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Buried in Baptism

Baptism in the Name of the Lord Jesus

Buried in Baptism
Buried in Baptism – The baptismal font at St Bartholomew’s Church, Liège

Last Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, a large proportion of Christians heard the following strange story:

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Acts 8:14-17

This strange story screams questions at us:

  • How could they tell that the Spirit had not come upon any of them
  • What is it to “only be baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus”? What more is needed than that

Thank you to those who have helped with the reflection (here and here).

People will (too quickly) say this story is about the Sacrament of Confirmation – administered by the apostles (or bishops as successors of the apostles) by the laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit. And then make some nice theological steps to how priests can administer this sacrament also… I think this might be reading stuff back into the text wearing anachronistic glasses…

Others (or even some of the same people) will say the evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues. They hadn’t spoken in tongues – conclusion: the Spirit had not come upon any of them. This seems to be reading things more in the context of the Acts of the Apostles (and its tongue speaking – but also might be contemporary Pentecostal anachronistic lenses… Tongues are only mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles at 10.46 and 19.6. The Pentecost Day story is often read as about a gift of tongues, but read carefully: it is actually about a gift of ears!

…the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard [my emphasis] them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear [my emphasis], each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites…

Acts 2:6-9

There is another problem with the four verses of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) second reading on Sunday: it has been ripped out of its explanatory frame. Here is the four verses of 8:14-17 put back into its frame – persecution

And Saul approved of their killing [of Stephen]. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city. Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” Now after Peter and John had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many villages of the Samaritans.

Acts 8:1-25

Simon, the Samaritan magician, is the frame for the second reading. “Signs and great miracles” are what he is interested in. Sunday’s second reading is the story of some sort of “signs and great miracles” that did were expected to happen when “Samaria had accepted the word of God…[and] been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus”. When these “signs and great miracles” failed to happen, “the apostles at Jerusalem … sent Peter and John to them…Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” And “the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands”.

The second reading is a fragment about missionary activity in Samaria. It begins with the execution of the Hellenist (Greek-speaking) Jewish follower of Jesus, Stephen. The missionary activity is spearheaded by another Hellenist Jewish follower of Jesus, Philip. The animosity between Jews and Samaritans in the First Century (underscored already by Luke) is extreme, giving a great distance between Jerusalem and Samaria. Jerusalem’s followers of Jesus could hardly imagine Samaritans as becoming part of their community.

At the start of the Acts of the Apostles, the “men of Galilee” (1:11) were told by the Risen Jesus: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria [my emphasis], and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). It was not men of Galilee who brought the Good News to Samaria, but the Hellenist, Philip. And baptism didn’t “magically” impart the Spirit. God’s work is sovereign and not controlled by our human actions. By withholding the Spirit, God drew the apostles to the Samaria they had avoided. Animosity is overcome, and people previously at enmity become part of the shared community of the action of the Holy Spirit.

There are even those who see the baptising “in the name of the Lord Jesus” as being inadequate – the baptism, they suggest, should have been in the name of the Trinity. Firstly, if such a baptism is inadequate, it should have been followed by “proper” baptism, not merely the laying on of hands. Secondly, and I think more importantly, I think we are (again) reading this text through anachronistic lenses. Baptising “in the name of” does not appear to be saying “magical” words aloud in our contemporary, incantational style. In the name of means on behalf of and into the nature of.

In the Acts of the Apostles, baptism is in the name of Jesus Christ (2:38; 10:48) or in the name of the Lord Jesus (8:16; 19:5) never in the name of the Trinity. I have written about this previously. I advocate for us to hold to our vowed agreements and to baptise with the verbalisation of the Trinity at the moment of baptism, but alongside that, I do not see that this was the practice of the Early Church. You will see in my research, that there is no evidence of anything like such a verbalisation until the end of the Fourth Century, and even then, I point out that we are reading that 390AD text through the lenses of our modern practice of baptising with a verbal, formulaic proclamation.

Read more here:
Baptised in Paul’s Name (Part 1)
Baptised in Paul’s Name (Part 2) and
How To Baptise?

Examination of Sunday’s second lesson in RCL underscores that sometimes the reading is dangerously ripped out of its wider context. In this case, the Samaritan/Simon frame is probably too long to be used on this Sunday. And, furthermore, it is a story about Christian baptism on the Sunday when the church is celebrating (and the other readings are focusing on) John’s baptism of Jesus – which is NOT Christian baptism of Jesus! As presented, the story, in its brief form, confuses rather than enlightening.

The RCL is a revision of the Roman Catholic post-Vatican II 3 Year Lectionary. Regularly, the RCL has the same readings. In this case the second reading is a replacement of:

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

Acts 10:34-38 [may be read in any Year on the Baptism of the Lord


For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7

Acts 10:34-38 is read on this Sunday in Year A (RCL & RC) and on Easter Day each year – this is a probable reason for the RCL committee to search for another reading. Titus 2:11-14 has just been read (RCL & RC) at Christmas – this is also a probable reason for the RCL committee to search for another reading to this one. But I note that Titus 3:4-7 is not read anywhere else; it is not part of the Christmas reading. Whilst not advocating an abandoning of agreements and common prayer, I am critical of the RCL decision. Our RCL brief Acts 8 section is read by RCs on Easter 6 (Year A) with slightly better framing (Acts 8:5-8) and not confusing it with John’s Baptism. RCL on Easter 6 (Year A) reads the wonderful Acts 17:22-31, a story RCs omit completely in the Sunday and major feasts.

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