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January 2006


6Paul put his hands on their heads and the Holy Spirit entered them. From that moment on, they were praising God in tongues and talking about God’s actions.

This story in Acts is at once very strange and very powerful.

At first glance it almost sounds like a story of baptism and re-baptism… or a story of competition between the ministries and baptisms of John the Baptist and Jesus.

In truth the story is neither.

Rather it is the story of the power of baptism and how it changes both the one who is baptized and the community the baptized believer lives in.

The story open as Paul encounters a group a believers… we can safely believe they were Christians… perhaps members of one of the house churches in Ephesus.

Almost immediately… Paul’s spiritual radar activates.

They seem like believers and talk like believers.

But something… or someone is missing.

So Paul initiates an interrogation.

Notice his first question.
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?

He goes on to ask if they have taken God into their hearts… or is this just an intellectual exercise.

But those following questions all stem from the first one: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?
What gave them away?

What about them… their manner or their presence gave Paul some clue to ask his question about the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit in them?

We might be tempted to ask why Paul even asked the question.

Why was it so important for Paul to know… or why was important for the believers to have the Holy Spirit in them… to the extent that it is visible to people who encounter them?

Again I wonder…gave them away?

Was it how they talked?

Was their language spirit filled?

Was their conversations filled with evidences of the Holy Spirit active in their lives?

There is danger here.

Danger in the question… and danger in the answer.

My spiritual radar goes off when I am asked a question like the one Paul is asking these Christians of Apollos.

Maybe yours does too.

“Tell me brother,” someone asks, “ Have you been baptized by the Holy Spirit?”

Uh oh.. I\we think.

We are about be cross-examined.

Already our defenses go up.

“Tell me sister…have you been saved… Sister…has God laid hands on you… are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?”

The danger we feel when we are asked such a question is that it is almost always asked in an accusatory manner.

The questioner is not really concerned about our answer.

Too often the questioner has already decided what the answer is.

the question was never sincere.

It was merely a question on one-upmanship… a Spiritual put-down.

Paul’s question I think is sincere.

We have to remember that Paul is just starting to build the church…

And not everyone knows or understands what it means to be a Christian…. What it means to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth.

Paul’s question takes him back to the stories of Jesus and John the Baptist experiences down by the Jordan.

As Paul had heard and understood the stories… John had preached and practiced a baptism of repentance.

John had called his listeners away from their dead lives and deadlier faith into a new life and new faith.

John was also clear that his baptism was of water.

The one who came after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit.

That One… Jesus… did come.

He came to John to be baptized.

And as Paul remembered the story… when John brought Jesus out of the water the heavens opened… and the Spirit of God had descended upon the newly baptized messiah.

For Paul… for all the original disciples… for all those believers who came into the faith after the baptism of Jesus…

Every baptism thereafter was a baptism of water and of the Holy Spirit.

That as Jesus had been changed… and had been claimed… and had been empowered by God’s Spirit…

Everyone of his disciples who followed him through the waters of baptism… they too were also baptized in the Spirit.

That was not just a story repeated and told by believers.

It was not just words out of the worship handbook.

Having been knocked off his horse and having been blinded by the Savior himself…

Having had his life and purpose turned completely upside down..

Having been set ablaze and armed with a New purpose and a New life…

Paul had experienced personally what happened when God’s washed over you in the moment of baptism

He knew.

He lived it.

And because Paul knew and lived it… a life drenched in the power of the Spirit… he could spot another believer who had been similarly washed in the Spirit.

So Paul’s question to the disciples in Ephesus was one of invitation as well as wonder.

Notice that there is no condemnation… no put down… no expression of shock at their ignorance by Paul.

Rather he affirms that they were baptized in John’s tradition and that was good.

Now Paul was inviting them to go one more step…

To accept the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

For Paul… that was important.

Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? Did you take God into your mind only, or did you also embrace him with your heart? Did he get inside you?

For if the Holy Spirit was inside you… it not only changed how you look and how you lived…

It gave you a power that was unlike any other power.

That is why I think Luke adds this story about witches and exorcisms and healings after Paul’s laying on hands upon these disciples.

As Luke tells the story… there were some Jewish exorcists in Ephesus who encountered people filled with evil spirits.

They were trying to cast them… but encountered rather stiff existence.

when the evil spirit talked back: "I know Jesus and I've heard of Paul, but who are you?"

And with that… the man still possessed… ran off.

Now I know to our modern ears such a conversation is fanciful if not down right absurd.

We modern scientific people would never believe that any one has evil spirits… or any kind of living creature sharing our bodies or our minds…

Let alone having a conversation with such a “spirit.”

Luke and Paul believed in spirits.

They believed in possession.

And certainly they believed you could talk with… struggle with… defeat or be defeated by such spirits.

They could also believe that such evil spirits could recognize the identity and power of those fighting against them.

when the evil spirit talked back: "I know Jesus and I've heard of Paul, but who are you?"

What difference does that make?

Doesn’t the fact that you want to defeat evil and bring about good health matter more than what who you are or what good spirit you have inside of you?

Do you have to fight evil with only the Holy Spirit?

Maybe it does.

Maybe it does matter whose spirit dwells within you when confront persons who are sick or possessed?

Maybe it does matter as you try to make sense of all that life and the world throws at you.

In the act of baptism… Jesus experienced a break between the heavens and the earth.

In the gospel accounts we learn that God’s Spirit descended upon him as he came out of the waters.

Now powered with the Holy Spirit… Jesus could begin his ministry of healing and feeding and preaching.

In our liturgies of Baptism and Confirmation… there is a moment when we say that God’s spirit has descended upon each of those who are baptized or confirmed.

In that moment… each of us experience what Jesus experienced… God’s Spirit descended upon each of us.

Like Jesus… we were ordained to a ministry of healing and feeding and preaching.

Maybe the real question for each of us is this.

What would Paul say to us when he met us?

Would he know we had been baptized and filled with God’s spirit?

Or would he wonder about us as he wondered about the disciple of Apollos me met in Acts:

"Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? Did you take God into your mind only, or did you also embrace him with your heart? Did he get inside you?"

What would we answer?

What answers would our living demonstrate?



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