‘The Lord is here’. Do you know the response? ‘The Lord is here; His Spirit is with us’. This uniquely Anglican beginning to the Eucharistic prayer could also be the summary of today’s readings. They tell us that God is here, through his Holy Spirit. God within, God inspiring, encouraging, enabling. The readings tell us the gospel of the Holy Spirit; the good news that the Spirit is with us today. The Holy Spirit is the petrol in the fuel tank of the Christian life. He gives us that get up and go!
The Holy Spirit is so powerful that John the Baptist describes receiving him as being a baptism with fire! I wonder what you think of when you hear the word baptism? I think of parents and godparents gathered round that font, making promises for a little baby. A christening in others words – when we think of baptism we think of a sacrament speaking of being a member of the church.
But in the original Greek, baptism just meant being soaked. You were baptised when fell in the river. Or walked under a ladder and someone dropped a bucket on you. Or went out in a thunderstorm. So whereas John the Baptist baptised with water, he says that Jesus will baptise – or soak us with fire! It’s a dramatic picture, of judgement, power and change. Being drenched in fire! It reminds me of a few Christmases ago. When I was responsible for lighting the Christmas pud.
Don’t ever give a Vicar responsibility for doing anything after the services on Christmas Day. By then I’m barely capable of stringing a sentence together. In previous years I’d had great difficulty in getting the pudding to light. So I decided to put on a bit more brandy. A mugful in fact. And to reduce the flash point by warming it up beforehand. So I gave the mugful a minute in the microwave, poured it over the pud and lit a match.
There was a massive woompf noise, a sheet of blue flame rose literally three foot high, and a blast of heat singed my eyebrows. I looked down and the pudding was swimming in a lake of burning brandy. And my thumb holding the edge of the plate was immersed in it! Sometimes you perceive injuries well before you register pain, and I remember just looking at the blue flames and thinking ‘my thumb is on fire’. It was like the old British Gas ad.
That pudding was well and truly baptised in spirit – admittedly of the 40% proof variety. Once everything had calmed down, the pudding looked the same. But it was transformed. Being drenched in fire had taken it to another level of taste through the richness of brandy and caramelised sugar.
Can we imagine baptism in the spirit like that? According to John the Baptist it is a dramatic, fiery event leaving a lasting change. When somebody receives the Holy Spirit, (and all we need to do is ask) it can be a powerful sensation. Or it can be peaceful. If genuine, it always leaves a mark. For Christians today, the Holy Spirit gives us a new beginning and fills us up with the dynamic presence of God.
The Spirit also helps us to become holy. In the Bible fire is often a purifying image. Like the refiner’s fire. Imagine the intense heat of a crucible into which a metal worker pours a mix of rocky ore, stokes it up, burns off the dross, until pure precious liquid metal is left. It’s said that the metal worker knows it is finished when he can see his reflection in it.
Similarly, in our lives, the Holy Spirit purifies us. He sharpens our consciences so we know right and wrong. He gives us the power to overcome sins, and the persistence to keep on trying when we fail. The process can be sacrificial as we have to let go of habits and perhaps things to which we have become too attached. But through it the Spirit purifies us to be like Jesus.
Who himself was baptised with the Holy Spirit, as we hear today. It may seem odd that Jesus is baptised, but he did so, not because he had sinned, but as an act of identification with sinful humanity and submission to the Father’s will. Jesus has no need of purifying fire. So with him, in v. 22 the Spirit descended in peace like a dove.
The Spirit can be like that for us: he breathes peace into our hearts when we are troubled; he comforts us with the presence of God. The Spirit produces fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, self-control and hope. It is good day by day to the Spirit’s presence to help us grow in faith and become more like Christ. For although the Spirit is given at baptism, I believe we do need to keep asking for his help.
When the Spirit is in our lives, and when we let him take control, he produces visible results. One example is in the reading from chapter 8 of the book of Acts. As we read this, remember that Jews and Samaritans were enemies. Like Sunni and Shia today – similar in many respects but some significant differences and at times a deep animosity.
So when Philip preaches the good news in the Samaritan capital, and the new converts receive the Holy Spirit, it’s the first time the gospel reaches these non-Jews.
This is probably why Peter and John have to go to Samaria to pray that people will receive the Spirit. Normally you would expect God to give his Spirit as soon as people believe in Jesus. That’s what happened at Pentecost and later on at the conversion of Cornelius. Cornelius was of course a Gentile, but a convert to Judaism.
Here, unusually, there is a two-step process: people believe and then receive the Spirit. Some of us may have had an experience of believing in a simple way and coming to a deeper faith, or an experience of the Spirit later on in life. But this seems to be more fundamental.
Perhaps it happened like this because it was such an important moment. Because it was the first outreach beyond the Jews. At this key moment, God gave his Spirit through the Apostles. Using their authority to emphasise the continuity with Jesus. That this is truly Christ’s spirit. It’s proving that what Philip has preached is right, and that it’s the same message that Jesus entrusted to those eleven apostles. In this story, continuity is proved when the Spirit is visibly given.
Just think about that a moment ‘visibly given’
To prove that they are accepted, v.17 in Acts 8 says they received the Holy Spirit. That implies it was clear when the Holy Spirit came. How do we know we have the Holy Spirit? Is it because we speak in tongues or show other gifts? Is it something we feel? Is it clear in changed lives? Whatever the answer, or combination of the above, the point is that it was obvious for the Samaritans. They knew, and other people knew.
So it can be for us today. Jesus tells us to ask for the Holy Spirit, and he promises he will give it. If we ask, we will know the reality of the Spirit with us, and other people will see the results. So how will they know?
Perhaps we shall see the effects through the gifts he will give us. Those gifts we read about are for today. The wonderful gifts of tongues, prophecy, healing and teaching can be used to serve others. To bring a new life to worship. They can also be a powerful witness to non-Christians who suddenly realise ‘perhaps there’s something to this after all. It’s often like that on the Alpha Course away day – that’s the time when newcomers truly grasp that God is real because of the focus on the Holy Spirit.
We may also know we have the Spirit through feelings: sensing the presence of God; or we have a deeper faith, or we feel reborn and new. We can’t place too much emphasis on feelings of course – they can be erratic and people going through hard times can sometimes doubt whether they have the Spirit, because they feel so far from God. But as St. Paul says in 1st Corinthians, no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ without the Spirit. That means that every Christian does have the Holy Spirit – when we ask for the Spirit we seek to become more filled with him.
For then we shall produce the ultimate proof of the Spirit’s work: changed lives. It’s when we see ourselves striving to be like Christ, fighting sin, becoming better people that we know the Spirit is living in us. If someone claims great experiences of God’s spirit but shows no evidence of Christian love and growth, then one doubts what they say. In Corinthians Paul teaches that the spiritual gifts are fine – but without love they are nothing. There may on the other hand be a believer who does not have strong feelings of the Spirit’s presence, yet is growing in faith and loving service. Such a person can be reassured that they do have the Spirit.
And his work is seen in changed lives. As I said at the beginning, the Holy Spirit is the fuel in the petrol tank of the Christian life. All Christians have the Spirit, yet sometimes we may feel as if that fuel has got low; as if the needle is at the left of the gauge and the little red light is flashing. If so, pray that God will fill you again with his Spirit. Jesus has promised to give to all who ask. He waits to bless us now. Come, Holy Spirit, fill us today and fill your church with living fire! Amen.