There is only one time in my life when I have eaten at a Hilton Hotel. It was after my ordination service. Well, why not do things in style on an occasion like that?
Actually, the truth was more prosaic. We had pizzas in a lounge area. Two couples from my church had booked a cheap deal at the Leeds Hilton for the weekend of my ordination at the Methodist Conference, and they invited my parents and me back as a way of fixing something that had gone wrong. My sister and brother-in-law had booked into another hotel, but never turned up at the ordination service. Only later did we discover that my sister had been in A & E the previous day, having got a fish bone stuck in her throat. In those days, few people had mobile phones, so we weren’t able to discover what had happened until after the service, when we found a payphone.
So that is my abiding memory of my ordination – pizzas at the Leeds Hilton. Well, apart from a sense of relief that all the years of testing and suspicion from the church authorities were finally over.
You might expect a group of ministers to trade ordination stories, but why raise that subject in an ordinary sermon when the Church only ordains a few of her members?
Because we are all in some sense ‘ordained’ by God to minister in his name. We call it baptism. The baptism of Jesus, which we read about today, was effectively his ordination, his commissioning. And although we seem so far removed from Jesus’ unique status as the Son of God, there are sufficient similarities between the themes of his baptismal ordination and ours. In particular, let’s think about how Jesus’ baptism equips himself for the work of the kingdom, and therefore how God equips us.
The first theme is less obvious in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism than the other Gospels. It’s the theme of identification with sinners. Here in Luke, John lays out clearly that his baptism is a sign of repentance, and that it must be accompanied by a lifestyle that demonstrates such a turning away from sin. It’s therefore surprising that Jesus, who is universally presented in the New Testament as sinless, desires John’s baptism. The other Gospels record a conversation where John says to him, ‘It should be the other way round: you should baptise me.’ Jesus replies, ‘Let it be so to fulfil all righteousness.’ Luke omits that conversation, but still has Jesus undergoing a baptism of repentance, despite his sinlessness.
What are we to make of this? The classic Christian explanation down the centuries has been that Jesus received John’s baptism as a sign of identifying with sinful humanity. His baptism foreshadows the Cross, when he would die, representing sinful humankind as its substitute.
Jesus’ death for sinners was, of course, unique and unrepeatable. Unique, because only he as the sinless God-man could offer it, and unrepeatable because he accomplished everything at Calvary. So how could this be a model for us, when we can’t do that?
In a lesser way, is the answer. We too are called to identify with sinners. It shouldn’t be too difficult, because we are sinners ourselves! The temptation we have as forgiven sinners who are called to pursue a holy life is to lapse into a self-righteous attitude that looks down on others, disdains them and leads to us separating ourselves from them. It leads to situations where people think they shouldn’t attend a church, because they’re not good enough.
This has application for us, inside and outside the church. Inside the church, it affects the way we care and pray. There is more than one example in Scripture of people praying for the people of God, and not saying, ‘They have sinned,’ but ‘We have sinned.’ Daniel prays for God’s people that way, while in exile in Babylon, even though he was not responsible for the exile. He identifies with sinners in the family of God, rather than staying loftily above them. His prayer makes a difference.
Outside the church, identification with sinners is critical, too. It’s no wonder that the great Sri Lankan church leader, D T Niles, defined evangelism as ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’. The Gospel is of course urgent and essential, but as fellow sinners we need to remember that we are beggars, too. It’s just that we’ve found bread.
In every aspect of ministry, then, as Christians, both within and without the church, identification with sinners is an important principle enshrined here in Jesus’ baptism.
The second aspect of Jesus’ baptism that equips him for ministry is that he receives the Holy Spirit. So often we emphasise the fact that Jesus did what he did and said what he said because of who he was – the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God. If that is all we do, then we create an understanding of Jesus that says, he had an unique status which enabled him to do certain things, but we don’t have that standing and therefore we can’t begin to approach doing any of the things he did.
But look what happens here. While he is praying, heaven is opened (verse 21) and the Holy Spirit descends on him in bodily form like a dove (verse 22). Only after this does his ministry proper begin. Sure, there have been signs of what is to come with the incident in the Temple when he was twelve (2:41-52), because Jesus knows who he is, but the actual ministry of good news to the poor and broken only starts after this incident. Next, the Holy Spirit will eject him into the wilderness to fast and face temptation. Then he will announce his work in the Nazareth synagogue by reading Isaiah 61, beginning with the words, ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me’. Following that, he will conduct his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit.
So whatever the difference between Jesus and us because he is the Second Person of the Trinity, eternally begotten of the Father, there is a strong connection between his ministry and ours. Jesus, for all his divine status, could not and did not begin his ministry until he had been empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus, the Son of God, conducted his ministry as a man in the power of the Spirit.
Exactly our call, in other words.
I find it significant that Jesus receives the Spirit while he ‘was praying’ (verse 21). As one American United Methodist minister puts it, ‘being on your knees can help you walk on air.’ He goes on to say:
The life and health of a church are directly proportional to the prayer life of the congregation. The praying church is the healthiest church. When parishioners spend time in prayer, they are a more compassionate and happier people. Their spirit permeates the congregation. When people spend time in communion with God, the sweetness of the Holy Spirit radiates throughout the church.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the early Pentecostals sought what they called ‘the baptism in the Holy Spirit’ at ‘tarrying meetings’ – that is, meetings where they waited prayerfully upon God. While the gift of the Spirit is a gift of grace, and I also do not want to suggest that the Spirit is absent from us, I think it is also true that the Spirit is more manifest among those who show the greatest seriousness and passion to receive and depend upon him. Too often we operate on auto-pilot, earning the old barb that ‘if the Holy Spirit were withdrawn from the church, ninety five per cent of activities would continue just the same as before.’ Jesus didn’t operate that way. He challenges us to be prayerfully dependent upon the Spirit.
The third and final aspect of Jesus’ baptism that equips him for ministry is an affirmation of who he is. Listen to what the voice from heaven says to him:
‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Verse 22)
Both the theological colleges I attended had weekly communion services. Often we had well-known guest preachers. Yet I only remember one sermon from each college. From my time in Manchester I remember Trevor Huddleston preaching on words from Romans 12, ‘Hate what is evil.’ From my time in Bristol I remember Tom Smail preaching on … the baptism of Christ.
He came to us at around May one year, just before the end of year exams, when many of the student body were fraught over revision or leaving college and beginning ministry. He was one of the few who did not treat the congregation in the chapel as a bunch of soon-to-be-clergy; rather, he majored on this verse: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
And what he said about it was so healing I remember it to this day. He talked about being loved unconditionally by the Father as a child of God. There was no better message for a stressed group of people. You are loved. Period. It is the grace of God. You have been adopted into his family out of sheer grace. Jesus had not even begun his ministry here, but already the Father was ‘well pleased’ with him. The costliest acts of Jesus’ obedience were still to come, but here the Father is already ‘well pleased’ with him. He embarks onto his public ministry affirmed in his identity as the Son of God, who is loved by his Father and pleasing to him.
Now translate that into our lives. Could it be that God says something similar to us, and that it is the foundation of healthy ministry. If you know you are a child of God, you have an identity that will sustain you when people attack you or manipulate you, as surely they will. If you know you are loved unconditionally by the God of boundless grace, you will not measure your acceptability to that God on the basis of your performance. So if something goes well, all the glory goes to him. If you are judged a failure, by yourself or others, that makes no change to the love the Father lavishes on you.
Our security as Christians is not in our achievements or our popularity: both will wax and wane and are not to be trusted as accurate measures of our discipleship. No: our security as we launch out to serve God in Christ is in the fact that we have been adopted by the Father into his family as his beloved children, and his grace means he is pleased with us before we ever do anything for him. The call to identify with sinners is a challenging one; so is the call to depend prayerfully upon the Holy Spirit. But the security to walk this way is in the unconditional love of the Father.
 Royal Speidel, Evangelism in the Small Membership Church; title of chapter 7.
 Ibid., p 57.
Going off at a tangent from a post by Pete Phillips, Fresh Expressions is a joint initiative of the Church of England and the Methodist Church to support ‘new ways of being church’. In a strangely modernist way they have identified twelve categories of new expressions of church!
But the thing is this: the historic denominations are increasingly interested in new forms of church. Is it for creative reasons? Is it desperate? Is it the Holy Spirit? What seems to be being swept under the carpet is the huge potential for clashes of values.
For example, won’t we have to start facing some sacred cows such as entrenched doctrines of ordination? Don’t existing ones play the power card in a way that postmoderns and Jesus-followers should be highly suspicious of? You don’t need to go the whole ontological way that the Anglicans do, just take the Methodist view that although ordination confers no separate priesthood, nevertheless it is ‘representative’ (which is pretty close to specialised priesthood) and it confers presidency at the sacraments on the grounds of ‘good order’. That may have been a pragmatic way of restricting presidency to the presbyters in years gone by without officially conceding a sacerdotal approach, but how does it read now? Let’s play reader-response in the 21st century with it. Who can keep good order? Normally only presbyters? What does that say about everybody else?
(Of course Methodism now allows ‘extended communion’ where authorised people can take communion into homes. It started out as something for the sick, but the Big Bad Rule Book can be interpreted to allow this for home groups. Nevertheless it’s only seen as delegated from the presiding minister at a Sunday service, and the people still need to be authorised.)
How far we have come from a Last Supper modelled on the Jewish Passover that was celebrated in the family. And how far we have come from a Saviour who took a towel and a bowl of water.
Although you can’t say the emerging church is all of one mind on every issue (it’s a ‘conversation’, it likes to think) nevertheless it’s pretty clear that it embraces an understandable postmodern suspicion of the link between truth and power, and it is deeply attracted to the radical picture of Jesus in the Gospels.
So this post is really to ask whether the emerging churches and the historic denominations can fully embrace each other. Either there will be compromise of principles on one side or the other (you can bet that those who still perceive themselves as powerful will expect the others to conform to them). Or there will be persistent conflict: the romance will break up. Or the new wine will break the old wineskins.
Someone please tell me I’ve got it wrong, and why. But my spiritual gift of pessimism comes into play on this issue.