“We have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:3).
Acts 19:1-8; John 16:29-33
Paul discovers 12 Christian disciples in Ephesus who had received John’s baptism of repentance but had not been baptized in the Spirit. They had repented from sin to keep the Commandments, but they had yet to experience the grace that lifts sinners up to a whole new identity and capacity to be good as friends of God. When Paul laid his hands on them, the Spirit breathed new life into them, and they began to speak in tongues and to prophesy.
With this scene in Acts, Luke renews a theme he introduced in Chapter 3 of his Gospel, about the difference between John and Jesus. John told the crowds at the Jordan, “I baptize you with water, but there is one who is mightier than I. … “He will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit.” Later, in Luke 7:28, Jesus calls John the greatest person ever born, yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven was greater than him.
John’s greatness was in his perfect observance of the Law. But Jesus introduced the new dispensation of Grace. God is offering a holiness that no level of obedience can merit. It is total gift. John is an exemplar of justice, but what Jesus gives is the freedom that comes with God’s mercy. Even though we are sinners, God befriends us and invites us to share in the divine life of love.
During his ministry, Jesus was continually confronted by so-called experts in the Law who objected to the freedom he exercised in associating with sinners. His ministry was to the broken-hearted, moral failures like the tax collectors and prostitutes. He sought out public sinners, shared their tables and told them that God still loved them unconditionally. The self-righteous thought they could scare sinners into repentance, and they resented Jesus’ gracious ability to draw them back to God with mercy.
As we anticipate Pentecost, we are reminded that the Holy Spirit is not just another taskmaster with a program of perfection, but pure Love. And if we think that spiritual freedom is easier than spiritual discipline, we have misunderstood the difference between water and fire. Water cleanses, fire transforms. The Holy Spirit will kindle in us the fire of God’s love.
To be clear, ask someone who has signed up for a self-improvement program and someone who has just fallen in love which path is the most demanding. Once love gets a hold of your heart, you can’t drop out and you never get your money back. Divine love will break your heart because it is too small to hold what God wants to give. Friendship with God is a consuming, whirlwind romance that needs eternity to be complete.
Pentecost is not for the dour would-be saints looking for suffering or moral mountains to climb. It is for lovers and dreamers, passionate explorers and disciples who want to live fully and come in on empty. The Holy Spirit is Lord and Giver of Life to anyone who believes that God is Love and that Jesus demonstrated that the way to find your life is to lose it for others. Why be just baptized in water when you can live your life filled with wind and fire?