Holy Spirit energizes the prophets and speaks through them. The second age is the age of Jesus, when the Spirit rests in a unique way on him. The third age, the one in which we live, is the age of the Church. The Church is the primary agent of the Holy Spirit in this final age.

We get a sense of how important this three-part division is for Luke in the verses left out of this Sunday’s reading from the Gospel. Luke narrates John’s arrest by Herod after John’s preaching and before Jesus’ baptism. Jesus’ baptism takes place in the divine passive voice. “After all the people had been baptized, and Jesus had also been baptized . . .” For Luke’s narrative of the three ages requires that John the Baptist must be off the scene before the Spirit comes to rest on Jesus.

At the end of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of Acts (his second volume), Jesus has to be off the scene (and for a full ten days) before the Spirit can come to rest on the Church on Pentecost. In John’s preaching, he tells the people to expect someone coming after him who will baptize with Holy Spirit and fire. We hear this as a word of judgment (the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire). We think he is predicting God’s final judgment. But, when we get to the beginning of Acts, when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Church, it rests on each of the 120 present (that must be some upper room!) in the form of flames of fire. This is the baptism in fire — not God’s final judgment.

In the story from Acts, Peter and John go to Samaria to lay hands on the Samaritans who have been baptized in Jesus’ name, so that they also receive the Holy Spirit. For Luke, the Holy Spirit now dwells in the Church and energizes the Church’s ministry. The apostles are able to heal through the Spirit; the evangelists have the courage to preach through the agency of the Spirit.

Often this passage in Acts has been used as a biblical precedent for the rite of confirmation. I’m not sure bishops would want to think that the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer depended solely on them. Luke instead, I think, is suggesting that people included in the Church have access to the Spirit, which rests on the Church as a whole.

Baptism incorporates us into the Church, and gives us access to the energy and work of the Spirit. At baptism, we have heard the voice of the Church assuring us that we are God’s children, in whom God is pleased.

It is interesting that John baptizes in the wilderness out at the edge of the Jordan, the boundary of God’s people’s land. The prophets always saw the wilderness as the time and place of best relationship between God and God’s people. John invites people out to that liminal space again for baptism. Often, in our own lives and in the lives of our congregations, we need to go out to the wilderness again to deepen our life in the spirit. Isaiah promises Israel, even as they are going into Exile, that God will be with them, through water and fire.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *