Catechized with a gun to your head – ACTS 19:1-8
I am sure that at some stage you have heard people call the members of the charismatic renewal, ‘crack-matics’. What is not clearly comprehended should not be glibly condemned. While this rather unfortunate term has been used very flippantly it exposes the fact that many Catholics and those who use such derogatory terms have no idea that what they criticize so callously is really their own ignorance. The first charismatics were Peter and the apostles at Pentecost and that number of ‘grace filled people’ kept increasing as we read the Acts of the Apostles.
Where are we in our study of the Acts? Paul is on his third missionary journey (Acts 18:23-21:16). The text of the Acts immediately introduced us to Apollos of Alexandria, already a Christian, who was preaching in Ephesus (18:24-28). We are told that Apollos’ knowledge of the faith was inadequate, and it fell to Priscilla and Aquila to explain “the way of God to him more accurately” (18:26). One of the things lacking in his understanding was a fuller view of baptism, for “he knew only the baptism of John” (18:25). Through fraternal correction Apollos was re-evangelized and now heads off to Corinth on mission.
Paul now arrives in Ephesus, and encounters a group of ‘disciples’, twelve of them, who like Apollos, had an inadequate understanding of baptism. They had never heard of the Holy Spirit, and they had been baptized “into John’s baptism” (19:3).
Paul has to explain to them that John’s baptism was a “baptism of repentance” anticipating the coming of the Messiah. Subsequently, Paul baptizes them into “the name of the Lord Jesus” and lays hands upon them. The Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they speak in tongues and prophesy.
What is the difference between the two baptisms?
The Baptism of John was baptism of repentance, ‘metanoia’. Loosely translated it means a change that is more a head level, a conceptual change. That’s why on Ash Wednesday we are not only called to repent (metanoia)but also to believe (pistus which is the heart). The head and the heart need to move in the direction of God.
The baptism of Jesus by John inaugurated Jesus’ earthly ministry. It marked the moment when he was designated God’s Son by a voice from heaven, and was endowed with the Spirit to carry out his work on earth (Mark 1:10-11). It becomes clear that baptism “into Jesus” or “into the name of Jesus” is accompanied by the gift of the Spirit. Paul re-baptizes those who are already called “disciples” (19:1), but who have not yet received the Spirit, in order to bring them into the fullness of life in Christ.
This Baptism in the name of Jesus prompts the 12 disciples in Ephesus to speak in tongues. We find several references in Pauls letter in 1 Corinthians (12:10, 28-30; 13:1; 14:1-6, 18-19, 22-26), to the gift of tongues which Paul considers a gift that some have, but not all.
What is our take away today?
While not all baptized Christians have the gifts of tongues or prophecy, the giving of them reminds us of two things. First, all Christians are endowed by the Spirit, and there are many gifts. Tongues and prophecy are not the litmus test of whether or not one is a Christian. The true test is whether that person makes the confession that “Jesus is Lord,” which is prompted by the Spirit and cannot be made otherwise (1 Corinthians 12:3). Secondly, we are reminded that being baptized entails the use of whatever gifts one has to witness to what God has done in Christ.
Another theme that emerges from this text in Acts is that baptism presupposes catechesis. Paul takes time and effort to speak to the disciples at Ephesus about the meaning of baptism into the name of Jesus. A sermon cannot do everything and that is why it is essential that even those who have been baptized and received some catechesis should submit themselves to on-going catechesis and faith formation.
Sadly today most of our adult catechesis is linked to sacramental life where the catechised is really a ‘captive of sorts’ with a condition of ‘forced catechesis’ in lieu of the sacrament. This is seen in the case of Baptism where parents and god parents have to submit to catechesis, in the case of youth at the time of confirmation and in the case of couples at the time of marriage. We need to go beyond this attitude of what I call a ‘gun to your head catechesis’ and desire to learn our faith freely.