Are You Standing on Ceremony?

mass baptism
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/simonhn/1355067853/sizes/z/in/photostream/">Simon Helle Nielsen</a>

Acts 19:1-7

While Apollos stayed in Corinth, Paul went inland until he reached Ephesus. When he arrived, he found some followers and asked them, “Did you receive the divine spirit when you believed?”

They said, “We’ve got no idea what you’re talking about – this divine spirit.”

So Paul asked, “What kind of baptism did you receive?”

They said, “John baptized us.”

Paul said, “John’s baptism was about people’s changing their lives, and to teach people to believe in the one coming after John, namely Jesus.”

When they heard this, they agreed to be re-baptized in Jesus’ name. And then, when Paul prayed over them, the divine spirit came over them and they began to speak in strange languages and to speak of the future.

In all there were about 12 of them.

This story has its roots in the need, early on after Jesus, to distinguish Jesus followers from those of John the Baptist. It’s entire aim is to clarify that Christianity is the “Johnanity 2.0,” the replacement to which everyone must immediately upgrade. The new version comes with a “divine spirit” that enables instant foreign language ability and soothsaying.

Jesus himself never says anything about baptism, except to acknowledge that many people went to John for it (for example, Mat 11:7 and parallels). He never implied that John’s baptism was insufficient. In fact, the gospels are unanimous in representing Jesus as having received the divine spirit at John’s baptism.

Nevertheless, as the Acts story has it, Paul deputizes these 12 other disciples to become the authorized agents of Jesus to the old school, the isolated, and the laggards who haven’t yet got the new official version of the story.

As problematic as it is, there may in fact be a case that “someone’s religion isn’t good enough.” But it’s not likely what everyone usually thinks of when such accusations fly.

Because as problematic as it is, historically, institutionally, and ethically, this story does have one hugely important take-away. It implies that standing on ceremony as one’s intention to change your life isn’t enough. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The difference between Jesus’ baptism at John’s hands and the same symbolic action undertaken by these 12, is that Jesus did something about it. These other 12 just went back home to resume life as it always had been. The ceremony hadn’t changed anything. And, if you will extend Paul the benefit of the doubt, it may have been their unchanged-ness that caused Paul to question whether they really believed anything substantial at all.

In this regard, there are certainly any number of modern examples of “disciples” who have been baptized, but who nobody would ever know for all the difference it’s made in their character.