Acts 8:14-17 CEB
When word reached the apostles in Jerusalem that Samaria had accepted God’s word, they commissioned Peter and John to go to Samaria. Peter and John went down to Samaria where they prayed that the new believers would receive the Holy Spirit. (This was because the Holy Spirit had not yet fallen on any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) So Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
Remember your baptism. Not just the water, whether sprinkled, poured or immersed, no, remember your baptism by the Spirit. From the baptismal waters of the Jordan, Jesus rises to begin his ministry after being touched not just by water but being blessed by the Spirit. It is by this same Spirit that we are all called into ministry with each other and this world. Today’s verses remind us that this same Spirit also pulls us into and blesses us with community. We are brought into a beloved community, not just with our God but with one another. I love this story about Peter and John going to Samaria because it tells us so much about this often neglected but essential corner of the Trinity. This Spirit crosses boundaries, ignores our divisions, and denies our claims of independence from God and our fellow human beings, instead binding us to God and to each other in order to invite us to be more faithful to the community of the body.
These handful of verses invite us to revel in the nature of the Holy Spirit! First, we have Peter and John, two of the disciples of Christ, coming down out of Jerusalem going to visit the new believers in Samaria. First, it bears reminding that these are two Judeans going to pray with some Samaritans. Samaria and Judea are ancient enemies, split along theological and cultural lines. Across the gospels, Jesus ministers to Samaritans, even making one the very example of a good neighbor with them saving a bruised and beaten traveler when neither a priest or Levite would help. Christ’s own disciples now go to them to pray with these people so that they might receive the Spirit. Here is the second part of the nature of the Spirit: it is a gift! The Spirit cannot be commanded but instead it is received. Peter and John lay their hands upon the Samaritans, recognizing their faith and welcoming them as siblings in Christ. These Samaritans then do receive the Spirit, and here is where things get transgressive. With the gift of the Spirit, the Samaritans are incorporated into the community of faith in Jerusalem, they are now all united together in this one body despite past differences. These are not two independent churches or communities of faith, but one body bound by the Spirit!
Our baptism by the Spirit makes us all part of this community, this body, this universal church of Jesus Christ our Lord. We acknowledge this as a church with our own baptism liturgy, as whenever someone is baptized, they are not the only ones who participate. Toward the end, the pastor asks the congregation, “Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life, include these persons now before you in your care, and surround them with a community of love and forgiveness?” The congregation is reminded in this question that baptism is not just for the individual but for the whole of the community because when any one person is baptized they are pulled into this connection with others. We suddenly bear responsibility for them and they have a responsibility toward us. Infact, this is why pastors do not tend to baptize people in private because this gives the wrong impression! It can leave the baptized feeling as though their religious faith is simply a private affair! Nothing could be farther from the truth as our baptism is distinctly into the body.
Look again to our verses this morning from the Book of Acts, we have a group of people used to being excluded and separated from faith communities in Judea. Can you imagine being these Samaritan believers and hearing that two of the biggest names in the early church are coming to visit you? I can see this community being uncertain of how they would be received by the church. Would they be accepted? Could they receive the Spirit? Would they be in community with Jerusalem? The answer to all of these must be a firm “yes” from our verses this morning as the Spirit cannot be denied to any. The Spirit comes from God and binds these people into an unexpected community, seen here in the merging of two enemies into one body. The Holy Spirit certainly is free to go where it wishes and bless those God seeks to bless without anyone’s permission or say so, but by the same measure, where any receive the Spirit they are tied into community with the rest of us.
When we are one body, where we are connected by the Spirit, we share in this responsibility to be faithful to one another, to care for one another. How can I be so certain of this? It is very simple, we are one body by the Spirit! If one part of our own bodies hurts, do we ignore this hurt? If we find our left hand wounded, do we ignore it because we usually use our right hand for things? Not at all, if any part of us is injured and wounded, we seek to treat it because it is part of our body! We seek to care for our body because when one part is injured it impacts the rest. The same is true of our body being healthy, if one part of us is strong, it makes the rest stronger! We are united in one body, and we must care for the rich multiplicity of the body!
The Spirit binds us together. It fills you and it fills me, but it also fills the space in between us! It works through you and it works through me, but it works most strongly in all of us together. This is the miracle of our body being in community with Christ, in community with God. Where the Spirit works, there we should be as well. Where the Spirit empowers us, we can do God’s work in this world! If God were not with the Samaritans, were not with Peter and John, could they do their work in the story we heard this morning? On this Sunday, where we often hear about Christ’s baptism and remember our own, we are reminded that this is not just the baptism of water but also the Spirit. The Spirit joins us together, not only you and me, but us to our God. We are given gifts and graces by our Holy Companion, so that we can use these to nurture and love each other in our beloved community.
Our Christian faith is individual, but it is also corporate. The Spirit is personal, but it is also profoundly communal. Each of us is blessed with gifts and graces as each part of the body has its own unique function, but at the same measure, we are tied together. Not only you and I, but each of us to every other Christian across the face of this vast creation. You and I are bound to the ways the Spirit works in communities of faith in cities and in rural farm lands. It binds us to Pentecostals, Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists, and all the other diverse expressions of our Christian faith. It binds us to black churches, Asian churches, Latino churches, and all the wide strokes of the rainbow expressed in human skin and human voices. We are bound up together in our faith. Tell me, how are we living into this community of the Spirit? How are we showing up with hands outstretched to reach and touch one another, to share in the gift of God’s presence and love? None of us are independent, but rather we are all dependent on each other and upon our gracious loving Lord.
I say again, remember your baptism. Remember your call to nurture and to love all the persons immersed in the Spirit. Remember, that all who call themselves Christians are ours to surround with support and blessing. This Spirit does not care about borders, divisions, or ancient animosities. It will bind us all together to be in community with one another. I think it is time to stop overlooking the Spirit, and instead live into its promise. There we will truly be the church, the kind of body that can reach out and change this world. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman