We’re wrapping up our journey through Acts a little earlier than I had planned. We’ll read Acts 19:1-10 this week, then in August we’ll turn to Paul’s own words to the Philippian church.

Where are we?

We’re skipping quite a bit of time, though just one chapter in Acts. From Athens, Paul goes to Corinth and founds a church, then passes through Ephesus on his way to Antioch. While Paul’s hanging out in Syria, the teacher Apollos goes to Ephesus and Corinth, preaching an incomplete message to the churches. We rejoin Paul at the beginning of his third missionary journey, which will take him back through Asia Minor and Greece. According to references in Acts, we’re about 20 years into the life of the Christian movement.

Ephesus is a port on the west coast of present-day Turkey, across the sea from Greece. According to Luke’s narrative, it can be reached in a straight sail from Corinth, and from there you can reach Caesarea on the coast of Judea. Paul arrives in this case via an inland route through Asia Minor. Although there is a Jewish community in Ephesus, the city was known for its magnificent temple to Artemis.

What’s going on here?

Apollos, who is now teaching in Corinth, has just been through Ephesus. According to chapter 18, he taught the story of Jesus correctly, but he baptized according to John’s ritual, not according to Paul’s understanding of the Holy Spirit. By the time he went to Corinth, Apollos had been corrected by two of Paul’s colleagues. However, it appears that the Ephesian church did not yet know about the Holy Spirit.

In Acts, the Holy Spirit guides the work of the church in an ongoing way, but it also turns up spectacularly among new believers. There’s something qualitatively different, according to this passage, between a baptism of repentance  that prepares us for Jesus and a baptism that is actually in Jesus’ name. Here, the distinction could suggest that the words ‘Holy Spirit’ or Paul’s particular hands mattered; however, Apollos was transformed by teaching about the Spirit without a new baptism. Matthew Henry’s classic commentary maintains that the difference is in the attitude of the one baptized: is she anticipating Jesus’  reality or content with what is?

Luke records “about twelve men in all,” as if he were having trouble keeping track of such an immense group. His point is to recall the formation of the church in Jerusalem at the first Pentecost: Holy Spirit, speaking strange languages, and twelve leaders present. The Ephesus church is duly constituted.

By comparison, the minimum number of (male, at the time) Jews required to constitute a synagogue is ten. Does this imply that the church has become a visible rival to the established Jewish community? To be sure, Paul encounters public resistance from some Jews, who must have been influential enough that Paul simply took his message elsewhere. Paul’s identity as the apostle to the Gentiles is starting to solidify. So too may be the status of the Christian church as no longer simply a Jewish movement.

Tyrannus doesn’t seem to have made the historical record outside this passage, but his lecture hall sounds like a private philosophical school. I’d like to picture it as Ephesus Community College.

Paul makes a huge splash in this region, and everybody knows his message. This will bring about two consequences in Ephesus: copycat healers and a riot of the silversmiths who profited from the cult of Artemis. Paul’s message seems to be getting more dangerous by the day.

So what?

The Spirit’s work in the church is to change things, to make things new. The Ephesians had received a baptism that set them back on course – repentance – but didn’t necessarily change the overall course they were on. It was the start of a new round in their life’s boxing match, but the same fight was still on. When the Holy Spirit arrives, by contrast, the old ways of setting up the world no longer apply, and a new reality is created. That reality challenges the synagogue community here, and later in this chapter it will profoundly threaten the local temple establishment.

Transitional-ministry people like to quote “the seven last words” of the church: “We’ve never done it that way before” (or “We tried that before, it didn’t work”). Cleverly, they say this over and over again, because even interims like their routines. It’s true, though. The work of following the Holy Spirit is the work of doing things we’ve never done, or of letting ourselves be led somewhere we’ve never been before. Of course there’s much to be learned from where we’ve been, and part of why I’m Presbyterian is that I believe tradition is not lightly to be dispensed with. All the same, we’re invited to be and do something new in the world.

Whatever we feel about the church, most of us feel the need for some things to change in our lives. Why is change so hard? Well, because it’s a whole lot more familiar to be where we’ve always been, in the way we’ve always been there. Sure, we know we’ll probably die of emphysema, or we simply must get our blood sugar under control, or we’ve been locked in some intractable conflict with our in-laws since time immemorial, but this is what we know. To do something different, to make that change, would require… doing something different. Setting our sights somewhere else, and making the choice to go there. And the simple reason that we aren’t where we want to be is that we haven’t set up our lives in a way that will get us there.

That’s easier for me to say, but I’m not anywhere close to where I want to be. Paul’s question about whether I’ve received the Holy Spirit comes as a challenge to me: no, I don’t look nearly as much like the Spirit’s work as I wish I did. My life is set up so it’s easier to flog myself with a million incomplete tasks than it is to sit for ten minutes and pray. I live in a way that makes it easier to be nice to total strangers than to my own children. I sit down to imagine ways that I might be different, and my plans come to no more than they ever do. Because I’m the one planning. I’m the one trying to convince life to work the way I think it should.

Changing our lives isn’t our work to do. It’s God’s work in the Holy Spirit. We’re invited to make room for it, to have the courage to turn from where we are to what we might become, but the work is ultimately God’s. And that’s a very exciting thing, because even in the midst of my frustrations – with the complications of life, with my own stubbornness – God is yet at work. The trick is noticing it.