Are You Standing on Ceremony?

mass baptism
Photo credit: <a href="">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.

The Grace of Jesus Be with You

dog catching bubbles
Photo credit: Bill Blevins

1 Thessalonians 5:23-28

May the God of peace personally make you 100% dedicated to the cause.
May you remain whole, body, soul, and spirit.
And may you be blameless in the end.

Indeed, God who calls you will do this.

And, friends, pray for us. Greet one another with the kiss of righteousness. I order you, by God, to read this letter out loud to everyone there. The grace of Jesus be with you.

Paul’s letter ends with blessing. And, as harsh and as wrong as Paul’s words have been at times, he is right to make the last word a word of peace.

And, we might note that this blessing’s concern is for wholeness in at least four different aspects:

  1. Wholeness of purpose and dedication. May you be 100% dedicated to the cause. And not just any cause but a great and good one. May you not be second-guessing your purpose, or that you have the capacity to achieve it.
  2. Wholeness of the individual. Body, soul, and spirit. Functioning together, each complete and healthy in itself, but also implying that they are working in concert with each other. It takes the balance of each of these areas of one’s life to really be healthy and complete, and to be able to live well and to work effectively.
  3. Wholeness of character over time. In other words, when you get to the end, you can look back without regret. May the patterns of your life, even when things have come up unexpectedly, or have taken turns for the worse, reflect the kind of resilience and fortitude of character that make you a blessing to others, even when it seems there are no immediate blessings for you.
  4. Wholeness of the community. Greet each other with the kiss of righteousness is not just an ancient custom. But may every interaction with your neighbor, your family, your co-workers, or your church members be one in which you have done your best by them. Regardless of their actions, may yours be the right ones.

Do this, and the grace of Jesus will be with you. Not some magical pixie dust grace of Jesus from the outside. The grace, the goodness, the peace, that Jesus demonstrated in his life – that grace will be with you, lived out in you.