Let the Scriptures Speak
Baptism in the Spirit
… They sent [the Samaritans], Peter and John,
who went down and prayed for them,
that they might receive the Holy Spirit,
for it had not yet fallen upon any of them. (Acts 8:14-16)
“Have you been baptized in the Spirit?” Beginning some thirty years ago, exponents of the prayer movement known first as the Pentecostal movement (later, as the charismatic renewal) posed this question to their uninitiated friends. Most of us probably answered with something like, “I thought I received the Holy Spirit when I was baptized.” “No,” the questioner continued. “I'm talking about receiving a further in-filling of the Spirit that comes when you let a group pray with you for that gift. It can change your life.”
What often followed was testimony about the adult conversion experience that such group prayer often occasioned for people who participated in the charismatic prayer groups that began to spread among the mainline Christian churches in the late 60s and early 70s. Members of such groups began to speak of their friends and their priests as either “Spirit-filled” or not, and a new insider/outsider language began to be heard among the churches.
The source of the confusion came from the vocabulary of the Assemblies of God, where the contemporary charismatic movement took its origin. They distinguish between water baptism and spirit baptism. And they use this Sunday's first reading to substantiate this distinction. On the face of it, the passage does seem to support their claim. For the text says plainly that the Samaritans “had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” and that it took the special and later prayer of Peter and John for them to receive the Holy Spirit
But in another passage, Luke tells of these events happening in the opposite order. When Peter preaches to the household of Cornelius (Acts 10), Luke says that “the holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.” The Jewish Christians who accompanied Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also. Peter observes, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have.”
Does Luke intend in these narratives to teach a distinction between spirit baptism and water baptism? Luke seems to provide the norm for understanding the link between baptism and the gift of the Spirit in Peter's speech on Pentecost. On that occasion Peter says, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
The Gospel language about “baptizing in the Spirit” derives from the preaching of John the Baptist. Clearly, the Baptist makes a distinction between his prophetic (and pre-Christian) water baptism and the baptism in the Spirit that will come with Jesus (see Luke 3:16). And the rest of Luke-Acts makes it clear that the language normally refers to the Christian conversion-initiation experience of people receiving the Holy Spirit on the occasion of their baptism. The apparent exceptions can be accounted for by Luke's purposes. In the case of Peter and John laying hands on the Samaritans, the point is that the Samaritan mission (the first mission beyond Judaism) receives apostolic approval. And in the case of Peter with the Cornelius household, the point is that the movement of the Christian mission to the Gentiles has been divinely initiated.
In the biblical sense of getting baptized in the Spirit, then, every baptized Christian is baptized in the Spirit. What the charismatic renewal has highlighted is the genuine truth that sometimes adults do need to pray in community to let that gift of the Holy Spirit become more manifest in their lives. Understood within that framework, the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (and for Ascension as well) give us rich texts to illustrate what life in the Spirit means. It means being ready to respond to those who ask the reason “for your hope.” (1 Pet 3:15) It means discovering that our obedience to Jesus' teaching enables us to know the Holy Spirit as our Advocate. (John 14:15-21) It means letting ourselves be called from apocalyptic sky-gazing and allowing the power of the Spirit to spur us on to mission in the world around us.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University