This week, as we prepare to celebrate The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord, a few colleagues have noted that the reading from Acts 8 is a perfect reading...for Confirmation. I don't know where our bishop will be this Sunday, but I hope he and all the other bishops who will be confirming individuals are rejoicing that we will hear a lesson that reinforces the need for bishops and Confirmation.
In this part of Acts, the good news of Jesus Christ has spread from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria, which represents not only a geographic expansion of the church's mission but also an ethnic development. The first believers were Jews. Then comes the Samaritans, who had Israelite roots but who were religiously and culturally and racially distinct. Then, later in Acts 8, the Ethiopian eunuch believes. Eventually, Paul's ministry to the Gentiles takes shape, and the rest is history. But on Sunday we're in Samaria. The good news has made it to Samaria. They have "accepted the word of God," we are told, so the "apostles" (important word) "sent Peter and John to them."
When the two apostles arrive, they recognize that the Samaritans are believers in Jesus and they had been baptized in Jesus' name, but something (i.e. the Holy Spirit) is missing: "for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." And, when the apostles had laid their hands on them, "they received the Holy Spirit." It's critically important to note that the apostles did not rebaptize them even though they presumably had not been baptized in the Trinitarian formula. (One baptism, even if not orthodox, was sufficient. That tells us something about the nature of the water-bath.) Instead, they lay hands on them, and the Holy Spirit comes upon them, completing their immersion in the life of the Holy-Spirit-animated Body of Christ.
In a way, that's what the church would have us believe about Confirmation. To begin with, the church depended upon apostle-successors to baptize, and the eastern churches still do that. Bishops do baptisms and anoint with chrism at the same time. To be baptized is to be united with Christ AND receive the Holy Spirit. There are plenty of scriptural passages that bear this out. The west has separated Baptism and Confirmation, and, in the baptismal liturgy, we pray that the candidates may receive the seven-fold gifts of the Holy Spirit:
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. (BCP, 308)That's what happens in Baptism, so why Confirmation? As the prayer book reminds us, at Confirmation the apostle-successor in the room prays, " Defend, O Lord, your servant N. with your heavenly grace, that he may continue yours for ever, and daily increase in your Holy Spirit more and more, until he comes to your everlasting kingdom." It is the increase in the Holy Spirit that is sought in the act of Confirmation.
Confirmation has filled several roles in the church. It is a way for individuals to confirm the promises that were made on their behalf at Baptism. It is a way for the bishop to confirm the individual's place in the church catholic. It is a way for both candidate and bishop to confirm that the Holy Spirit is doing its work. It is a way for parents and congregation to confirm that an individual is passing from childhood to adulthood. This reading from Acts, however, suggests that the apostles coming and laying hands on those who had been initiated into the life of Jesus is a way of initiating that individual into the life of the Spirit, which came down and rested on the apostles at Pentecost.
I don't know what I think about Confirmation. I think it's best because it's unclear. It's multi-layered and beautifully messy. On Sunday, though, we hear of the importance of the Holy Spirit. It's also emphasized in the reading from Luke. Even if there is no Confirmation happening in your congregation, don't let the reading about the apostles distract you from the truth: participation in the redeemed and risen life of Christ is life in the Spirit. Does a bishop need to lay hands on you in order to make that happen? I hope not. But I'll accept that bishops help remind us of it. Hopefully all of our candidates for Baptism are endued with the Spirit long before the bishop shows up. If not, we all have more work to do, and that work is more than scheduling the bishop's visit.