s168e01 Somerton Park 7/1/2001 Sunday 1 Epiphany 1 The Baptism of Jesus

"When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit." Acts 8:14-17

This is the standard text justifying the Anglican practice of infant baptism and later confirmation. However, in my experience, Anglicans don't proclaim this passage and conclusion too loudly, because most of us also (in the orthodox tradition) believe that the fullness of the gift of the Holy Spirit is given in baptism. We are still somewhat uncertain about confirmation, at least those who aren't Bishops are uncertain :-) So this is a passage of scripture, which on the face of it supports our practice (as Anglicans) is, in reality, a "mixed blessing".

There are a couple of issues here which are worth pointing out. For someone, the evidence of the absence of the gift of the Holy Spirit was clear - just who this particular person was we are not told. Neither are we given any clue as to how this mysterious person discerned the absence or the presence of the Holy Spirit ... and so by extension how we can. Indeed we take it as a "given" that this particular discernment of the absence of the Holy Spirit was accurate ...

And secondly it raises the issue of Church membership. Is the Church the sole dispenser of things spiritual, and if so, which Church? What is the proper role of the church hierarchy - personified in Peter and John in our reading?

There are a couple of "easy" answers to the question of who "has" the Holy Spirit. As good Anglicans, we take things on faith. If individuals are baptised and confirmed then obviously the recipients are in possession of all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit - whether there is any discernible change in the manner of a person's life ... (assuming of course that there needed to be a change in the first place ?) That is what the sacraments are all about - assuring us of the presence of things we cannot see ... And there is a beauty to this answer, because it bids us look at others carefully, behind the obvious, trying to perceive the good that they do, the good that is in them already, the quiet gifts of the Spirit already present in their lives. The presence of the Holy Spirit is not always "in your face".

Another "easy" answer is that everyone possessed of the Holy Spirit speaks in tongues and therefore those who do and those who don't are easily discerned. This also is a very confident guide to the worthiness and abilities of ministers - those who can invoke the gift of tongues in others are "kosher", those who can't are frauds ... And there is a beauty to this answer, because the gift of the Spirit ought to be discernible, ought to be effective for good in the world at large.

But as I look at both of these "answers" I see that there is a common problem with them both.

In the "Anglican" answer, the manner of life of persons who are baptised and confirmed is irrelevant to the possession or otherwise of the Holy Spirit. A person could be baptised and confirmed and indeed a regular communicant - and spend the rest of their waking existence putting other people down. I am not saying that this hypothetical person spends his or her life breaking any of the ten commandments ... It's just that no one else is affirmed ... Or, what is more usual, particular people with whom this hypothetical person does not get on, are criticised, opposed, lampooned ... "The Holy Spirit doesn't work through them !!!"

And the "charismatic" answer is, of course, as likely to fall down by the same standard.

It is my personal opinion that the reading makes plain that the important thing was not that the persons were baptised using the "authorised" formula by a properly authorised minister of the sacrament, or that baptism must always be followed by the laying on of hands by a duly consecrated descendant of the apostles - a Bishop. The important thing is the evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individuals. I suspect that even this view is not held universally across Christendom however :-)

We are told that someone had perceived the absence of the Holy Spirit in these persons, baptised incorrectly and inappropriately, by a deacon exceeding his authority ... And the apostles send Peter and John, they lay their hands on these Samaritans and the gift is, as we have always assumed, given to these Samaritans - who receive the Holy Spirit.

But I wonder where it leads us, if we were to say that after this laying on of hands, the actions of the Holy Spirit were perceived to be present rather than made present? ... that the problem was not one of actuality, it was one of perception.

So the role of the church is to perceive, to acknowledge, to make plain what is already there ...

And this is a vital role because individuals indeed do need to be encouraged ...

And again there is the tendency when we think about how we discern the Holy Spirit earlier mentioned ... If we take the sacramental view we exclude those who haven't received the sacraments. If we take the charismatic line we exclude others not similarly gifted.

For me the gifts of the Holy Spirit enables us to look behind these externals and see the Holy Spirit at work in others who are not the recipients of these externals. So the actions of Peter and John when they laid their hands on these particular Samaritans made plain the pre-existing presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. It was particularly made plain to our mysterious person who, prior to the apostles visitation, could not see, and was perhaps the one who called in the hierarchal "heavies". It is the gift of the Holy Spirit to see the gift of the Holy Spirit in others. The absence of the Holy Spirit is evidenced by a refusal to see good in anyone but themselves.

And for me this links up with Jesus ability to see the good in all sorts of people, to sit down and eat with them, to the chagrin of the religious authorities, who were not so gifted.

It is curious to me - why should the mission to the Samaritans be singled out for special mention? Jesus himself commended the "Good Samaritan" and the town of Sychar had become followers of Jesus before his death. But I suppose the Church in some senses had to retrace the footsteps of Jesus. The mission of Jesus was not a once-off moratorium, followed by a return to traditional ways. The Church too had to affirm for itself the same global mission that Jesus started. We too need to affirm that that global mission to find the gifts of the Holy Spirit in all people is ours still.

So for me the answer lies in our Anglican concept of "communion". I am not fussed about individual sins, particularly where it is often our sense of not living up to our own perception of perfection required, rather than actual intentional hurt to others.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is a willingness to work with others, not in a cosy - "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" sort of way, so common in secular as well as Church circles. No, the gift of the Holy Spirit is evidenced as people work for the good of all of humanity, not dividing the world into those who are not deserving of our attention and respect - and those who do.

And the ability of seeing the good in others is a challenge to us all. There is no escape from it. One cannot say - I'm a Christian - I do this perfectly well all the time - least of all me!

The issue of what is the "true Church" remains. But the "true Church" is not that which lives up to my own expectations! The issue really is, what value do we place on being in the true Church. Is the true Church something which excludes others? Is the value we put on us being in the true Church in some sense magnified because others are excluded?

I am an engineer by temperament, and I am interested in where the "rubber hits the road" not in metaphysical concepts. For me being in the true church is important, because the true church if nothing else has no boarders. The importance of being true is that we ever look beyond ourselves to see, acknowledge and make plain the Holy Spirit in others.

 

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