Commentary on Acts 8:14-17
Acts 8:14-17 is situated in a section of Acts that is both extraordinary and ominous (8:4-9:31).
With no less than three conversion stories in this unit, one has to wonder in what way four little verses in the midst of such a monumental shift in the mission of the Gospel might have some impact in this transitional time in the growth of the church. In this portion of Acts, the focus of the Gospel moves from concentration in Jerusalem to the regions beyond. 8:4-40 comprises Philip’s mission, first in Samaria (8:4-25), then to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:25-40). 9:1-31 narrates the conversion of Saul, Saul’s presence first in Damascus, and his first visit to Jerusalem. The text designated for the Baptism of our Lord is located just after the conversion of the Samaritans, baptized after hearing and believing Philip’s testimony.
A Mission for the Truth
Verse 14 returns to Jerusalem where the apostles find out that Samaria has accepted the word of God. In a sort of disciple reconnaissance mission, Peter and John are sent to check things out. It is important to remember the historical, social, and religious context of this story. The Samaritans and Jews have been enemies for centuries. The shock of Luke’s parable about the Good Samaritan and John’s story of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42) tends to have little effect on our 21st century ears that know little of the rancor and resentment between the Jews and the Samaritans in first century Palestine. What? Samaritans accepted what Philip had to say? Disbelief, dismissal, and disregard necessitate a fact-finding mission to sort out the truth of the incident.
For all intents and purposes, this is a bizarre text when it comes to its selection for the Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. Whereas our theology of baptism claims particular biblical authority and mandate, theological truths, and ritual enactments, the two-fold, two-step baptism recounted in the text from Acts seems to call into question all we know, believe, confess, and rely on about baptism. So, the baptism of the Samaritans did not take the first time? Something was missing? There needed to be “official” church officers present to make the baptism of the Samaritans legitimate? What was the Holy Spirit doing at the time of the baptism, anyway? Busy with other things? If you cannot rely on the Holy Spirit to be where you need it to be, especially at critical “Holy Spirit” kinds of things, in what can you put your faith?
Indeed, these tend to be our own questions when it comes to baptism. How do we know that the Holy Spirit is present? What is the guarantee? For centuries, and even today, the stories surrounding the necessity of baptism have shaped our faith and our constructs of God. It would be surprising to learn of someone who had not heard of a story of an emergency baptism and question the validity of the sacrament depending on the officiant.
I have shared the following story on our Sermon Brainwave podcast, so to those who have already heard it, my apologies. I do, however, believe it is worth repeating on this particular Sunday in the church year.
Several years ago, my husband, also a Lutheran pastor, and I preached a dialogue sermon about baptism. It was a script that I wrote when we were pastors in a Lutheran church in a suburb of Atlanta where Lutherans were few and knowledge of Lutheranism even more rare. I decided that such a Sunday in the liturgical year would be an ideal opportunity to teach what Lutherans believe about Baptism. After the church service, a long-time member of the church, 90-years-old, came up to us and the other pastors and asked, “Is it really true? That God is the one who baptizes you?” We soon learned that her older sister was born extremely ill. There was neither hope for her survival, nor for her to be able to leave the house. As a result, the grandmother baptized her. When the baby died, and her parents approached the pastor about the funeral, the pastor refused to perform the funeral in the sanctuary because he had not baptized the baby. The funeral for our member’s 3-month-old sister was held in the church basement. Ninety years later, she wondered, she prayed, “So, my sister is OK?” The sister she never knew; the sister for whom she still shed tears.
Gerhard Krodel describes this moment as a breakdown of barriers. “The anomaly of a separation of Baptism from the gift of the Holy Spirit occurred (verse 16) so that the representatives of the apostles would experience the breakdown of the barrier between believing Jews and believing Samaritans.”1 The necessity to send the apostles to scope out the event of the Samaritan baptism was not for the sake of legitimizing or authorizing the efficacy of Philip’s act, but for the sake of the apostles’ belief that God can indeed work outside of the bounds, boundaries, and limits that we so desperately want to place on God. This is one of the central themes of Acts and one of the extraordinary claims of today’s liturgical focus. The love of God, the desire of God to make every single one of us God’s child, is intentionally, and thankfully, beyond the scope of what we have in mind for the extent of God’s love.
Preaching the Day
While it is likely that this reading from Acts will not be the primary focus of today’s liturgical emphasis, it most certainly can reinforce the preaching on Luke’s story of Jesus’ baptism and the meaning of baptism for the Christian life. The unique perspective that the story from Acts can offer, however, is the extraordinary claim that God’s Spirit will fall on who God wills, as much as we try to circumvent such reckless grace.
1Gerhard Krodel, Acts, 164