The Ascension and the Spirit. Acts 1:1-11

Occasionally we’re faced with a passage so straightforward it’s hard to comment. Jesus ascends into heaven, having completed his earthly ministry.  In the life of the Church and in the history of Christianity, though, the Ascension is not an end.  It is the beginning.

The Book of Acts couples the Ascension with an account of baptism in Spirit. Luke, the author of Acts, is preparing his readers to many references to the work of the Holy Spirit in Acts.   The Ascension may be the end of the earthly ministry of Jesus, but the outpouring of the Spirit on the apostles (Pentecost) is typically regarded as the birthday of the Christian church.

Baptism in Spirit.

Acts 1 has some interesting theology besides the Ascension. The Holy Spirit is, (again, during this Easter cycle of readings), a featured component of the story in Acts 1:1-11. We are starting to get the impression from the cycle of readings that God in the person of the Holy Spirit features prominently in the post-resurrection Christian community.

Acts 1:5 speaks of “baptism in the Holy Spirit.”  Luke tells us in Acts that baptism in spirit is distinct from baptism by water.   Have you noticed that that this reading is paired with the Gospel reading from Matthew 28, which contains the mandate to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The readings in Acts 1 and Matthew 28 are complimentary, but they do not speak of the same thing. “Baptism in the spirit” in Acts 1:5 references many things, but in this case, it is not a synonym for baptism with water.

At one level, it refers to a singular event – the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-31).  This baptism in Spirit is an event that equipped the disciples to carry out the apostolic mission of the Church (LG 5). Loosely speaking, Pentecost – which is a singular event where the disciples were baptized in spirit – is the “birthday” of the Church.  To quote John Paul II

 It is the baptism in virtue of which the Church is born in the eschatological perspective which extends “to the close of the age” (cf. Mt 28:20); not merely the Church of Jerusalem of the apostles and the Lord’s immediate disciples, but the entire Church, taken in her universality, realized through the times and in the places where she is established on earth.

John Paul interprets the biblical term “baptism in Spirit” in a General audience address given in 1989.   John Paul sees three legitimate uses for the term “baptism.”  There is baptism by water.  There is baptism in spirit.  And he refers to Christ’s passion as a literal baptism by fire. The “baptism by fire” that is the death and resurrection of Christ is not something that Jesus had to undergo: it is something he chose to suffer.  It is also a necessary pre-condition for the “baptism in Spirit” that is the Church and the mission of the Apostles.  Our readers who are Trinitarian theologians should see the theological correspondence, since both the “baptism by fire” of Jesus and the “baptism in spirit” of the disciples are a) free and unmerited gifts, b) intended for our salvation, c) have their origins in the cross, but d) are achieved through two different persons of the Trinity.

John Paul also sees baptism by water as encompassing a baptism in spirit. In other words, if one is baptized by water, one is therefore baptized in spirit.  He cites John 3:5, where Jesus says to Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

John Paul’s understanding of baptism is definitively “high church.” He views baptism as a discrete or unique event in the life of a Christian or the Church. Christ was “baptized in fire” when he was crucified.  The founders of the Church were baptized in spirit in the upper room, fifty days after easter, and ten days after the Ascension, at Pentecost.  And Christians are baptized into the faith, according to the command of Christ in Matthew 28:19.

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, appointed as a preacher to the papal household of John Paul II, sees a broader, or “low church” use of the term  “baptism in spirit” (when it is not referring to Pentecost, or baptism by water). This non-sacramental baptism in spirit confirms the faith and releases the faith as a work, as a gift of the spirit.

Saint Augustine’s commentary on baptism in spirit is humorous and very practical.  He responds to the good and sincere Christian who asks, I have received the Spirit, yet I do not speak in tongues!  Augustine’s responds that the Church is like that: some receive the gift of tongues, others work miracles, others proclaim the truth, while others pursue a chaste marriage.  These Christians have a different mission, but a common life in the Church, which is all the body of Christ.  That is from Sermon 267, and note Augustine’s classic reliance on Paul.

Acts chapter 8 and Acts chapter 10 present some challenges to an understanding of “baptism in the spirit,” since Acts now uses the verb receive (λαμβάνω) rather than baptize (βαπτίζω).    Acts 8:17 speaks of some being baptized “in the name of Jesus,” without receiving the Spirit.  Acts 10:47 does the opposite, arguing that some had “received the Spirit,” without being baptized in water.

Instructions given to the Apostles.

An example of a gift of the Holy Spirit that is bestowed upon the Apostles is the authority to teach on behalf of the Church. Consider Acts 1:2:

I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught
until the day he was taken up,
after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit
to the apostles whom he had chosen.

John Paul II gave a homily on the Ascension on May 24 of 2009, at Monte Cassino.  His homily is also exegesis – he works through the theology of the passage.  Here is John Paul’s commentary on Jesus instructing the disciples:

In the providence of God – in the eternal design of the Father – the hour had come for Christ to go away. He would leave his Apostles behind, with his Mother Mary, but only after he had given them his instructions. The Apostles now had a mission to perform according to the instructions that Jesus left, and these instructions were in turn the faithful expression of the Father’s will..

The instructions indicated, above all, that the Apostles were to wait for the Holy Spirit, who was the gift of the Father. From the beginning, it had to be crystal-clear that the source of the Apostles’ strength is the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who guides the Church in the way of truth; the Gospel is to spread through the power of God, and not by means of human wisdom or strength..

The Apostles, moreover, were instructed to teach – to proclaim the Good News to the whole world. And they were to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus, they were to speak explicitly about the Kingdom of God and about salvation. The Apostles were to give witness to Christ to the ends of the earth. The early Church clearly understood these instructions and the missionary era began. And everybody knew that this missionary era could never end until the same Jesus, who went up to heaven, would come back again..

The words of Jesus became a treasure for the Church to guard and to proclaim, to meditate on and to rive. And at the same time, the Holy Spirit implanted in the Church an apostolic charism, in order to keep this revelation intact. Through his words Jesus was to live on in his Church: I am with you always…


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