If I were in the smokey room, sipping a glass of 25 year old MacAllan, and debating the pericopes that would eventually make up the Revised Common Lectionary, I think I would have suggested a change to the Pentecost lesson. The RCL is quite fond of “Selected Verses,” that is, they are really good at cherry picking the Scriptures to try to make 1) a coherent narrative or 2) force a theme upon the preacher. I find it odd, then, that in their attempt to not deal with Peter’s exegesis of the Joel and the Gospel, they didn’t jump back into Acts 2 at verse 37.
“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you n the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may forgiven; and you will receive the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord God calls to him.'” (Acts 2:37-39, emphasis mine)
While pinning down an Apostolic tradition is like nailing Jell-o to a wall, my reading ahead of this summer’s “Mapping Ritual Structures” class has led me to believe that the most ancient of baptismal traditions is Pentecost Day baptisms. Baptism is, according to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, “Full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ Body the Church.” (298) That sentiment is stated more fully in the prayer over the neophytes immediately after they’ve been washed with water (and optionally (this action is required, but can happen before or after the prayer), “confirmed” by the laying on of hands and marked with the sign of the cross (with the additional of option of sealing with chrism)).
“Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.” (308)
As I read Acts 2 and subsequent Church history, the ancient ideal appears to be that when the Gospel message “cuts to the quick” one is immediately baptized, receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, and is fed at the Lord’s table (an addition that comes not too far after Acts 2). While the tradition would grow to make certain days (i.e. Pentecost and The Easter Vigil) better suited for baptism than others, the reality is that what is happening in the Sacrament is always the Church catching up with what the Spirit is already doing. The 3,000 who were added to the fold on Pentecost Day were asking “What must we do” because the Spirit was already at work, leading them by way of Peter’s sermon, to life in the Kingdom of God. The ritual actions of baptism and the laying on of hands are the outward and visible sign of the power of the Spirit already at work.
Even in our very modern liturgy, we don’t presume that the Spirit arrives on the scene in the waters or the chrism, but instead we pray that the neophytes might by “sustained” in the Spirit: that the Spirit might continue the work already begun. So, as the Saint Paul’s family gathers on the shores of Week’s Bay this Sunday to take our place in 2,000 years of historical precedent and baptize an infant and at least one adult, we do so, fully realizing that God is already at work, that grace has already been poured out, and that the Spirit’s power is working in and through the Church and her members all the time.
What should we do? Give thanks. Splash water. Live in the Spirit.