“There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and great is my anguish until it is accomplished” (Luke 12:50).
We think of baptism as a spiritual cleansing from sin — original or personal – so we can emerge clean before God. While this symbolism is applicable, the deeper meaning of baptism is that we go down into the waters of death and emerge into a different kind of life as new beings. We leave behind the old self with its ego agendas and self-referencing strategies for personal survival, to take our true place within a relational and communal identity as incorporated into the crucified and risen body of Christ, destined for eternal life within the Trinity. Membership within the church is a sacramental foreshadowing of this divine destiny, when all things will be one in Christ, and Christ in God.
It is an awesome theology, and for this reason easily lost to us as abstract and unimaginable, like arriving by train in a major city bustling with humanity and asking for directions to God. How do we get from here — our faulted and conflicted selves — to there -- our glorified selves? The answer is found in today’s Gospel.
We must pass through a baptism with Christ that feels like dying, a baptism of fire that purifies our authentic self as God sees us in the future from all that is false, illusory and distorted. For Jesus, who was carrying all of sinful humanity in his body, his impending death on the cross would strip away everything that had alienated creation from its Creator. His death would put death to death and liberate the New Creation, new life animated by the Holy Spirit, poured out in gracious, reconciling love to all who opened themselves to it.
What Jesus describes in today’s Gospel is the anguish he knew was coming as new was separated from old. Liberation would mean leaving behind the comfort and familiarity of our former selves, our accommodations and complicities within the brokenness and fierce prejudices of the old order and the status and identity it gave us. We must to plunge into the waters of this new baptism not really knowing just how total its death will be to prepare us for rebirth. We stand before that baptism in rehearsal of our physical deaths, with the same fears and the same challenge to trust God completely as we let go.
Jesus went before us, the firstborn of the New Creation. As our model and pioneer, he surrendered himself completely, was then revealed as the Christ, the anointed One of God. He turns and looks at us from the other side of that baptism and says, “Don't be afraid. Come, follow me.”