‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’ (a sermon on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

For some reason I was never a big fan of the character of Superman. I never read his comic book adventures when I was a boy, and I never went to see any of the Superman movies, even though they were very popular and got a lot of attention. But I know the story, of course – the story of how he was born on the planet Krypton and was sent to Earth in a rocket by his scientist father, minutes before Krypton was destroyed. On earth he was brought up as Clark Kent by a farming family, but as he grew up he was gradually seen to have what we would describe as supernatural powers. At a young age he decided to use those powers to benefit the whole of humanity, and the rest, as they say, is history – or, at least, comic-book history!

Superman can do amazing things because he’s not from earth and he’s not really one of us – he comes from ‘Another Place’. And I think a lot of people see Jesus in the same way. He comes among us as a human being, but he’s not really a human being – he’s the Son of God, a divine character. So it’s possible for him to do all sorts of things that we can’t do – he can work miracles, he can read people’s minds, he can live a perfect life without sin, and so on. In fact, he has an unfair advantage over us, and so he’s not actually very useful to us as an example, and all the biblical themes about the imitation of Christ aren’t really very helpful. How can we imitate Superman, when we weren’t born where he was born and we don’t have the same sort of nature as he does? And how can we imitate Jesus when he’s not a real human being with the same struggles as we have?

But the problem here isn’t with Jesus – it’s with our ideas about Jesus. Real Christian theology stresses that when God decided to become one of us in Jesus, he wasn’t just play-acting. He took on a real human nature, with all of the limitations of that nature. For instance, he didn’t start out knowing all the stuff he was going to be taught in school; he had to grow and learn, just like other children. Luke emphasises this aspect of Jesus’ life; in chapter two of his gospel we read that ‘The child grew and became strong’ (v. 40) – in other words he didn’t start out strong, he grew strong with time, as other children do. And later on in the chapter we read that ‘Jesus increased in wisdom and in years’ (v.52). Once again, he didn’t start out perfectly wise – he increased in it as the years went by.

The story of the baptism of Jesus, which we read this morning, continues this theme. It’s interesting to me that when Luke tells the story he doesn’t actually give a lot of attention to Jesus’ baptism itself. In fact, he doesn’t tell the story of the baptism at all; he tells us what happened after the baptism. Look at Luke 3:21-22:

Now when all the people were baptized, and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.

It’s interesting to me that in his story of the baptism of Jesus, Luke doesn’t actually tell us the story of the baptism of Jesus: he just mentions it in passing. This doesn’t mean, of course, that water baptism is unimportant; we know that Jesus commanded his followers to baptize new disciples in water, and we know that the early Church followed that command. But in this story, Luke is not stressing the water baptism. What interests him is something else: the fact that after Jesus was baptized he received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Luke has set us up for this. Earlier, in the first section of today’s gospel, he says that all sorts of people were asking whether John the Baptist was the long-promised Messiah, but John denied it, pointing out that there was a crucial difference between him and the Messiah who was still to come. Look at Luke 3:16:

John answered them all by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.

The Greek word ‘baptizo’ means to submerge, or fill, something. A ship that has sunk and is sitting on the bottom of the sea, surrounded and filled with water, has been ‘baptized’ in the literal sense of the Greek word. So what John is saying is, “Yes, I have the power to plunge you down under the water as a sign that you have repented of your sins, but the real Messiah will do something even more wonderful than that – he will plunge you into the Holy Spirit until you are completely immersed and filled with the Spirit’s power”.

But before Jesus can do this for us, he has to experience it for himself. And so after he has received John’s baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on him and fills him, and from that moment on he is completely dependant upon the power of the Holy Spirit. The next thing that happens is that he goes out into the desert for a time of testing, but it isn’t just his choice to go there and it isn’t just his own human resources that help him get through that time. Luke 4:1 says, ‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil’. And when the temptation is over, the Spirit continues to fill him and lead him. Luke 4:14 says, ‘Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee’.

Do you see the picture Luke is giving us here? It isn’t Jesus as Superman who can do amazing things because he comes from ‘Another Place’. It’s Jesus the first Christian, the model disciple, the truly human one who has come from God but who nevertheless needs the help of God to be able to do what he is called to do. So God sends the Holy Spirit to fill him and equip him, and because of the Holy Spirit he’s able to do what God asks of him on a daily basis.

And because of this, Jesus really is a useful model for us. He shares our human limitations, and so before he attempts to do anything for God, he first of all prays and is given the supernatural help he needs in order to do it. And this is where we must start in the Christian life. If Jesus is the model disciple, then we need to follow that model. If Jesus needs the power of the Holy Spirit, then so do we.

“Well, that’s all very well for Jesus”, you say, “but obviously God gave him the Holy Spirit because he was special, because he was the Son of God. How does that help me? I’m not the Son of God, so God isn’t going to give me the Spirit, is he?”

Ah, but he is! That’s exactly what Luke is saying here! Remember what we read at the beginning of the section, when John said about Jesus, “I baptize you with water, but… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v.16). This is the special characteristic of Jesus’ ministry: he is the one who takes his followers and plunges them into the Holy Spirit until they are completely filled and immersed in the Spirit’s power. In fact, the gospel of John goes so far as to tell us that during his lifetime Jesus didn’t actually baptize anyone in water, although he commanded his followers to do that. Human beings can baptize people in water, but there is only one person who can baptize someone in the Holy Spirit, and that’s the only baptism he administered to anyone.

Luke continues this story after the resurrection of Jesus. He says in Acts 1:4:

While staying with (the disciples), (the risen Jesus) ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This”, he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”.

And in verse 8 he goes on to tell them,

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”.

How was this promise fulfilled? Acts chapter two takes up the story:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability (Acts 2:1-4).

The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts were both written by the same author, who we know as Luke – possibly Luke the doctor who travelled with Paul in the later chapters of Acts. Luke has told the two stories – the story of Jesus and the story of the early Church – in the same way. Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit and given the power to do and say amazing things. His mission meets with success as many people hear him and follow him, but he is opposed by some powerful people. Eventually he is arrested, and then follows the story of the Cross and Resurrection.

In the same way, the early Christians in Acts 2 are filled with the Holy Spirit. They are ordinary people like us – Luke stresses this, telling us a few stories of their doubts and failings and character flaws – but the Holy Spirit gives them the power to do and say amazing things. Even though most of them are uneducated, nonetheless they travel around spreading the gospel and planting churches. Luke is especially interested in Paul; he too has a conversion experience and is filled with the Holy Spirit, and becomes the great missionary to the Gentiles. His mission is successful as people turn from idols to worship God in Jesus, but he is also opposed everywhere he goes by people in power. Eventually he is arrested in Jerusalem, just like Jesus, and when the story ends he has been taken to Rome to be tried before the Roman Emperor.

So the pattern Luke gives us is that you don’t have to be ‘from somewhere else’ – you don’t have to be Superman – in order to follow the teaching and example of Jesus. The same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus also fills us today. The difference is that the people in the Book of Acts knew it. They knew they were totally dependent on the Holy Spirit’s power. They had no organisation, no salaried employees, no sophisticated business plan, no huge advertising budget. They had no reputation in the community to build on – no one knew who they were from a hole in the wall. All they had was a message full of hope that had changed their lives, and a vibrant experience of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. And apparently, that was more than enough.

It’s often been said that if you took the Holy Spirit away from the Book of Acts you’d have nothing left; everything the early Christians did was totally dependant upon the Spirit’s power and guidance. When they wanted to have an outreach event to share the gospel with the city, what did they do? Answer: they prayed that God would give them boldness to proclaim the message, and that he himself would stretch out his hand to perform signs and wonders in Jesus’ name, and this is how God answered their prayer:

When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31).

In Acts 13 when the early Christians were planning new evangelistic work they didn’t have visioning meetings or hire specially trained evangelists; they fasted and prayed together, and while they were praying the Holy Spirit guided them:

While they were worshipping the Lord and praying, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them”. Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:2-3).

But the power of the Holy Spirit doesn’t only have to do with the proclamation of the gospel; it also concerns our efforts to live the sort of life that Jesus asks of us. Paul tells us about this in Galatians 5:16: ‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh’. In verses 22-23 he goes on: ‘By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’. He calls these things, ‘the fruit of the Spirit’. In other words, it’s the Holy Spirit who plants them like seeds in our lives, and it’s the Holy Spirit who helps them grow.  It’s not a matter of gritting our teeth and trying to be like Superman by our own unaided strength. It’s a matter of being filled with the same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus and who helps us to live as Jesus lived and do the things that Jesus did.

Is this for real? Does this sort of experience of the Holy Spirit still happen today? Yes it does, although it happens with incredible variety. Some Christians experience dramatic ‘baptisms in the Holy Spirit’ with deep emotion and perhaps miraculous signs like speaking in tongues. Others have quieter and more gradual experiences, but you can tell by the way that they live their lives that the Holy Spirit is truly at work in them helping them to live out the message of Jesus. What they all have in common is a deep awareness that this is not about human strength or skill. The Christian life is not difficult; the Christian life is impossible, unless the power of God fills us and gives us strength and wisdom. But on the other hand, this means that we’re not limited to our own puny wisdom and strength. Church history is full of stories of seemingly insignificant people who were used by God to do amazing things, despite their weaknesses.

So this is for you and me today. Luke tells this story because he wants us to be included in it. The same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus at his baptism can also fill us and set us free. He can grow his fruit of love and joy and peace in our lives and he can help us do the work Jesus calls us to do.

How do we receive this gift, and how do we grow in our daily experience of the Spirit? There is no human program for it, no infallible formula. There are no magic words. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit is like the wind – he blows where he will, and you can’t control him. Yes, he works through water baptism and through our faith, but he’s not tied to those things. He doesn’t come in answer to a magic spell, like at Hogwarts.

We can’t control the Holy Spirit, but we can ask for him. Let me close with these important words of Jesus:

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13).

So let’s ask him, and keep on asking, until we receive the gift the Father promised. And when we have received him, let’s pray daily that he will fill us, and then let’s consciously walk in step with him, so that God can work through us to bring salvation and blessing to the world.

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The Three Baptisms (a sermon for Pentecost)

This morning as we celebrate the baptisms of Doug and Gideon, I want to think with you for a few minutes about the word ‘baptism’ and what it means. Jesus actually uses the word ‘baptism’ to refer to three different experiences that Christians have, and all three are important.

The Greek word ‘baptizo’ originally had a very simple meaning: to dip, or to immerse. It wasn’t necessarily in water; ancient Greek chefs made pickles by ‘baptizing’ them in vinegar, and if they’d had fondues, they would have used the word ‘baptizo’ for that as well! When it comes to water baptism, Jesus is obviously using the word literally for dipping or immersing people in water; the other two meanings are metaphorical, but no less important.

Let’s start with baptism in water. We know that Jesus commanded his disciples to do this. In Matthew 28:18-20 he says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”.

The early Christians obeyed this particular command to baptize right from the beginning. In our reading from Acts today we heard of the Holy Spirit filling the followers of Jesus; a crowd was attracted, and Peter preached the good news of Jesus to the crowd. Later on in the chapter, some of the people were convinced by what Peter said, and they asked, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter replied, ‘“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”…So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added’ (Acts 2:38, 41).

So the act of becoming a Christian in the early church always included not only the inward actions of repentance and faith, but also the outward action of being baptized. Some people think of this as strange, but in fact it isn’t strange at all. We humans have always used physical signs in this way. We don’t just say hello to each other, we shake hands as well, and some people will formalize a deal by shaking hands on it. At a wedding we don’t just promise to love each other, we join hands, give and receive rings, and exchange formal kisses. Athletes attending the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games carry the flag of their country, and they know it’s not just a piece of cloth; it has a very special meaning to them. These are just three examples of our human tendency to use physical signs and give them a much deeper meaning.

Baptism in the early church was such a rich symbol that all sorts of meanings were discovered in it. As we’ve seen, Jesus connected it with becoming disciples; it was a sort of enrolment in the School of Jesus. It was also an obvious sign of cleansing – washing away sin and evil through God’s forgiveness, as Peter said on the Day of Pentecost, and starting a new life with Christ. Paul also talks about it as a sort of death and resurrection, and immersion was a particularly good symbol of that: going under the water was like dying with Jesus to the old way of life, and coming up out of the water was like rising with him to the new way of life. Sometimes in the early church, new Christians would symbolize that by taking off their old clothes before being baptized, and then putting on new clothes when they came out of the water.

Sometimes people denigrate symbols, but I think that most of us know how powerful they can be. For instance, many of us in church today are wearing wedding rings. There’s no law that we have to do this, but we choose to do it – we choose to wear on our fingers a symbol of our love for our husband or wife, and our commitment to them. I think that most of us would agree that these rings are very important to us. Yes, they are a symbol, but we’d never say, “They’re just a symbol”. We know how powerful that symbol is, and what it means to us.

Baptism is like that. It’s so powerful a symbol, in fact, that the New Testament often talks about it as actually accomplishing what it symbolizes. For instance, in John chapter 3 Jesus says ‘No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5); baptism with water is seen here as an essential part of the process of new birth. And in Galatians Paul points to both faith and baptism; he says, ‘For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ’ (Galatians 3:26-27).

So the Holy Spirit uses two things – our faith, and the act of baptism – as a means of bringing us to new birth in the family of God. This is true, even though faith and baptism might be separated chronologically. A baby might be baptized, and then later on come to faith in Christ. An adult might come to faith and then later on be baptized – perhaps even after many years! But the two things belong together theologically; neither of them is complete without the other. Peter didn’t just tell the crowd to repent and believe in Jesus – he told them to be baptized as well. But on the other hand, we don’t just baptize people – we ask them questions about their faith as well.

So this is the first baptism – baptism in water. But there’s a second way Jesus uses the word ‘baptism’: he talks about baptism in the Holy Spirit. In the book of Acts, chapter 1, we read these words: ‘While staying with (his disciples), he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This”, he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”’ (Acts 1:4-5). And in verse 8 he goes on to say, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”.

In the next chapter, as we read this morning, the Day of Pentecost arrived and they were all together in one place, when suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a mighty rushing wind that filled the whole house where they were sitting. And they saw little flickering tongues, just like flames of fire, resting on each one of them. And then all of them were aware of being filled with the Holy Spirit, and they found themselves speaking in different languages that they hadn’t learned before, speaking about God’s mighty acts of power.

This was obviously a very powerful experience that changed their lives – a real encounter with the Spirit of the living God. But it was not the only time they experienced this. Two chapters later – and we don’t know how much time had elapsed in between – they were meeting after some of them had been imprisoned and flogged for preaching about Jesus. In their place we might have prayed for safety, but they didn’t – they prayed for boldness to keep spreading the message of Jesus, and they asked God to keep confirming it by sending signs and wonders. And then we read that, ‘When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (Acts 4:31).

So this is ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’. A person being baptized in the Holy Spirit is being immersed or plunged into the power of the Holy Spirit. And this is not just a fanciful metaphor. Many people who have had these powerful experiences of the presence of God report that this is exactly what it felt like: they felt as if they were totally surrounded and filled with the love of God and the power of his Spirit.

What’s it like to be baptized with the Holy Spirit? I suspect there are many different answers to that question. To some people it’s probably the same sort of dramatic experience that these early Christians had. To others, it may be something quieter and less tangible, but it’s obvious its happened because of the changes in their lives. I still love the way my dad described it to me years ago; this is what he said:

On Shrove Tuesday 1971, I was part of a prayer group and all the members knew that I was waiting, in obedience to the Lord, to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Two of the group asked me if I would like them to pray with me. I agreed and they prayed but nothing happened. I was trying to will myself into the experience but that isn’t how it happens. So, in my heart I prayed, “Well, Lord, I’ve waited twelve years, I can wait longer, if that’s what you want”. And that was what the Lord was waiting for… And so it happened. My heart was bursting with a joy and peace and love I had never known before.

The way I would describe it is that it’s like standing under a great waterfall but the water not only cleanses the outside but pours through the whole body, soaking and enriching every cell. It’s realizing that every drop of that water is the Spirit’s power filling me to overflowing with the love of Jesus.

So you see, it’s not just something that happens in the pages of the Bible. I’m sure there are probably hundreds of thousands of people around the world today would who would testify that they, too, have experienced what Jesus promised: baptism in the Holy Spirit.

But here’s the thing: water baptism is within our control, but baptism in the Holy Spirit is not. Only God can baptize people with the Holy Spirit, and only God can decide what form that baptism will take – whether it comes with deep emotions or not, or whether it’s accompanied by miraculous acts, like those early Christians suddenly finding themselves speaking in languages they’d never learned. Jesus told his church to baptize people in the name of God, but he told them to ‘wait’ for baptism in the Holy Spirit. We can’t make it happen; we can only wait for it, praying that the Holy Spirit will fill us, and that God will make us open to whatever it is he wants to do in us by the work of the Holy Spirit.

So we’ve talked about baptism in water and baptism in the Holy Spirit. But there’s a third way the word is used in the New Testament: the baptism of suffering. In Mark chapter ten, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, come to him with an audacious request: ‘“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory”. But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able”. Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared”’ (Mark 10:37-40).

Jesus is referring to the cross, of course. On the cross he would drink the cup of suffering on our behalf, and he would be plunged or baptized into suffering, just like a ship in a storm being overwhelmed by the waves. This baptism is like the ‘taking up our cross and following Jesus’ that Jesus talks about elsewhere. To be baptized is to be baptized in the name of Jesus, and not to be ashamed to own that name.

And not everyone is going to be glad that we own that name. Around the world today many of our Christian brothers and sisters are persecuted for following Jesus. In some countries it is a capital offence to convert to Christianity, and everyone knows it. In many of those countries, if you obey the command of Jesus to be his witnesses, you will be thrown in prison and possibly executed as well. Here, in the tolerant west, we don’t suffer that sort of persecution, but I would suggest to you that if we obey some of the more controversial commands of Jesus – loving our enemies and praying for them rather than pouring hatred and violence on them, for instance – we will also experience some of the scorn and derision that followers of Jesus have always experienced.

So I want to say to all of us who have been baptized, and especially to Doug and Gideon who will be baptized in a moment, that in our baptism we take the name of Jesus Christ – we are called ‘Christians’ – and Jesus calls us not to be ashamed to own that name. Of course, he’s not asking us to be self-righteous, as if we were saying “I’m a Christian, so I’m better than those who aren’t”. That would be completely foreign to the spirit of Jesus! But equally, he’s calling us to walk into those situations where we know that the name of Jesus is not respected or honoured, and not to be ashamed or fearful to say, “I’m marked with that name; I belong to him”.

Let’s go around this one last time. In the New Testament there are three experiences that Jesus describes with the word ‘baptism’.

Water baptism is something we do in obedience to him. Through faith and baptism we become followers of Jesus; we are washed from sin and born again into the family of God. Once it’s done, it doesn’t need to be done again; Paul says in Ephesians that there is ‘one’ baptism. In joyful obedience to that command of Jesus, we will baptize Doug and Gideon this morning.

Baptism in the Holy Spirit isn’t something we can do; it’s something we can pray for and wait for. And I hope that all of you will pray for it and wait for it. If you’ve never experienced anything like it, I hope you will keep on praying for it. Don’t try to make it happen; don’t try to manufacture some sort of powerful emotional experience. None of that works, because it’s not real. True baptism in the Holy Spirit is a gift of God. And unlike water baptism, it is repeatable; as we’ve seen, the early Christians experienced it more than once.

Baptism in water is something we do; baptism in the Holy Spirit is something we pray for and wait for. But the baptism of suffering is something we’re ready for. We don’t go looking for it, and no one in their right mind asks for it. But when it comes our way, we accept it – I’d even go so far as to say, we accept it with joy, like the Christians in the book of Acts, who, we’re told, ‘rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name’ of Jesus (Acts 5:41). It’s not a sign that we’re doing something wrong; it’s an inevitable consequence of faithfulness to Jesus in a world that does not recognize his authority. So when we experience it, let’s ask God to strengthen us to endure it, and to be faithful to the one who has called us to follow him as baptized Christians.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

A New Beginning (sermon for January 11th on Mark 1:9-11)

Question: how many of you here today have actually read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings? I don’t mean ‘how many of you have watched the movies?’ – I mean actually read the book – all three volumes of it?

The first time I tried to read The Lord of the Rings I was about fourteen; a lot of people were talking about it at the time, and I decided to try it out. I went to the local library to look for it, but the first volume, ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, was out, so I just borrowed the second volume, ‘The Two Towers’. Now, there was a very short summary of the plot of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ at the beginning of this second volume, but even with that help, it was very difficult to get into the flow of the story, and in fact I think I gave up after about fifty pages. It wasn’t until a few years later that I read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ all the way through, and then the story made sense to me, because I started at the beginning.

I want to suggest to you that a lot of people who are interested in the Christian faith get into trouble for this very same reason – they don’t start at the beginning. Where do they start? Well, the most obvious thing that Christians do these days seems to be ‘going to church’, so people who are interested in learning about Christianity start coming to church. After a while people notice them, and they get added to a parish list and get a set of envelopes. Someone finds out that they’re good at a particular job that needs doing around the church, and before you know it they’re on a list of volunteers. They get involved in all the activities, but deep down inside there’s this nagging doubt, “Where’s God? I wasn’t really looking for more social activities, or more work to do – I was looking for God? How can I find him?”

The problem is that they haven’t started at the beginning, and so their Christian story isn’t making any sense. Not that there’s anything wrong with going to church, but churchgoing is meant to take us right back to the heart of the Gospel, to the central truths that give us a good start in the Christian life. And we find these truths in our gospel reading for today which tells the story of Jesus’ baptism. What does Jesus’ baptism have to say to us about our own baptism and how we start out in the Christian life?

Let’s think about baptism for a minute and what John the Baptist was doing here by baptizing people. In the ancient world a number of religions baptized people. Jews did it to Gentiles who wanted to become Jews; they baptized them all as a sign of the washing away of ritual uncleanness before God, and then the men were circumcised, which was the covenant sign God had given to Abraham. But before John the Baptist came, no one had suggested that people who were born as Jews needed to be baptized; they were seen as being clean enough already! But now John came, preaching that the Kingdom of God was near; people were excited about that, and thousands of them flocked to hear him. If they wanted to sign up for the new kingdom, he told them to repent – to turn away from their old way of life – and to be baptized as a sign of this. Baptism was an obvious sign for repentance; sin has often been seen as making us dirty in some way, and repentance and forgiveness are a sort of cleansing.

But now Jesus comes to the river to be baptized, and according to Matthew’s version of this story, John is a bit confused about this. “I need to be baptized by you”, he says to Jesus, “and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). Baptism is about repenting from sin, but Jesus has nothing he needs to repent of, so why does he need to be baptized? Makes perfect sense to me! But in fact Jesus disagrees: “Let it be so now”, he says to John, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness”(Matthew 3:15).

But in fact baptism is about more than washing from sin. There are whole layers of meaning in the act of baptism in the New Testament, and the baptism of Jesus has a lot to teach us about this. Let’s take a closer look.

One thing we see in the baptism of Jesus is an assurance to him that he is God’s Son. We read in verse 11 that when Jesus was baptized ‘a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”’.

What a wonderful thing for a son to hear from his father! I suspect that there are many adult children today who are walking around with a big empty space inside, because they just aren’t sure whether or not their parents are pleased with them. In some cases those parents have been dead for years, but it doesn’t matter: that big, empty space is still there. But here we have God the Father, right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, before he had healed anyone, or told any parables, or done anything out of the ordinary at all, saying, “You are my beloved son, and I’m very pleased with you”.

Baptism speaks to us about becoming God’s children. And just as Jesus received the affirmation of his sonship before he had done anything spectacular to earn it, so too God declares that we are his children as a free gift – what Christians call an act of pure grace – which we don’t have to earn.

Here’s the way it works. In that act of grace, Jesus gave his life for you and me and everyone else, so that our sins could be forgiven and we could be brought back into God’s family. That’s God’s great rescue operation for the world. That great rescue operation is applied to your life and mine in the act of baptism. Through our baptism, God’s forgiveness and adoption are offered to us, like a hand of rescue reaching out to a drowning person. We respond to that free gift by faith, which means trust. “Ah!” you say; “There is something I can do!” Yes, there is – but let’s be clear about what it is. If you’re drowning and a person reaches out their hand to save you, you don’t save yourself by clasping their hand; you simply take advantage of their strength and skill. Faith is our hand reaching up to take the hand of God and receive the gift he gives us in our baptism. Or if you like, in your baptism God says to us “You are my son or daughter” and in faith we reply “Yes: I am God’s son or daughter”.

So ‘starting at the very beginning’ is all about grace, which means God’s love for us that we don’t have to deserve. Most of us here were baptized as children, when we’d done absolutely nothing to deserve it. Some of us here were baptized as adults, after we’d done lots of things not to deserve it! Whenever we were baptized, in our baptism we were made the children of God, and when we came to Jesus in faith and welcomed him into our hearts we accepted that for ourselves; we began to enjoy the special relationship with the Father that he’s given us.

So the first thing we notice about the baptism of Jesus is that it was God’s assurance to him that he was indeed God’s beloved Son. The second thing is that it was the beginning of a new life for him. Up until that time, he’d lived quietly in Nazareth with his family. But now, at the age of thirty, he came to the Jordan and was baptized by John. From that point on, he left his old way of life and plunged into three years of public ministry, in which he announced that God’s kingdom was coming, and showed by his actions what God’s kingdom was all about.

When we look at the different pictures that are used for baptism in the New Testament, they all include the idea of a new beginning. We’re told that being baptized is like being born again; it’s like dying and rising again with Jesus; it’s like being adopted into a family. And at the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus says “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). To be baptized, Jesus tells us here, is to begin a new life as his disciple.

So you’re not only a child of God, adopted into his family by a gift of his grace; you’re also a disciple of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus have taken a long hard look at the world around them and concluded that, even though it’s full of voices wanting to give us advice, no other voice seems to get it exactly right. Disciples of Jesus realize that in the life and teaching of Jesus they can see God more clearly than they can see him anywhere else in all of creation. And so they come to Jesus day by day, with a prayer something like this: “Lord, will you help me to see life as you see it and live life as you taught it?”

Baptism is the beginning of this life of discipleship. The true Christian idea of infant baptism is that Christian parents who are themselves following Jesus want their children to follow him too, so they have them baptized because they believe it’s never too early to start learning to follow Jesus. Adults who are baptized are putting their faith in Jesus, leaving the old way of life behind and starting a new life as followers of Jesus.

So when we were baptized we were set down at the beginning of a new way of life. And as we try to learn this new way of life we aren’t left to our own resources either. Let’s look at the third thing Jesus’ baptism teaches us about ‘starting at the very beginning’. In his baptism Jesus had a special experience of God’s presence and power as the Holy Spirit came down on him. In today’s gospel we read, ‘And just as (Jesus) was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him’ (v.10).

It’s a striking phrase, isn’t it? ‘He saw the heavens torn apart’. If you had been a Jewish person hearing these words in the first century just after Mark wrote them, you’d immediately have been reminded of Isaiah chapter 64. In chapter 63 the prophet was talking about how the people felt abandoned by God because of all their sins; they were going through the suffering of exile from their land and longed for a sense of God’s presence with them. Then in chapter 64 he goes on to say to God:

“Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence” (vv.1-3).

This is what we need, isn’t it? We need the sense that we aren’t alone, that God is with us, walking with us through the difficult times in our lives, giving us the strength we need to do the things he asks of us. “Show me a sign, God?” we ask; “Please let me know that you’re near! Tear open the heavens and come down!” And now in Jesus’ baptism God answers that prayer: ‘He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him’ (v.10)

This experience of the Holy Spirit shines through the pages of the New Testament. Nowadays if you’ve had a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit you’re looked on as being an unusual person, but in the Book of Acts it was the other way around. In our epistle for today we read of Paul meeting some people in Ephesus who claimed to be disciples of Jesus. But reading between the lines, we can see that Paul noticed right away there was something different about them, and after a few minutes he put his finger on it. “Tell me”, he said,

‘“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”. Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied – altogether there were about twelve of them (Acts 19:2-7).

Sadly, I think many people today would be just as mystified as these Ephesian disciples; we may have heard that there is a Holy Spirit, but he doesn’t play a very big part in our daily Christian experience. Yes, the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to us in our baptism, but many of us have never turned to Jesus in faith and asked him to fill us with the Holy Spirit. This is a gift we grow in, you see. When we are baptized God lights the pilot light of his Holy Spirit in us, but you can’t heat a house with the pilot light; you need to turn up the thermostat so that the whole furnace lights up. And so it is with the Holy Spirit: we’re told in the New Testament to go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit, so that we can truly be in tune with God’s presence and experience God’s power for the tasks he’s called us to do.

Let’s go around this one last time. The baptism of Jesus tells us about our baptism – about what it means and what it says about us. In the world today there are many voices wanting to tell you who you are, and what you should be doing. But the most important truth about you is what God says about you, and in your baptism God says to you, “You are my beloved child; I am pleased with you”. In your baptism God tells you that the most important thing you have to do in your life is to learn to follow Jesus. And God puts the Holy Spirit into you to give you a sense of his presence and power.

This is where we have to start if we are to understand the Christian life. These are the things we need to be sure about before we go on to the next stage in our Christian journey. We are God’s children, we are called to follow Jesus, and we are offered the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us do it. These are the basic things, the things we start with, and we don’t have to earn any of them. They all come to us as a free gift: a gift of God’s grace.

The meaning of infant baptism

I’m actually rather disappointed in this video by Archbishop Justin Welby in which he attempts to explain what baptism, and particularly the baptism of Prince George, is all about.

I like Justin Welby and I think as a bishop he is incredibly focussed on the Good News of Jesus Christ, on prayer, on Christian witness, and on reconciliation.

So I find it a little disappointing that our Lord Jesus Christ barely gets a mention in this video about the meaning of baptism!

In the New Testament, by contrast, baptism is inextricably linked, not just to God, but to Jesus the Son of God. Jesus clearly identifies the meaning of baptism in Matthew 28:18-20:

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Baptism in this passage clearly means becoming a disciple or follower of Jesus. The call of baptism, for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as parents bringing a child to the sacrament, is for them to be sure that they are following Jesus as their Lord, and committing themselves to raising their son George in ‘the School of Jesus’, so to speak.

But it is impossible for George to grow and learn in the School of Jesus without supernatural help. John’s Gospel therefore talks about ‘being born of water and the Spirit’, the miracle that God does by his grace, granting us the free gift of the Holy Spirit to enable us to do the things he calls us to do. This is one of the things that baptism signifies.

Baptism is not just about ‘belonging to God’. Surely every child born on earth belongs to God, in the sense that God is their Creator and God loves them! No, baptism is about being born again into the family of Jesus, and it is the beginning of a life of following Jesus in the context of his people, the Christian church.

In this respect, it is disappointing that Prince George will be baptized in ‘a private ceremony’. Most of us Anglican Christians have long since given up baptizing people in private ceremonies. We believe that if a person is being baptized into the people of Jesus, then the people of Jesus should be there to support them, to welcome them, and to witness the promises being made. I am sure the Archbishop believes this. Surely, in this day and age, it’s time for the Church of England to make it clear that, whether a baby is born to be King or not, he gets to be baptized in the same way as anyone else – at  public service, so that the people of Jesus can be present to welcome him into the School of Jesus.

I wish the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge well, and I hope that when their son is baptized tomorrow they will be sincere in the promises they make and in their desire to help him grow up as a follower of Jesus. But I wish that Archbishop Welby had taken the opportunity in this video to be clearer about what the Gospel of Jesus really is, and how baptism is connected to it, and I do wish that by his actions he would make it clearer that, whatever privilege a person may or may not have been born into, they receive the sacrament of baptism in the same way, and under the same circumstances (i.e. the corporate worship of a Christian congregation), as anyone else, and it confers on them a dignity greater than any royal dignity on earth – that of being a follower of Jesus Christ, born again of water and the Spirit.

What is the Church For?

Over at the Lay Anglicana blog, Laura Sykes has been putting together a ‘wish list’ for the sort of person who should be appointed as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. In her view, very early on in the process each candidate should be required to write their own answer to the fundamental question ‘Who is the Church of England for?’ (in the sense of ‘for whose benefit does it exist?’).

It seems to me that this is exactly the right sort of question that we should be asking, and a change in leadership is the right time to ask it. It’s so easy for churches to get caught up in the nuts and bolts of administrative structure and maintenance. Even worse, we could get caught up in the trappings of leadership (Who should wear what sort of ceremonial clothing? What title should we give them? Should they be male or female or gay or straight? How should we appoint them to their position? etc.) without asking the basic question ‘What is the leadership structure there for in the first place?’

So – what is the Church for? Conventional answers usually have to do with Sunday mornings – the Church exists to worship God, and so it needs trained leaders to lead its worship, preach the word in the congregation, administer the sacraments etc. Certainly in the Anglican branch of the Church, we have made worship gatherings our ‘raison d’être’. In fact, we define our membership in terms of the number of people who ‘come to church’.

But in fact, in the Bible, worship is only one of the purposes of the Church, and you could make a good argument to the effect that it’s not even the most important one. Yes, we know from the Book of Acts and the other New Testament letters that Christians from earliest times have met on the Lord’s Day to worship together (‘very early in the morning’, so the church fathers tell us – because of course, in those days, Sunday was a working day like any other), but nowhere does Jesus specifically command us to ‘hold services on Sunday mornings’. He does tell us to ‘do this in remembrance of me’, yes, but he leaves the timing and the exact nature of those gatherings up to us to work out.

What he is most urgently concerned about, however, appears in the words of commission with which he sends out his followers in all four gospels and in the Book of Acts. We are told to go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded us (Matthew 28:16-20). We’re told to go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation, and that all who believe it and are baptised will be saved (Mark 16:15). We’re told that repentance for the forgiveness of sins is to be preached in the Messiah’s name to all nations, and that we are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:47-48). We’re told that as the Father sent Jesus, so now Jesus is sending us (John 20:21). And we’re told that we will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon us so that we can be witnesses for Jesus to the world’s farthest ends (Acts 1:8).

So our work is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to be his witnesses. We are to invite people to receive the forgiveness he offers and to become his disciples; we are to baptise them in the name of the Trinity, and to teach them to obey everything Jesus commanded us. And as this is a supernatural task, we are promised the help of the Holy Spirit, and in fact are commanded to wait for him to fill us before we try to do anything for him!

Why this emphasis on spreading the gospel and making disciples?

Well, it’s related to the central theme of Jesus’ teaching ministry: the Kingdom of God. Virtually all scholars agree that the Kingdom of God was the primary concern of Jesus: the wonderful news that God is setting the world to rights through Jesus and his ministry. And how does this kingdom grow in the world today? Not by political machinations or military prowess, but by the willing submission of human hearts to God’s anointed king, Jesus. The Kingdom of God grows one heart at a time, as human beings respond to Jesus’ invitation and commit themselves to living as his disciples. It then becomes their business to learn to follow the teaching and example of Jesus in their daily lives. As they do so, their lives gradually take on the shape of Christ’s life, the shape of the Kingdom of God, and so, as Jesus taught is to pray, God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.

So the Church is primarily a missionary organisation, a fellowship of growing disciples committed to making new disciples for Jesus. And there is nothing mysterious about what the lives of those disciples are meant to look like. The teaching of Jesus is dauntingly clear on the subject, especially in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7).

It seems to me that everything else in the Church’s life takes shape around this primary theme of being disciples and making disciples. What sort of Christian community do we need in order to make disciples who are a living incarnation of the Sermon on the Mount? What sort of leaders can help grow such a community and help to coach these disciples? What sort of gathering for worship and teaching will be most effective in shaping us into such a community? Once we put discipleship and mission at the centre of the Church’s life, these questions take their most fundamental and helpful shape. The sacraments, too, find their place naturally around this central purpose of the Church: baptism is the way we become disciples of Jesus, and Holy Communion recalls for us the death and resurrection of Jesus and nourishes us in his grace so that we can then go out and do the work of mission, of making and training new disciples.

What sort of buildings do we need? What sort of robes should ministers wear? What kind of liturgy should we use for our worship? Should we use organ music or rock bands? Should it be only an ordained priest who presides at Holy Communion, or should a lay reader be allowed to do it too? These are all fascinating questions, but in the end they also have the potential to be fascinating distractions. The more fundamental questions for us to answer are these:

  • What is the good news of Jesus Christ?
  • What does a disciple of Jesus Christ look like? What is his/her lifestyle? How do we train people in this life of discipleship?
  • How do we equip every single member of the Church to be a witness for Christ and to participate in the work of making new disciples?
  • What sort of Christian communities do we need in order to grow disciples of Jesus who will transform the world and further the kingdom by the way they live their lives at their homes, at their schools, at their places of work, and in their leisure time?
  • What sort of people do we need to lead those communities and coach those disciples?

Preliminary explorations in Matthew 16:21-28

This passage is the gospel for this coming Sunday and is the passage I will probably preach on. Here are some of the thoughts that have come to me as I have been exploring it. This is not a sermon (that will come later); just some preliminary mediations. I am now going to turn to the commentaries to see what they have to say. If you have any thoughts to add, please feel free to do so in the comments.

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things”.

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”.

‘From that time on’ connects this to the previous passage. In verses 13-20 we read about a time when Jesus and his disciples were in the area of Caesarea Philippi, and he asked them about his identity – first ‘Who do others say I am?’ and then ‘What do you say?’ Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”. Jesus affirmed this answer and assured Peter that it had been revealed to him by the Father in heaven.

Central to this previous passage is the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. At the end of the passage Jesus had commanded his followers not to let anyone in on this truth. The reason is not hard to find. The word ‘Messiah’, in common speech in those days, was not just a ‘religious’ word; it had political and military connotations. Messianic pretenders didn’t just preach in synagogues; they led rebellions against the Roman empire. For Jesus’ followers to acclaim him as the Messiah would be to invite the immediate attention of the Roman overlords. It was not so long since John had been executed as a threat to the powers that be; Jesus knew what was in store for him, but the time was not yet, and so he downplayed the word.

With his disciples, however, he accepted the designation and immediately began to explore it. What did it mean for him to be the Messiah? They must put out of their minds all the notions of glory and victory and power. Yes, those things would come eventually (“for the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father”), but first there was a hard road to be walked – the road of the Cross. 

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

This is the first time Jesus has predicted his death in Matthew’s gospel; there are three such predictions, but we probably shouldn’t take that number as being exhaustive, as the language used here is ‘From that time on, Jesus began to show…’ – in other words, this was a regular subject in their conversation from this point.

I find it interesting that the language is not just that of prediction but of demonstrated necessity – in other words, it’s not just ‘This is something that is going to happen’, but ‘This is something that I must do’. The word ‘show’ is also interesting. It seems to me that, given the language used, what was happening was that Jesus was ‘showing’ his disciples in the scriptures that it was necessary for the Messiah to do this. Not, of course in the literal sense of ‘showing them in the Bible that he had open in front of him’, as this would be an anachronism (scriptures were written on scrolls and were prohibitively expensive); the discussion took place from memory. What was involved was a reinterpretation of Messianic prophecy, possibly with specific reference to the ‘Suffering Servant’ passages in Isaiah (given their prominence in early apostolic interpretation of the Cross, it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that the apostles got that interpretation from Jesus). These passages are used to demonstrate that Jesus will be ‘despised and rejected’ by the leaders of the nation, will suffer and die, and then rise again on the third day.

I doubt whether the apostles got as far as the third day in their listening, though; I’m pretty sure they didn’t make it past ‘be killed’. This was not part of the Messianic job-description they had received, which was to liberate God’s people and win a great victory over their enemies. The Messiah was not supposed to ‘be killed’; if there was any killing to be done, he was the one doing it, just as David had defeated all the nations enemies and given them justice and peace. And so Peter protests:

22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”

The irony of saying, “God forbid it, Lord!” seems to have escaped Peter. When you call someone ‘Lord’, it is not your place to tell them that they are going off in the wrong direction. Whatever else we mean by calling Jesus our Lord and Master, surely it is includes believing that he is smarter than we are! But of course the problem was that Jesus’ startling new revelation of what he was about to do didn’t fit in with Peter’s view of who Jesus was and what he should be doing. And that of course is not just ancient history; it happens today, as we all have our incomplete and inaccurate images of Jesus and then get worried and offended when he chooses not to fit in with them. Jesus the liberation fighter, Jesus the divine figure staring out of the icon, Jesus the upholder of conservative/progressive/liberal/socialist values etc. etc. Then when we find Jesus saying and doing things that contradict our vision, don’t we take him aside and say “God forbid, Lord!”?

23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things”.

How quickly things can change! Just a few verses beforehand Jesus has been commending Peter for his spiritual insight: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (v.17).  Now Jesus issues this unparalleled and surely stinging rebuke to his beloved friend and chief disciple. What is behind this?

‘Get behind me, Satan’ surely recalls the temptations in the wilderness in chapter 4. The third temptation was to take the easy way to win the kingdoms of the world, by worshipping the Devil. Surely this was not just a matter of kneeling before him and praying to him, because we become like what we worship. To worship the devil meant adopting the devil’s ways, the ways of coercion, cruelty, violence, oppression etc. Obviously this would be much more appealing than the road of suffering that led to the Cross. And I can see how this would be very attractive to Jesus. The lure of the ‘zealot road’, the road of armed rebellion against Rome (which was surely the most obvious way to be ‘the Messiah’) must have been a constant temptation to him in his ministry.

This is surely what is behind the forcefulness of his rebuke to Peter. This was not the first time he had heard this suggestion; it had been whispered in his ears many times throughout his ministry, and he knew where it ultimately came from: the enemy who had tried to divert him at the beginning was still doing so. And so the great apostle became the Devil’s unwitting mouthpiece and became a ‘skandalon’, a stumbling block.

To ‘set the mind on human things’ is to employ common sense, worldly wisdom, human logic, rather than the wisdom of God which, as Paul says, is foolishness to the world. To take up the sword and lead the armies of God against the enemy may be risky, but at least it makes sense. To win a victory by allowing yourself to be killed defies logic. But it is not just the path for Jesus; it is also the call of his followers as well:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

‘Take up your cross’ has taken on a very sentimental meaning in today’s world. It has come to be a general phrase for living an unselfish life or a life of suffering. Alternatively, it refers to a particular suffering God is believed to have ‘laid on’ the person (‘my mother-in-law is the cross I have to bear, I suppose!’) – a difficult relationship, a cancer diagnosis, a demanding assignment etc.

Undoubtedly this spiritual reinterpretation has brought comfort to millions of people; however, it is emphatically not what ‘taking up your cross’ meant to Jesus’ first followers. When they saw someone carrying a cross, they knew that he or she had been condemned to die by the Romans, and the Romans reserved this penalty of crucifixion for rebels against the empire. Jesus knew he was called to undergo this penalty and to accept it without resistance, and he called his followers to do the same. “I am going to be crucified as a dangerous rebel, and the same thing is going to happen to you as well. And you must embrace this and endure it in the same way that I endure it” (Peter explores the implications of this for disciples in 1 Peter 2:21-25).

On the night before the crucifixion Peter will deny Jesus three times in order to save himself, but the disciples are called, rather than denying Jesus, to ‘deny themselves’, their own lives, liberties, and dreams, and embrace the call to suffering. This is what it means to follow Jesus.

25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

The temptation is indeed to ‘save their life’, and we all know that temptation. “I don’t want to suffer, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to love my enemies. I want to protect myself; surely you can’t ask more of me, Lord?” but ‘more’ is exactly what he does ask; he asks us to tread the same path he trod. A movement that is intended to change the world will get nowhere if its followers put their own comfort and safety first. A movement that wants to change the world needs people who will be totally committed to it and will be willing to put their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness on the line for it – or rather, ‘for him’: ‘those who lose their life for my sake will find it’.

If we duck this challenge, as Peter ducked it on the Thursday night before Jesus died, we may well have guaranteed our safety but we will have lost something far more important – our integrity, our self-respect, our ‘soul’ even. This does not mean that there can be no forgiveness (Peter himself was restored and forgiven); it simply means that being a Christian involves being willing to pay the ultimate price, if that is what is necessary.

There is a positive way of looking at this as well. How do we ‘gain’ our life? How do we enjoy life in all its fullness (John 10:10)? Jesus says here that it isn’t by focusing on ourselves and doing all that is necessary to ensure our own safety or happiness. No – what we need is a cause worth living and dying for; we need a worthwhile challenge, something that we can commit our lives to, something that will give us a sense of purpose and direction. How many times have we heard parents and spouses of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan talk about how their loved one “Died doing what he believed in”. “He thought it was really important and he was willing to put his life on the line for it”. This is what Jesus gives us: a cause big enough to make the ultimate sacrifice worthwhile – the cause of the kingdom of God, the healing and renewal of the world according to God’s good purposes.

And once we are willing to pay this ultimate price – rejection, suffering, and death at the hands of our peers because of our allegiance to the true King, Jesus – then of course the other stuff falls into place as well. We are willing to turn from sin, to embrace hardship and suffering, because we know that the Christian life is not one long easy romp to heaven, but is the way of the cross. Difficulty and discouragement do not surprise us…

‘There’s no discouragement
shall make him once relent
his first avowed intent
to be a pilgrim’

Rather, we see them as a normal and integral part of Christian faithfulness.

And we are not the losers in this bargain:

27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”.

No one who follows Jesus faithfully will be the loser in the long term, although we might have to wait a while for the ‘long term’ to come about. As Jim Elliot famously wrote, ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose’.

Verse 28 raises issues because it makes it seem as if Jesus was mistaken about the timing of the coming of the kingdom. Alternately, we might have to revise our view of what Jesus meant by the coming of the kingdom. Possibly the events of his death, resurrection and ascension were indeed the coming of the kingdom. However, I don’t want to spend a lot of time exploring this as it is not central to the meaning of the passage.

What are a few more implications of this gospel passage for us?

We Canadian Christians do not suffer very much for Christ, and the consequence of this in our lives is that we try to avoid even the little suffering that we are called on to endure. Our Christianity is so often an easy road, focusing on the blessings of the gospel and avoiding any talk of holiness, of sacrifice, of service and suffering.

Part of this is the legacy of Christendom. We are used to having the world on our side, to having our values resonate with the values of the world around us. For hundreds of years the Christian scriptures and the moral standards of the Bible have been at least theoretically affirmed by the world around us. And so we have not learned the skills for being different, for marching to a different drummer and for enduring scorn and suffering when they result. We could learn a lot from religious minorities in this respect.

Jesus expected that the powers that be in his day would see his followers as a threat and would want to ‘take them out’. Today we expect that the world around us will like us (and flock to our churches), and if they don’t we ask what is wrong. Maybe we need to meditate a little on the implications of John 15:18-25 for Christian life today.

This coming Sunday we will be having two baptisms at our 10.30 service – baptisms of little children. We rejoice in this and we will try to make the event a joyful celebration. But maybe we need to remember that a baptism is also a death – a death to self and a commitment to a life of discipleship. The BCP baptism service called on the new Christians to ‘fight manfully under (Christ’s) banner against sin, the world, and the devil’. Maybe we need that note of realism, of challenge, of commitment, as we celebrate the baptism of our children on Sunday. Yes, it is a joyful thing to be adopted as a child of God – but there is a price to be paid as well.

What is an evangelical Anglican?

After my post about John Wesley a couple of days ago I thought I’d post a few more articles about the spirituality of the early Anglican evangelicals. I’ve excerpted them from a lecture I gave on the subject a few years ago, editing a bit here and there for clarification purposes. In this post, I thought I’d say a bit about what this term ‘evangelical Anglican’ (or ‘Anglican evangelical’, if you prefer it) means in its historical context.

Let me say immediately that ‘evangelical’ is not the same as  ‘evangelist’. Evangelists are people who have a particular gift for sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and helping people to respond to it by putting their faith in Christ. Many of the early evangelicals did that, but so have many other people throughout Christian history who would not claim the title ‘evangelical’.

‘Evangelical’ is a description of a particular theological approach which claims to be rooted in the ‘evangel’, the New Testament Gospel, and especially in the Reformation interpretation of that Gospel. Evangelicals are children of the Reformation in their belief in two fundamental doctrines. First, they believe that the Holy Scriptures are the supreme authority for Christian faith and life. Secondly, they believe in the doctrine of justification by faith: which they understand to mean that we are accepted by God, not because of any good works that we do, but because of the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross, which we appropriate for ourselves by our faith in him. Evangelical theology is therefore atonement theology: that is, it focusses on Jesus and his Cross.

But the eighteenth century evangelicals added a third emphasis: their belief in the importance of personal conversion. They lived at a time when Christian beliefs and attendance at Christian worship were widely accepted as part of the makeup of English society. However, they were well aware that the Christian experience of perhaps the vast majority of people fell far short of the New Testament vision of the normal Christian life. Their diagnosis of this problem was that many people had been formally and  sacramentally initiated into the Christian faith (i.e. baptised, and perhaps confirmed), but had never been challenged to make a personal response to the Gospel by putting their faith in Christ. Therefore, in their preaching and in their pastoral work, evangelicals then and now have called on people to make this response.

One more characteristic of these early evangelicals was their love for simple forms of worship. They had a distrust for what they saw as excessive ritual, and this caused them to be deeply suspicious of the Oxford Movement when it began a century later. They saw the  danger of an outward participation in ritual without an inward spirit of worship in the heart; they felt that too much ritual could be a distraction from the genuine encounter with God which is at the heart of true worship. G.R. Balleine, in his book A History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England, talks about their kinship with all ‘who have learned to love a simple worship and a spiritual religion’[1].

In the next post on this subject, I’ll say a bit about the condition of the church in England before the eighteenth-century evangelical revival.


[1] G.R. Balleine: A History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England; London; William Clowes and Sons; 1908, 1951. p.1.