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Acts 19:1-10

When someone is recovering from substance abuse – particularly if they’re being discharged from treatment – they often need a new social set to help them find a new way of behaving. It’s not that they don’t like their old friends anymore, but the friendships come along with certain patterns of behavior that we’re now trying to break. Whatever the change – getting clean, getting married, or changing jobs – our relationships have a tendency to resist change. It’s part of how we keep our balance in the world.

I’m not sure what Paul found in Ephesus among this company of believers, but something prompted him to ask about whether the Holy Spirit was active among them. They’ve only been baptized according to the way John the Baptist did it, and they have no idea what this Holy Spirit is all about. It’s not that John’s baptism of repentance is insufficient – the teacher Apollos isn’t baptized again – but this group misunderstands what it’s all about. As Paul describes it, John’s baptism is forward-looking in anticipation of Christ, not the final step in a person’s faith life. The believers aren’t inadequately baptized, they’re insufficiently open to what their baptism represents.

So I imagine that Paul may have found a church that was unwilling to be changed. I don’t mean that they were invested in their musical style or carpet color, I mean that they were probably stuck in old grudges and status divisions. They were bound into old, unloving relationships with each other and the world.

How is it that we can be baptized, even just into repentance for sin, and still not be open to something new? I think we sometimes confuse repentance with a return to old ways, something we remember as “perfection,” whether or not it is. We change least when we’re trying to achieve some ideal conception, when we’ve set our mind on changing in some particular way. Real change, however, comes when we’re open to God’s ways, which are so much greater than ours.

Paul baptized the believers in Ephesus in the name of Jesus. Jesus, God’s transforming gift of love, God’s gift of herself in flesh. This name, and the life it reveals, renews us. Jesus doesn’t make us perfect in the sense of being static, he claims us as God’s beloved so we might be truly alive. Jesus invites us to be open to the renewing power of the Spirit.

Here’s how we’re invited to receive this something new. First, we have to believe that it’s possible. We can read fiction to develop our imagination. Learn history and see how the world has already changed, how different it is from, say, Paul’s world. We can read scripture – for real, not as if it were some kind of textbook or user’s manual – and wonder at how God might change us. Even just studying music or sports, really understanding how those kinds of stories work, can open our minds to believe.

Second, get out of your context. Paul leaves the Ephesus synagogue when there’s no change happening there. He’s been traveling all over the then-known world to spread the news about Christ, encountering new ideas at every turn. When we travel and have experience with others who challenge our assumptions, we’re more open to what God might be doing in our lives. There are plenty of ways to get out of our comfortable settings. What matters is that we go with our attention on what God reveals to us there; that’s the story of Paul’s journeys as we’ve followed him through Acts.

Third, we have to share the journey. Paul found 12 believers in Ephesus. Luke tells the story in a way that tells us that this was like the Jerusalem Pentecost all over again: a new church starts here, just like that first one. In the church at our best, we allow others into our change, to share accountability and support. The church is what new life looks like in community.

Fourth, practice forgiveness (especially in the church). There’s always something to forgive. John’s baptism, repentance, is always the right beginning, so long as we continue from there. Here we acknowledge when we hurt each other (and ourselves), and we commit to love each other regardless. Living in forgiveness, in community, is the real path of change and new life.

Finally, we have to know that new life is God’s work. We’re invited to open ourselves, but God is the one who changes us. Our calling, our gift, is to seek what God is already doing in our lives.

The new life is ultimately not about finding new people to relate to. It’s about finding new relationships with ourselves, others, and God. It’s about a life that is transformed by the continuing power of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God.