Jesus knew he faced death on the cross and spoke of it several times as a way of trying to prepare his disciples for what was going to happen. Facing this kind of death would not be easy for anyone, and certainly wasn’t for Jesus. He called it his baptism. It was not to be an occasion for a family party as we might expect if someone we know were to get baptised. This was a totally different kind of baptism, one of suffering. As Jesus went through this experience, and the dread in anticipation of it, we can know that he understands when we struggle as the result of the challenges we face in life.
This was the theme of the 2pm service on Thursday 21st October. The readings were Psalm 33, Ephesians 3:14-end, Luke 12:49-53. My reflection follows:
One of the results of my mother’s highly organised way of living is that I have a carefully labelled photograph album which records my life from my earliest days. The very first pictures show a rather screwed up face just peeping over the blankets that covered me in my big old-fashioned pram. When I was two months old there are several pictures of various people holding a white wrapped bundle. In the background is an ancient church. Those photographs record the day of my baptism. If it were not for the photographs and a baptismal certificate I would not know about that event. I have no recollection of it and a recent visit to the church didn’t give me any sense that the font I saw had significance in my life.
Many people, perhaps some who are here, would argue against the experience I had as a tiny baby. I had no say in whether or not I was baptised but they would say that I should have made a confession of faith and only after that be baptised. My baptism would have been done by pouring a little water over my head from the font as the words, ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen’ were uttered by the priest. Sprinkling is not enough, according to some translations of the word ‘baptizo’; I should have been immersed in water.
Whatever the controversies surrounding the practice of baptism nowadays in various denominations, the idea of baptism of a special kind looms large in Jesus’ words which we have just read.
Jesus marked his emergence from the life of an obscure carpenter by arriving at the Jordan. There his cousin John, nicknamed ‘The Baptiser’, was preaching that the people should repent of their sins and be baptised in the river. Thousands were flocking to him to hear what he had to say and to take up the offer of a new start in life. John wanted the people to get his ministry into perspective. He told them that all he was doing was baptising them in water as a sign of repentance. One greater than he would come to baptise them with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
We can understand John’s perplexity when Jesus arrived and asked to be baptised. The greater one, who would offer a greater baptism, wanted to undergo John’s baptism. Jesus insisted and was baptised. As a sinless person he could not repent for himself but he could for the nation, which had often gone astray. He was also identifying himself with the ordinary people who were coming to be baptised. In going down into the water he symbolically died before rising again, as he would do in fact three years later.
John had predicted that Jesus would baptise the people with the Holy Spirit and with fire. When Jesus came up out of the water the Holy Spirit descended on him, pouring over him, drowning him in a downpour of the power of God. It seems to me that here we see the second kind of baptism that John mentioned. Just as followers of Jesus expect to experience water baptism, they also experience baptism in the Holy Spirit. The apostles received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Peter told the people to repent, be baptised and receive the Spirit. Jesus is our pattern in these two baptisms.
The final baptism, the baptism with fire, is what Jesus was talking about in this passage from Luke. It would not be cleansing, or empowering, but suffering. Jesus saw clearly what awaited him. He knew that he faced death on the cross. Physically he was going to suffer the worst kind of execution ever invented. Spiritually he was going to suffer the torment of total separation from God as a result of the sins of the world. Fire represents judgement and in dying like this Jesus was to become the one to judge the whole earth.
It’s apparent what seeing the future was doing to Jesus. It can be too easy to think that Jesus somehow floated through life and let little affect him but here he says, ‘What stress I am under until it is completed!’ This was not going to be an easy path to tread. We are told that Jesus can relate to us in every way and here we see that the challenges of life affected him as they affect us. Jesus was stressed and anxious, eager that this terrible trial should be over and done with. I’m sure we can all relate to that feeling of dread as we look towards something which we know will be difficult. Often it is harder anticipating the event than actually living through it.
Jesus needed to have faith that he would come through what faced him, his baptism of fire, when he became fully immersed in suffering. Perhaps he remembered Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were thrown into the fiery furnace. They declared that God would bring them through their ordeal. When they were bound and thrown into the furnace, it was in fact those who threw them in who perished by the flames. The three of them walked unharmed in the fire with a heavenly visitor. As Isaiah said, God promises: ‘When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned.’
Jesus is our pattern for water baptism, baptism with the Holy Spirit and also the baptism of fire. He passed through this third baptism but not without pain and stress. If Jesus is our pattern, we can also expect to come through any fiery trial safely, knowing we are not alone. Having faith doesn’t mean we won’t feel afraid or suffer but it does mean that we will know God walking with us among the flames. We know that he has suffered and understands what it feels like.
The Apostles suffered a great deal as we know, and few suffered more than Paul. Despite all the difficulties he experienced, Paul could write from imprisonment in Rome where he faced possible death:
‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.’
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor