The Sign of Universal Salvation
Preparing for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Two Days Before Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 71:1-6
Old Testament: 2 Chronicles 35:20-27
Epistle: Acts 19:1-10
O God, you spoke your word and revealed your good news in Jesus, the Christ. Fill all creation with that word again, so that by proclaiming your joyful promises to all nations and singing of your glorious hope to all peoples, we may become one living body, your incarnate presence on the earth. Amen.
There are four occasions in the Book of Acts where the baptism of the Holy Spirit takes place and it always falls on a group of disciples—Jews (Acts 2:1-13), Samaritans (Acts 8:14-17), Gentiles (Acts 10:44-48), and some disciples of John the Baptist (today’s epistle reading).
In the ancient world, ethnicity was an important marker of one’s identity. It still is today. All too often, then and now, ethnicity is more than a boundary, but a wall of separation. Whether the wall is between Jew and Gentile, Greek and Barbarian, Kurds and Turks, or Chechens and Russians, once ethnicity becomes centrally determinative for one’s identity it is almost a certainty that conflict will result.
God chose Israel for the sake of the world. It was through Abraham that God was going to bless all the nations. Israel’s chosenness was to be the starting point for God’s saving action that would benefit the entire world. But ethnic identity built walls of division. Some of God’s people had come to believe that the promise of salvation was reserved exclusively for them. The first Jewish Christians had come to believe that what Jesus had accomplished was for the entire world, but working that out was easier said than done.
In Acts, God continues to reinforce this universal salvation that has come to all people through the giving of the Holy Spirit to the three ethnic groups into which Jews divided all persons—Jew, Samaritan, and Gentile. In bringing the baptism of the Holy Spirit on all three groups in the same way, it could not be doubted that while salvation came through Israel, it was not offered only to Israel. In Jesus, the promise given to Abraham two thousand years before was being fulfilled.
It does, however, seem odd that the Holy Spirit also came upon the disciples of John the Baptist in the same way; after all they were Jews. It is also strange that some of John’s disciples still followed in John’s ways after his execution, and after John pointed the way forward in Jesus. Why some continued to identify as John’s disciples is hard to say. Perhaps it was out of loyalty to their leader and teacher—a way to keep his memory alive. It could be that some of them did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, even though John affirmed it. Jesus didn’t exactly fit the popular first century messianic job description.
What seemed to be the case in Acts 19 with these particular followers of John was that they were also Christians. To send the Holy Spirit upon them affirmed two things: first, John was indeed who Jesus said he was—the Elijah to prepare the way for the Messiah; and second, Jesus was indeed the Messiah that some may have still doubted.
Thus, there could be no doubt left that with the gift of the one Holy Spirit given to all, which testified to the Lordship of Jesus, the salvation of the world had come. And the walls of division which had caused so much violence and sorrow were no longer of any account where the gospel was concerned.
The sign of universal salvation has come. In the twenty-first century, the Holy Spirit is still given to all who believe.
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