12 May 2017

Acts 8:14-17

“Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” (v. 17)

Psalm: Psalm 3


I find it strange! When we read Paul's letters we find him stressing that Jesus' death broke down barriers and that we are no longer subject to a legalistic system. We are at peace with God through grace: "...since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand" (Romans 5:1-2).

So we trust that we are right with God… just like that, no effort, not earned, just unmerited grace. Sometimes it feels as though the early Church was still learning this and sometimes today we still haven't grasped it!

In this passage, we hear about people who had been baptized using water, but whom it was assumed had not received the Holy Spirit. It was felt that they were not fully Christian until they had received this gift. On another occasion, it seemed people had been graced by the Spirit, but not yet been baptized.

It is as though the people were trying to legalise again the way in which God worked, even though Paul was trying to argue away this legalism. And we go on doing this. We need to have a legal structure for our own security so we know who is, or is not, acceptable to God. Or is it that we are hankering after control so we know who can be let into the church?

What a muddle we're in. And at the base of it is our difficulty in accepting that God, as Jesus demonstrated, accepts people, using criteria that we might find difficult to accept. This is beyond our control. Baptism does not control God but marks what we believe to be God's acceptance. The Spirit "blows where it chooses" (John 3:8), beyond our control.

As Frederick Faber, the hymn writer put it, 'There's a wideness in God's mercy', yet there is a tension here for we, human beings, tend to "magnify [God's] strictness with a zeal he would not own".

To Ponder

  • How do we control who can or cannot be part of the Church?
  • How comfortable are we with people who have come into the church by a route different from our own?

Bible notes author

The Revd Andrew Pratt

Andrew is a Methodist supernumerary presbyter, Honorary Research Fellow at Luther King House, Manchester, and author. He has written over 1,300 hymns.