Late in May we celebrate Pentecost, the day when Jesus first poured out His Spirit on ‘all flesh,’ on all manner of Christians, not just leaders – kings and high priests, nor just ‘pneumatics’ – prophets and deliverers, nor just God’s chosen people – Israel, but on all, on male and female, on old and young, on honored and dishonored, on Jew and Gentile. The Son, beloved of the Father, received the gift of the Spirit at His baptism. Jesus followed the Spirit’s leading and led others to obey Him; He listened to the Spirit’s teaching and taught others His Word. When the power of the Spirit was present to heal, Jesus healed. From Pentecost forward the ministry of the Spirit spread to all believers and through all believers into all the world. Now, each Christian can be led by the Spirit and lead others to follow, listen as the Spirit teaches and bring the Word to others, and transmit the Spirit’s healing to a fractured and needy world.
Yet the story of the expansive move of the Spirit from chosen Israel alone to all nations faced two major obstacles. How the Spirit demolished these barriers, not physical hindrances like boulders strewn across foot paths, nor trails evaporating on vast mountain heights, but heart and mind obstacles, social and religious repugnance rooted in the essence of Israel’s identity, is a story worth retelling because it reveals how the Spirit longs to remove from our hearts and minds obstacles to the full expression of the Spirit in the unity of God’s people. Let us tell what Paul Harvey called ‘the rest of the story.’
The story has two stages, similar heart hindrances, but as the Spirit does, at each stage His creativity finds unique expression. Since we have limited space, this month, we will look at how the Spirit removed the first heart hindrance. The problem emerges in Acts 8. To understand what is at issue requires a taste of 1stcentury Jewish cultural literacy. Philip, newly minted deacon (Acts 6), because of the scattering of the Jerusalem church after Stephen’s martyrdom, finds himself in Samaria. Obedient to the Spirit’s nudge, Philip preaches the gospel, and the Spirit confirms his ministry with accompanying signs and wonders, just as He did in Jesus’ ministry.
While this is all well and good, here lies the real problem. Samaritans were not only not God’s chosen people, but against God’s law, in times past they were Israelites who had intermarried with the pagan and accursed Gentiles, and further against God’s law, they mixed worship of Yahweh with ideas and practices of paganism. To a Jewish Church, only Gentiles – polytheistic, immoral, murderous, idolatrous, demonized, hell-bound Gentiles – were worse than Samaritans. On one hand, the Spirit was blessing Philip’s preaching; on the other, how could such evil people as Samaritans be God’s own? How the Spirit worked to show the church His will really is ‘the rest of the story.’
How does the Spirit accomplish this shift, the movement to include Samaritans in Jesus’ work so the whole church can embrace it? First, the Spirit fractures the unity of Baptism. The unity of Baptism, that Baptism is both the application of water with the Word of God AND the infilling and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, takes narrative form in the Baptism of Jesus. As Jesus stood upright in the Jordan, with water cascading from His hair and beard, the Spirit in the form of a dove descended and remained on Him. As the religious paradigm, as the example of a human in proper response to God’s activity in Baptism, Jesus’ Baptism of water and Word and the Spirit establishes the standard and expectation for all other Baptisms.
Yet, in Samaria, when Philip baptized both men and women by water and the Word, the Spirit strangely did not fall upon any of them. Hearing about this broken rite, this irregularity, this mystifying absence prompted the apostles in Jerusalem to send Peter and John. When these two prominent apostles laid hands on the ‘half-baptized’ Samaritans, they witnessed the Spirit coming on and filling them. The fracture was healed, the fullness of Baptism was restored – and apostles, those selected by Jesus to be the foundation of the church, the witnesses of the resurrection saw it happen. Apostles could and did testify of the Spirit’s inclusion of Samaritans into the fullness of God’s grace and favor in Christ Jesus.
Samaritans, no less than Israelites, received the Spirit. They were in no way inferior to the born and bred, kosher-keeping and law-abiding Jews. They too could walk the Spirit’s path, hear the voice of the Spirit, be conduits of God’s grace and healing. In Christ there are no second-class Christians. By virtue of Baptism, each of us has been wired into Christ Jesus as members of His body, as connected to the neurological pathways of the mind and heart of God through the ministry of the Spirit. As such, each receives proper honor. Each can be the voice of the Spirit, the hand and feet of Christ. If there are hindrances in your heart and mind to full unity with a sister or brother in Christ, ask the Spirit how He wishes to remove the obstacle. Seek His voice, His strength, His way.