15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
[Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on January 4, 2016]
Much has been made of the meaning of “Spirit baptism” among contemporary Christian denominations. Some believe that the Holy Spirit is present in a person from the moment they become a Christian, while others believe that receiving the Spirit is a separate step in one’s faith journey manifested in exceptional spiritual gifts. Depending upon how one interprets the relevant passages, there is scriptural backing for both claims.
Rather than focusing on the when of Spirit baptism; however, I want to focus on the how. Luke’s gospel account describes the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus “in bodily form like a dove” (3:22, emphasis added). In the reading from Acts for this week, it is only when “Peter and John laid their hands” on the believers from Samaria, that “they received the Holy Spirit” (8:17, emphasis added). Similarly, in Acts 2, the apostles are filled with the Holy Spirit after the tongues (as of fire) rested on them (2:1-4).
So, I propose, that as ephemeral as the Spirit itself may be, the reception of the Spirit occurs through the intimacy of touch. At Jesus’ baptism, God God’s self once again crossed the boundaries of eternity to take on bodily form and declare Jesus “beloved Son”—the incarnate one, whose crossing of the same boundaries we’ve celebrated for the past twelve days. In Acts 8, Jesus has once again ascended into heaven, and yet the Holy Spirit remains—passed tangibly to the people of Samaria through the touch of Peter and John.
Whether we today receive this touch as babies or grown-ups, at our baptisms, confirmations, or through some other rite or religious experience, it is this touch—this physical, tangible connection with God in bodily form that passes the Spirit. It is, moreover, I hope, only the first of many such experiences of encouraging and emboldening one another with God’s Holy Spirit.
In my tradition, during our weekly worship, we “pass the peace” through a handshake or hug that serves, similarly, to ritually and physically encourage one another. Science has even connected physical touch, especially hugging, to the release of certain hormones, producing a variety of benefits including happiness, decreased stress, lower blood pressure, and more.
Touch matters. Human connection matters. In fact, it matters so much that it is the vehicle through which God has chosen to pass on God’s Holy Spirit. In bodily form. And so, as we move on from the celebration of Christ’s incarnation, as our lives begin to return to our various definitions of “normal,” as Valentine’s candy fills the store shelves, our readings this week thrust us forward to live out God’s incarnation in our lives and in our worlds, mobilized by God’s Holy Spirit incarnate in us.
Spirit baptism isn’t simply a theological concept, a category about which we can pontificate and debate; it is the living, breathing, hugging presence of God in our lives. And when we take this presence seriously, God’s Holy Spirit blows us past our arm chairs and computer screens, beyond our social media platforms and smart phones, and into the lives of real live people, like those in Samaria, who are waiting to receive the touch of God’s presence. May the physical, tangible living out of such presence fill our lives and our resolutions in this New Year as we enter into the holy spaces of God’s beloved ones.