Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Sarah Coakley at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, December 8, 2019, the Second Sunday of Advent

Dr. Coakley is Norris-Hulse Professor Emerita at Cambridge University and Assisting Priest and Theologian-in-Residence at the Parish of the Ascension and St Agnes, Washington, DC.

‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’
(Matt 3. 11)

In nomine …

I have not come here today to offer you sweet thoughts for Advent, even though I rejoice in your 175th anniversary and its happy ongoing celebrations.  On the contrary, I want to think with you this morning about the more discomforting topic of fire, and about that scary figure, John the Baptist, whose teaching seems to have been largely concerned with it. This is truly Advent ‘stuff’, and we need to muse on it.

Look closely at today’s gospel text from Matthew, then, and you will see that what John the Baptist offers us, in announcing Jesus’s imminent arrival, is first, of course, his own central call to the ‘baptism of repentance’ for the sake of the coming kingdom; and then a double threat of fire to come.  It’s important to distinguish the two references to fire going on here, and easy to conflate them too quickly. Peruse the text more precisely. First, there is the ‘unquenchable fire’ of judgement for those who merely feign repentance, but are unaware of its seriousness: they, the ‘brood of vipers’ go out to the Jordan and get their baptism, all right – they go through the motions of repentance – but their hearts are not in it, and it’s obvious because there are no spiritual ‘fruits’ to show for it. For them, there is to be a terrifyingly final, judgemental fire. Secondly, however, there is the more mysterious fire promised in virtue of the superior baptism that John predicts that his successor, Jesus, will bring:  he will baptize, says John, not with the water of John’s own baptism (which of course the Christian church actually still uses) but ‘with the Holy Spirit and fire’.

So what are we to make of this? And what is at stake for us this Advent?  Let me offer three, succinct, points to unravel the puzzle.

Baptism of Jesus, from the Rabbula Gospels

First, this very distinctive teaching about ‘baptism by fire’ almost certainly goes back to John the Baptist himself, as mediated by a very early ‘source’ that only Matthew and Luke share in common – termed by the NT scholars ‘Q’ (for Quelle, or ‘source’, in German). Whether there actually was a ‘Q’ text (and thus a ‘Mr Q’, so to speak) or simply an oral tradition with some rather particular theological interests, is perhaps neither here nor there; but what’s interesting is that it preserves this very striking dimension of John’s teaching on judgement, the Holy Spirit, baptism, and fire. Moreover, we find in later Christian tradition that only certain, quite spiritually demanding, writers and circles particularly take up this fiery theme seriously in relation to baptism and the Holy Spirit:  slightly outré monastic groups associated with fiery ecstatic prayer on the edges of the Greek Empire in the fifth century (represented in the so-called ‘Macarian Homilies’); or the wonderfully creative Syriac-speaking monk in the early 6th century who illustrated the so-called ‘Rabbula gospels’ with a picture of Jesus’s baptism by John with a sheet of flame descending on Christ alongside the dove; or – supremely and much later in the Western tradition – the teaching of St John of the Cross, that to aspire to ‘union’ with Christ, as all Christians should, in his view – is to be thrown into a crucible of purifying flames, to be burnt up in order for our sins to be spat out, just as imperfections in a log are gradually ejected in the fire, so that our one, imperfect chunk of wood may finally be fused into the consuming fire of God’s love.

So, secondly, why is this distinctive teaching about transformative, purgative, baptismal, fire-in-the-Spirit so hard for us to take on, even now? Let me suggest that it is because we have over the years concocted an idolatry which American Episcopalians are perhaps particularly subject to (though we are by no means alone); and that is the very subtle idolatry of enunciating God’s (so-called) ‘unconditional love’ as an easy and ‘cheap grace’ answer to all problematic theological questions relating to the profundity of our own sin; in short we cannot stand to acknowledge our overwhelming need for repentance and ‘fiery’ transformation-in-the-Spirit. So perhaps we should now code-name this subterfuge the theory not of ‘unconditional love’, but of ‘unconditional lurve’; and I think you know what I mean:  the idea has become a sentimental and self-deluding mantra, a refusal to face precisely what John the Baptist meant when he preached that the Holy Spirit of Jesus’s baptism is fire. ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’; and that is precisely because it cannot leave us unchanged, but burnt, moulded, chastened, reformulated, and purified … if, that is, we will cooperate with the fiery power of the Spirit in our lives. We need repentance, we need sacramental confession, we need deepened prayer, we need to be changed. William Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury in the WWII years, put it thus, in his celebrated and fearless book, Christus Veritas (1924), chastising those who, even in those days, underplayed the reality and destructiveness of sin: ‘there is a real antagonism of God’, he writes, ‘against the sinner so long as he continues in his sin. It is true, of course, that God loves the sinner while He hates the sin. But that is a shallow psychology which regards the sin as something merely separate from the sinner, which he can lay aside like a suit of clothes. My sin is the wrong direction of my will; and my will is just myself so far as I am active. If God hates the sin, what He hates is not an accretion attached to my real self; it is myself, as that self now exists. He knows I am capable of conversion … He loves me even while I sin … but it cannot be said too strongly that there is a wrath of God against me as sinning …. And therefore, though he longs to forgive, He cannot do so unless my will is turned from its sinful direction into conformity with His, or else there is at work some power which is capable of effecting that change in me’ (p. 258). Yet that power, of course, as we now see, is precisely the inexorably fiery power of the Holy Spirit, already given to us in our baptism.

Thirdly and finally, then. A thought now presses inexorably (or I hope it does for you too):  I started by making a rhetorical distinction, based precisely on today’s gospel text, between the final, judgemental fire against the ‘brood of vipers’ who were the Sadducees and Pharisees, and the baptismal fire promised to all Jesus’s followers in the Holy Spirit.  But now we begin to see that they are perhaps but two sides of the same coin.   Recall T. S. Eliot’s ‘Dove Descending Breaks the Air’, a poetic meditation precisely on John of the Cross’s teaching on mystical union, which ends: ‘We only live, only suspire, consumed by either fire or fire’ – that is, consumed either by the fire of divine judgement, or by the purifying fire of the Spirit. Both are the impress of the inexorable and eternal presence of God’s love, always on offer. But in the way of our response or lack of it this is experienced either as final divine judgement or as equally divine, transformative, grace. The Spirit is always there to lead and allure and enable us; but ultimately the choice is ours:  God does not bludgeon us, because our freedom is too precious to Him. Step once more freely this year, then, into this purifying fire, with courage, steadfastness and hope, for – if John the Baptist is right – it is your baptismal birthright.

My dear Advent friends, Advent is no time for sleep, as St Paul reminds us, no time for evasion from the extraordinarily demanding pressure of divine love that once again this season asks of us nothing less than everything.  Unconditional ‘lurve’?  No, not ‘lurve, actually’, in the sentimental ‘Christimas’-film mode; but ‘actually love’ – the consuming fire of divine love which beckons us this Advent once more into its purifying flames. The founders of this church 175 years ago were serious Christians, who wanted to be changed-in-God, and for society to change with them; and you are their inheritors in that quest for holiness that God ever holds out to us in all the particular vicissitudes, agonies and joys of our lives. For ‘he [has] baptize[d] you with the Holy Spirit and fire’. Amen.