Epiphany/Baptism of the Lord

Acts 19:1-7

January 7, 2018

Half-baked Christians Meet the Spirit

            Our second reading comes from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the second volume of Luke’s two-volume work, Volume One being the Gospel According to Luke. To appreciate this wonderful little story, we need to recall a scene that takes place early in Volume Two.


            The risen Christ has been with his disciples for almost 40 days, and his ascension is imminent. He has been spending time with his followers in Jerusalem, preparing them for their mission to take the gospel to all the world.


            Don’t leave town just yet, Jesus tells them in effect. In just a few days, all heaven is going to break lose. “This is what you heard from me; for John baptized you with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”[1]


            Sure enough, on the Day of Pentecost, those same disciples are transformed from a band of wimps who jump at their own shadows to a fiery cloud of witnesses. They pour out of their meeting place speaking the languages of every citizen and visitor in Jerusalem, proclaiming the mighty acts of God.


            Clearly, the Holy Spirit was worth waiting for.


            That was in chapter 2, but here, in these brief seven verses of chapter 19, the Apostle Paul runs into some Christians who don’t know that story. Think of them as half-baked Christians. (Some might say there are still a few of those around today.)


            Apparently, a young evangelist named Apollos had come to Ephesus and convinced a few folks that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. He even baptized about a dozen of them, but Apollos, for all his rhetorical skills, was woefully ill informed. He didn’t know about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. All he knew was the baptism of John.


            A couple named Priscilla and Aquila took the young Apollos aside and tried their best to fill in the gaps, but apparently, he left town before the folks in Ephesus had heard the New Revised Standard Version of the Gospel.


            So, along comes Apostle Paul, who stumbles across this small band of believers. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” he asks. “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”[2]


            What about your baptism?


            We were baptized into John’s baptism.


            Well, that’s good, but there’s more to the story.John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling people to believe in the one who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.”[3]


            Well, that did it! Before the day is up, Paul has baptized the whole crew in the name of the Lord Jesus. As he lays hands on them, the Holy Spirit shows up, and it’s the Day of Pentecost all over again. There is speaking in tongues and prophesying to beat the band.


            Once the Holy Spirit enters the scene, anything can happen.


            I love this story for many reasons, one of which probably never crossed Luke’s mind.


            I love it because it reminds me of myself in my first pastorate. Like Apollos arriving in Ephesus, I arrived in the town of Altavista, Virginia, confident that I knew exactly what I was talking about, and like Apollos, I needed to be taken aside and tactfully shown that I wasn’t nearly as knowledgeable as I thought.


            In Apollos’ case, it was Priscilla and Aquila who lovingly took the overconfident whippersnapper under their wings. In my case, it was a couple named Bruce and Frances Harvey.


            When I came to Altavista, I had three graduate degrees, including one doctorate, but when it came to fleshing out the gospel of grace within a living community, it was Bruce and Frances who showed me the ropes.  


            Although I did not realize it at the time, that too, was a kind of baptism in the Holy Spirit.


            The other reason I love this story is because it reminds us that to be the church – to be the baptized people of God – is to be a work in progress, constantly being reformed, forever being shaped and reshaped as the Holy Spirit leads us.

            Our baptism, as Martin Luther liked to point out, begins here, at this font, but it is not complete until our death.


            Each of us – all of us together – a work in progress.


            What does that work in progress look like? What are the signs of the Holy Spirit at work? How do you spot the baptized? What should we see when we look in the mirror? What does the world see? What does God see?


            Suppose a stranger should arrive in Tallahassee, looking for the baptized. What might he or she look for?


            Judging from this story, that stranger might first look for people who speak in tongues. “. . . the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues . . .”


            Another way of saying this is that our stranger might look for translators – that is, for folks who communicate the good news of Jesus Christ in a language that can be understood. In some cases, that requires a spoken language other than English. For most of us, however, that means going beyond words to communicate in the language of love – God’s love for the whole world.


            God’s love can be proclaimed in words, but it must also be proclaimed in action. In my experience, this group of believers assembled in this room right now is fluent in the language of action.


            In these past few days, as the temperature has plunged to unFloridian depths, I have been recalling that winter when this congregation started Tallahassee’s very first Cold Nights Shelter.


            I remember going to a storeroom over at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital where the Red Cross stored a supply of Army Surplus cots. I remember loading those cots into a borrowed pickup and bringing them to the basement of the Education Building. Some of you remember moving the furniture out of the Preschool classrooms into the hallway and setting up those cots.


            I remember the first night we were opened. Kent Miller and Bud Hendry were there. The two of them stayed up all night while our guests from the streets slept warm and out of danger.


            It’s hard to imagine a language more eloquent than that. If you want to find the baptized, look for people who speak in tongues.

            The second sign that would point someone looking for the baptized comes from the other half of Luke’s sentence. “. . . the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.”


            That’s the ticket! Look for prophets.


            Not fortunetellers – prophets. In Luke’s writings, prophets aren’t folks who predict future events. For Luke, prophets are those who speak about the present. They’re the people who speak in God’s name on behalf of God’s work in the world.


            Prophets point to evidence of the Holy Spirit at work and they cry, “Look! Do you see that! That’s where we can join God at work right now.”  


            Take, for instance, that Cold Night Shelter I was talking about a few minutes ago. After that first winter, some prophets took that ministry to the next level. Some of their names were Jane Shaeffer, Joe Shaeffer, Tom Potter, and Christy Koontz. They said, “This is a start, but God won’t let us stop there. We need to take it up a notch.”


            Next came a year-round Shelter, augmented on extra cold nights with teams of believers of every stripe. Eventually, after a few years, generous people all over the community came together and built the Kearney Center.


            On the coldest nights of last week, the Kearney Center welcomed more than 400 overnight guests. On our busiest nights that first winter, we might have housed as many as 10 or 12.


            If it weren’t for prophets calling for compassion, forcing us to look homeless neighbors in the eye, holding leaders accountable, there would be no Kearney Center in Tallahassee, and it’s very likely some of God’s children would have perished in the cold last week.  


            Prophets don’t just speculate about the future and point fingers at injustice. Prophets lead marches. Prophets attend City and Country Commission meetings. Prophets speak the truth to power. Prophets see the Holy Spirit at work in the world, roll up their sleeves, and join in.


            As soon as those half-baked believers in Ephesus received the Spirit, they started speaking in tongues and prophesying. It wasn’t long before they, too, were part of the Holy Spirit’s project to turn the whole world upside down.


            Want to find the baptized? Look for people speaking God’s love for the world in action as well as in words. Look for prophets who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Look for partners of the Holy Spirit.


            John A. Broadus was a teacher of preaching back in the 1800’s. He said that baptism is often called the door into the church. That’s true enough. Baptism is the sign that God has claimed us and engrafted us into the Body of Christ, the church. But baptism is more than that, Broadus taught. It’s also the door into God’s vineyard where there is work for all.


            It’s the Holy Spirit who opens both doors – the door into the church and the door into God’s vineyard. That’s why, every time we baptize, we ask the Holy Spirit to empower everything we say and everything we do. Without the Spirit, the ritual itself is just water play.


            “Paul, we didn’t even know there is a Holy Spirit,” said those half-baked believers in Ephesus. Paul soon remedied that.


            I sometimes think you and I need to be reminded that there is a Holy Spirit, and that that same Spirit is at work in the world right now.


            Look for the Spirit at work, beloved. Remember your baptism and join in.



(c) Brant S. Copeland, Pastor

First Presbyterian Church,

Tallahassee, Florida  


[1] Acts 1:5

[2] Acts 19:2

[3] Acts 19:4

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