Today’s first reading says, “Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who went down and prayed for them, that they might receive the holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 8:14-16)
To Catholics this statement sounds like the distinction we make between Baptism and Confirmation. To Pentecostals, this line from Acts sounds like the distinction they make between church membership and being “baptized in the Spirit.” Neither the common assumptions made by Catholics about this statement in the Acts, nor the common assumptions made by some Protestant sectaries, are justifiable based on the Scriptures.
In the Acts of the Apostles, as in all the Christian Scriptures, the “holy Spirit” means exactly what it means in the Gospels.
Jesus’ mother, Mary, “was found with child through the holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:18) Mary’s husband, Joseph, was told “it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” (Matthew 1:20) In the Gospels, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1) Jesus promised his disciples that they would be given divine wisdom when they gave their witness about him. (Luke 12:12) After his resurrection, Jesus, by giving them the holy Spirit, commissioned the Apostles to continue his preaching of reconciliation between God and God’s people. (John 20:22)
In the Gospels, the “holy Spirit” is God the Father’s power displayed in the words and actions of Jesus and, later, in the Apostles’ continuation of Jesus’ mission. When the Acts of the Apostles says that Peter and John were sent to the Samaritans in order that the Samaritans “might receive the holy Spirit” (Acts 8:15), the statement refers to something all of us can understand.
There are a few patches of brown, withered grass at the rectory. Whenever I see that dried up grass I think “I should really do something about the sprinkler system.” The patchwork of healthy and dead grass at the rectory stands in sharp contrast to another house in the neighborhood; the lawn at that other house is so well cared for it looks like a park or a botanical gardens.
All of us have had the experience of seeing the difference between intention and action. Often, I intend to do things that seem never to get done. Sadly, my intentions are not always translated into action. The situation described in today’s selection from the Acts of the Apostles is a description of the difference between intention and action.
Baptism in water, in the Scriptures, was an adaptation of a Jewish custom of ritual washing. Water baptism was used as a sign of repentance and intention to live a renewed covenant relationship with God. Just as in our time, there was in the lives of some people a noticeable difference between intention and action. Not all who accepted baptism demonstrated immediately the kind of actions that were expected to accompany baptism.
Jesus was very clear about his expectation of his disciples. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” to love God and neighbor. (John 14:15) There are obligations that we accept in Baptism – obligations to imitate Jesus in his love of God and his love of neighbor. Those obligations are fulfilled only by concrete, daily action.
Intending to be a good Catholic does not always translate into actually being a good Catholic. The intersection of intention and action is where all of us can understand the meaning of the Scriptural term “the holy Spirit.”
God gives us the Holy Spirit in Baptism. The Holy Spirit, which is the same Divine power that guided Mary and Joseph, led Jesus and empowered the Apostles, provides us with the possibility of experiencing God’s power in our lives. However, the power of the Holy Spirit remains only a possibility for us until we put that Divine power into action through our individual choices to imitate Jesus.
The Samaritans mentioned in the first reading had repented, and accepted Baptism, when they heard the Gospel preached. They were attracted to the Gospel’s message of reconciliation, but their salvation required more than mere attraction. It was only when Peter and John joined them that they were able to begin renewed lives of imitating Jesus.
All of us are present in this church this morning because we too have heard the Gospel’s message of reconciliation. There remains one thing for us to do: to imitate Jesus in union with the community of the apostles. It is insufficient for us to participate in the Sacraments. It is not enough to be edified by the Scriptures. It is too little for us to intend to lead holy lives. Each of us as individuals, and all of us as Church, are reconciled to God only when the Holy Spirit empowers us to imitate Jesus’ faithfulness to God and neighbor.
Having received the pledge of the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and having made a pledge of faith in God in the reception of the Eucharist, we have a very specific agenda today and each day of our lives. Our personal and ecclesial schedule today calls us to imitate Jesus in our interactions with one another, in the decisions we make and in the words we speak.