A Baptism in Spirit?

One of Luke's great themes is that God is present in the lives of ordinary people. He speaks of God present to us as Holy Spirit, 14 times. The other three gospels use the words Holy Spirit only 14 times in total. Luke's companion volume, The Acts of the Apostles, names the Holy Spirit active in ordinary lives, 41 times! In this week's gospel reading, John the Baptist says Jesus will baptise us—immerse us— in Holy Spirit.

What does this mean for we westerners whose culture has spent centuries developing a denial of the reality of spirit, and where some people seriously argue that "it's all— including us— just physics and chemical reactions?" Should we seek baptism in Holy Spirit when many claims of God's activity as Holy Spirit are clearly naïve, or seem even deliberately deceptive?

We are wise to be cautious. As a culture we are spiritually illiterate. This accompanies us to church, where it shows itself as an uncertainty and timidity in our language about God, and even scepticism about the active presence of God in our lives. We do not speak comfortably of "baptism in spirit"— such language is often taken as a mark of the unsophisticated or the credulous. Yet so often, we long for some real spiritual presence beyond hope or rumour.

John's baptism of repentance predates Jesus' baptism in Holy Spirit. In fact, Luke predicates baptism of spirit upon a baptism of repentance.  Why? Our material privilege and security deafens us to the presence of God.  We are blind to how much we place our trust in what we have, until we do not have. Repentance is the behaviour which clears away the chaff and dead wood which clogs our lives, and allows us to learn again the language of spirit.

The root of our spiritual illiteracy is a deep desire to control and secure the world for ourselves, without reliance upon God. When we give away what we have, so that we only have God, we are threatened with the loss of that security and independence which we have created.  Radical justice and compassion make us vulnerable, because in such a life, all we have is God. And are finally able to learn to listen.

We have no idea of the depth of our slavery to the material comfort and security of a privileged life until we decide to repent of it. Then we find meaningful sharing with those who do not have, and significant allegiance to justice is almost impossibly hard, especially if it threatens our superannuation or our mortgage. But even the smallest repentance yields an unwarranted harvest of grace, and opens our eyes to new visions of spirit: days come when God moves from rumour to reality, and when we are plunged deep into other ways of being.

Andrew Prior



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