Summary: In Baptism God claims us as His children and receive the power and promise of the Holy Spirit for daily living.
The story is told that near Rome, Italy, a mechanic started the propeller of a plane and accidentally turned on the fuel. The engines fired. To his amazement the plane ran along the ground, rose smoothly into the air, and went through what appeared to be a series of complicated maneuvers. It looked as if an expert pilot were in the cockpit. Then the wind caught the plane, overturned it, and threw it to the ground where it burst into flames. For many Christians – we are much like that plane – we need guidance and direction in our lives. The gift of the Holy Spirit is that gift of guidance and direction that God gives each of us as His followers. Yet when we talk about the Holy Spirit – many of us – especially us Lutheran Christians have difficulty understanding and talking about the gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s like the story of an elderly Chinese Christian who was attempting to describe his faith in the Holy Trinity. He said – “Honorable Father – very good!” “Honorable Son – also very good!” Then this elderly Chinese man continued: “Honorable Bird – I do not understand!”
And so it often is with us as well – yet nothing in the New Testament happens without the power and gift of the Holy Spirit. In our second reading from the eighth chapter of Acts we are told how the Samaritans received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Remember back in the first chapter of Acts we’re told (Acts 1: 6-9, NRSV): “6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” As we look at the beginning of chapter 8 here in the book of Acts – we’re told that the death of Stephen began an intensive period of persecutions against the church in Jerusalem and Christians began to flee to the surrounding areas. (Acts 8:1b-8, NRSV):8:1bThat day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. 2Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house;
dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.4Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. 5Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, 7for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many
others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. 8So there was great joy in that city.”
So Philip, we are told, one of the followers of Jesus Christ – begins preaching in Samaria. Samaria – the land of the gentiles – the land of non Jews – a foreign land. But all this in fulfillment of what Jesus said would happen when he ascended to heaven. God used Philip to do great things – God used Philip to bring others to Jesus. The people of Samaria would have naturally been unfriendly to outsiders – especially Jews – but God through the power and presence of Holy Spirit – is with Philip and Philip has great success. But yet there is one thing that should puzzle us about the record of Philip’s success in Samaria. For all the power and effect of his witnessing – the Spirit is not bestowed upon the folks in Samaria but rather later – the two apostles who have played the leading role in the growth of the church – Peter and John come to Samaria and lay hands on the newly baptized so that they may receive God’s presence in the Holy Spirit. This action on the part of the leaders of the church places the stamp of approval upon the outreach to the Gentiles – to folks beyond Jewish roots.
What we see in this text that rings true for us is that baptism and the laying on of hands are closely associated. In our tradition – in the sacrament of Holy Baptism – we pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life in the laying on of hands with these words: “God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we give you thanks for freeing your sons and daughters from the power of sin and for raising them up to a new life through this holy sacrament. Pour your Holy Spirit upon name: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence.” If the newly baptized is an infant or young child – we come around again at Affirmation of Baptism – confirmation and ask that person to say yes to the God who has said yes to them. Again – we lay hands upon their heads and pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives with these words: “Father in heaven, for Jesus’ sake, stir up in name the gift of the Holy Spirit; confirm his/her faith, guide his/ her life, empower him/ her in his/ her serving, give him/ her patience in suffering, and bring him/ her to everlasting life”. You see it’s clear that we received the presence of God – the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism and it was stirred up again within us when we affirmed or confirmed our faith – or when we united with the church.