The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


The Jerusalem Holy Spirit Police

Mainline Self-Destruction?

by Mark Stenberg

New Testament Reading:  Acts 8:4-17

For Sunday, January 13, 2013: Year C—Baptism of our Lord

What were the good folks on the Revised Common Lectionary committee thinking? What a bizarre little text to match with the Baptism of our Lord Sunday!

For those of us in mainline Christendom this is a text that outright defies our most central notions of Word and Sacrament, especially when it comes to our understanding of baptism.

Holy Spirit as Dynamic Communism

Have you actually read The Book of Acts lately?

The Holy Spirit is all over the place, animating, pouring forth, reviving. The Holy Spirit brings these tongues of fire, the rush of a violent wind, speaking in other languages. The same Spirit convinces the people to “sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Karl Marx, eat your heart out!

Today’s Episode

Here’s this little story in a nutshell. The passage comes at a point in the book when the Gentile expansion is going into full swing. The Samaritans were considered no good, scum-sucking half-breeds who had gone ahead and tainted their blood by inter-marrying with the infidels.

But suddenly, the apostles at Jerusalem “heard that Samaria accepted the word of God.” The good and proper Jerusalem Jesus-followers are astounded. And so they dispatch Peter and John from Jerusalem, to check things out.

Send in the Closers

The Samaritans “accepted the word of God.” Sounds like they are in. Full on believers. In the win column. In and not out. But Peter and John are dispatched from Jerusalem to take them to the next level. Here’s how it goes:

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

What? It is possible to have “accepted the word of God” but to not have yet received the Holy Spirit? Apparently the Samaritans only had a handshake deal with the word of God. But Peter and John are sent in to close the deal by laying their hands on them and dispensing the Holy Spirit.

The Hardest Question

Wow. It’s really hard to come away from The Book of Acts and not see the case for the Holy Spirit as a second step, a deeper truth, a graduate school for believers.

So the hardest question is an obvious and simple one: If throughout the Book of Acts “receiving the Holy Spirit” is most certainly a different, second move from mere faith or believing or even baptism, has the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement discovered the true meaning of the Christian faith?

Mark Stenberg is a trained academic theologian who got side-tracked planting churches. He started House of Mercy House of Mercy, with co-pastors Debbie Blue and Russell Rathbun in 1996 and ten years later he left that call to launch Mercy Seat Lutheran Church along with his current colleague, Kae Evensen. Mark holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University where he studied philosophy with the likes of Jürgen Habermas. He is also an adjunct professor at Luther Seminary, teaching in homiletics and in the D.Min. program. Mark lost his spouse to cancer in March of 2007 but is profoundly grateful for every moment he gets to spend with his amazing children, Angela and Mateo.


  1. The Hardest Question says:

    OK – it looks like the comment feature for THQ has been bottled up by a licensing issue buried deep within the labryrinth of our plug-ins. We are still working to uncork it.

    Thank you for letting us know about this rather puzzling state of affairs!

  2. Alex Hughes says:

    You say that “throughout the Book of Acts “receiving the Holy Spirit” is most certainly a different, second move from mere faith or believing or even baptism”. Hmm. Elsewhere the Spirit is conferred before baptism (e.g. 10:44-8), or is not recorded at all (e.g. 8:38). From my own reading of Acts I simply can’t see that it gives us – or even tries to give us – a set pattern of Christian initiation? In fact, what I like is the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a fixed pattern – then or now – but God is free to work in God’s own mysterious ways – even with those dreadful Samaritans…and people like me.
    Thanks for the post.

  3. Doug Henkel says:

    I hope that I am not overstepping here. Your question points to the heart of who I am as a Christian. I am not a member of the Pentecostal or Charismatic communities. I am, however, a card-carrying member of the holiness movement. We differ from our Pentecostal cousins in that we do not insist that the baptism with the Holy Spirit be accompanied by the speaking in unknown languages or other outward manifestations. We do agree with the concept of a second definite work of grace, subsequent to regeneration, in which there is a deeper cleansing from the condition of sin (as opposed to forgiveness from the acts of sin), a greater empowerment for service in the Kingdom (spiritual gifts), and a transforming of intentions and attitudes in regard to both God and others (the fruit of the spirit).

    What does the scripture suggest? Jesus had both a baptism and a transfiguration. The Apostles had both a following experience and a Pentecost. The admonitions we find in the New Testament letters to be in the process of being filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5), being transformed in our minds (Rom. 12), and to be entirely sanctified (1 Thess. 5), are written to Churches; that is to people who have already been baptized in to the Christian faith.

    An important thing: many people who do not worship at Churches that talk about the Holy Ghost the same way that holiness and Pentecostal Christians talk about Him have testified to having experiences of surrender to the lordship of Christ in their lives in which there was a lasting change. Sometimes, retreat experiences, prayer times, sacraments, or worship experiences trigger these moments of surrender. My mom (a Methodist), my brother (a Lutheran), and my sister (a Catholic) all have had similar life-changing experiences. The point is that the doctrine will not cause the experience. It happens when person learns of Jesus, loves Jesus, walks with Jesus, worships Jesus, and surrenders all of life to Jesus.

    One more thing: the second work of grace does not impart more of God into our lives. When we are converted/baptized, we receive all of God. We don’t have to go back later for more of Him. But the question (maybe the hardest question) is not “How much of God do you have?” The question (maybe the hardest question) is “How much of us does God have?”

    Thanks for the opportunity to think about this important idea.

  4. Pastor Mark,

    It would be interesting to hear your distinction (or anyone’s for that matter) of how one is different (or deeper) after the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostal’s have something amazing in their Worship language and actions. However, I have been to worship with nun’s of a catholic order where the Spirit has been so powerful that my tears came freely…What does one look like to live after the Baptism of the Holy Spirit?

How do you read?