Happy Day of Epiphany, by the way! Have your magi made it to the manger in your nativity scene? Blessed Christmas to our Easter sisters and brothers in Christ!
I don’t think I would read this text at worship unless I planned to preach on it. On its face, it is confusing and opaque. It has the potential to make people wonder about whether their own baptisms are “valid” or whether they need to be re-soaked in some way to make things official. I’m not sure it’s worth the risk without some explanation and comment. On the other hand, I think it’s an interesting focus for a sermon on baptism, if one wants to accept the challenge.
The narrative really begins at the end of chapter eighteen. We are introduced to Apollos of Alexandria, a Jew who was “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures” (Acts 18:24). Apollos had received instruction in the “Way” of the Jesus followers. “He spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus,” we read in verse 25, “though he knew only the baptism of John.” Priscilla and Aquila, of Corinth (who had been trained personally by Paul) set him straight on that score.
Apollos crossed the Adriatic over to Achaia and was successful in public debates with Jews regarding the scriptural proofs that Jesus was the Messiah. It appears that a type of Christian practice based on John’s baptism was the developing norm in the region, because Paul encountered it in Ephesus as well. The test, for Paul, was whether their baptism had resulted in the presence of the Holy Spirit in the form of ecstatic gifts. Not only had the Holy Spirit failed to make an appearance, but the Ephesian believers had not even heard of such a thing (at least in connection with baptism, we must assume). Paul corrects this deficiency, the Spirit shows up, and all is well.
Without regular instruction and reminders, our thinking about and practice of baptism can go off the tracks pretty quickly. In 1542, Luther sent a letter of comfort and encouragement to his theological colleague, Justas Jonas. Luther observed in the letter that without constant vigilance, the law of works could easily replace the gospel in worship. He mentioned the case of a pastor in Ronnenberg who taught that baptism with warm water was invalid, since fire was “mixed” with the water, rendering the water impure. “Behold the boldness with which our fearless foe [Satan] operates,” he wrote to Jonas.
The reading from Acts 19 is a clear demonstration of several things – that John’s baptism is not a Christian baptism, and that John continued to be a theological “wild card” in the early church for a couple of generations after the Day of Pentecost. And in the early church, proper instruction and practice were regarded as important for the reception and release of the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.
This is not to diminish the baptism of John. “The baptism of Jesus by John inaugurated Jesus’ earthly ministry,” notes Arland Hultgren. “It marked the moment when he was designated God’s Son by a voice from heaven, and was endowed with the Spirit to carry out his work on earth (Mark 1:10-11). Likewise, in Christian baptism, the event marks the inauguration of a new life and vocation for the one being baptized,” he concludes. “These points can all be inferred and developed out of the Gospel for the Day.”
“Something else was at work besides the form of the baptism,” Frank L. Crouch writes. “The key element was the living presence of God in the life of the believers. Paul’s first question to the believers is not “how were you baptized?” (although he does get around to that). His first question is whether they have received the Holy Spirit (19:2). Do they live their lives aware of, open to, filled with, and guided by the Spirit of God? That constitutes the key question of this passage, a question worth directing to ourselves and our own communities of faith today.”
“Regardless of how or where we were baptized,” Crouch concludes, “how is our life in the Spirit now? How are we living out our baptism now?”
Luther would ask us how we are putting our baptism to use in our daily lives. “Thus we must regard Baptism and make it profitable to ourselves,” Luther writes in his Large Catechism, “that when our sins and conscience oppress us, we strengthen ourselves and say: Nevertheless I am baptized; but if I am baptized, it is promised me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body…We have, therefore,” he concludes, “no greater jewel in body and soul, for by it we are made holy and are saved, which no other kind of life, no work upon earth, can attain.”
Hultgren notes that this text from Acts connects baptism to catechesis. While the validity of baptism doesn’t depend on a proper or adequate understanding of what’s happening (that is, no one is made worthy of baptism by knowing anything), making use of the full benefits of baptism is enhanced by a deeper understanding of the Spirit’s work in the sacrament. Perhaps that is what we see in this text more than anything else. Paul led the Ephesian Christians into a deeper appreciation of the baptismal gift and as a result unlocked their ecstatic spiritual gifts.
We live in a time when baptismal instruction for parents and sponsors is nonexistent in most places. Our witness as the Church suffers as a result of this lack of depth and insight. So, I want to take a few moments to review our Lutheran perspective on baptism. Kirsi Stjerne reminds us of how Martin Luther regarded baptism into Christ.
I want to pick out some salient points from Stjerne’s fine little book, No Greater Jewel, to inform our review. “We baptize because of Jesus’ example, by his command, and trusting in his promise,” she writes. “We baptize because we want Jesus’ presence to continue in our lives and we desire all the blessing of God that follows from that” (page 17). Baptism was, Stjerne notes, a matter of identity for the earliest Jesus followers. Thus, baptism in the name of John, as described in Acts, was a quite different matter from baptism in the name of Jesus.
“Why was baptism such a risky enterprise?” she asks. First, baptism connected one to an odd religion that didn’t fit the civil sensitivities of ancient people. Ordinary people in the Roman Empire found Christianity, well, just plain weird. Second, Christianity was not sanctioned by Roman law and was thus regarded as a foreign and perhaps subversive “philosophy.” Third, and “most radically, in baptism one accepted a view of God who cared personally about every human being, so much that God had taken on flesh and blood and come to live among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This was,” she concludes, “simply unheard of and strange” (page 18).
Perhaps we live in a time when this good news is once again simply unheard of and strange, a time when people find Christianity, well, just plain weird. The last time that happened, the church grew by leaps and bounds. This time? We shall see…
References and Resources
Hermann, Erik H. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series).
Juel, Don, and Kiefer, Patrick — http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/8-1_Spirituality/8-1_Juel-Keifert.pdf.
Lose, David — http://www.davidlose.net/2015/01/baptism-of-our-lord-b/
Bruce Malina;Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.
Roberts, Alastair — https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-the-individual-mark-14-11/
Stjerne, Kirsi. No Greater Jewel: Thinking about Baptism with Luther. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress, 2009.
Tappert, Theodore, ed. Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Vancouver, BC.: Regent College Publishing, 1960.
Lois Tverberg. Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus: How a Jewish Perspective can Transform Your Understanding. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2017.
Ulansey, David — http://www.mysterium.com/veil.html