The Old testament reading set for today is from Genesis and writes of the “Spirit of God” moving over the face of the waters.
In Mark, at John’s “baptism of repentance” Jesus has a momentous experience of that same Spirit. And in the post Easter book of Acts Luke is careful to again mark the difference between John’s baptism and having an experience of God’s Spirit. So the connecting theme is “the spirit of God”.
And of course, although John the Baptist reportedly says “and Jesus will baptise you in the Holy Spirit”, Jesus actually never baptises anyone physically in his ministry so something less prosaic and more spiritual is being envisioned here.
In fact the relationship between the Christian rite of baptism and the Holy Spirit is a confused one. In the Bible baptism is directly associated with the Spirit as at Jesus’ own baptism, but also the Holy Spirit precedes baptism as when Cornelius and his household were immersed in the Spirit and so Peter consented to baptise them, and in our story in Acts today the Spirit comes after water baptism when Paul lays his hands on people.
So the Spirit (that means – an experience of God) can come before, during or after water baptism. In John Jesus likens the spirit to the wind. “The wind blows where it wills” (3:8). You can’t tie God down or neatly package him, which is why all religious systems, dogmas and doctrines always fall short in the end.
Plainly being baptised in the Holy Spirit means an inner experience of God unconnected with baptism in my view. This experience can come at any time and can be explosive or gradual and take us in different ways.
In my own experience God was not made known in signs and wonders, no speaking in Tongues or prophesying – although like many people I pretended to speak in tongues in order to fit in and be like everyone else in the evangelical/charismatic church I attended when I was younger.
Instead, my experience of God resulted in a sense of connectedness and peace, and a growing sense of compassion. Not the finished article but a start of a journey in the right direction. I experience God in silence. I can’t second guess how anyone else experiences God because everyone is different, but the fruits of these experiences will be positive if they are genuinely of God. Anyone who in the name of God becomes hateful, superior, life denying, or murderous has not had a genuine experience of God – they have actually had an experience of man- made substitutes for God like various so-called Holy books or hand me down doctrines and exclusive religious God clubs.
In Paul’s famous list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians he writes of “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.” As being what grows from experience of God’s spirit.
As I say a work in progress then, certainly in my case. But being serious that is a valid point because fruit doesn’t just appear fully formed on a tree all juicy and sweet does it? It has to grow from something small and unripe and inedible, and only after being fed and watered in fertile soil and bathed in warm sunlight can it grow.
The soil and light are provided by regular experience of God in private prayer and meditation, and also in community worship where we are immersed in God’s spirit together. These are two ways in which we can experience God in a focussed way, individually and corporately, but always personally.
Of course you can experience God in myriad other ways as well, in nature, in life generally, but private prayer and public worship are the focussed opportunities to find fertile soil and light to nurture our walk with God, that will, if we choose to enter into them produce the fruit of God’s spirit in our lives.
All worship is fashioned to provide an encounter with God, and the primary form common to all denominations is the Holy Communion. Here we meet and encounter God in words, in silence, in song, in prayer, in each other and in bread and wine.
Individual and corporate focussed encounters with God can be approached in two ways. We can dive in and surrender ourselves to the present moment, committing ourselves to it, or we can remain slightly apart and just splash around in the shallows, never committing ourselves too much to it, paralysed by a fear of the water.
But we’ll never learn to swim, to trust and be buoyed up in God’s presence unless we show a little courage and commitment ourselves to take that plunge.