In the Lectionary

January 13, Baptism C (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; Acts 8:14-17)

About that baptism by fire

When I was growing up, my Baptist pastors referred frequently to Jesus’ full-immersion baptism in the Jordan River, but I don’t remember hearing much at all about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I learned a bit about Spirit baptism when I visited a Pentecostal church during my college years. But I didn’t learn about baptism by fire until I left the Baptists for the Mennonites.

While it’s not discussed much in polite Mennonite conversation, baptism by fire is part of the church’s formal teaching. This is, of course, a faith group that traces its ancestry back to martyrs who were burned at the stake. Contemporary Mennonites are quick to point out that baptism by fire doesn’t require actual fire, or any other sort of gruesome death. It just means that you are theoretically willing to accept such a death, should it come to that.

The coming one, says John, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John doesn’t really explain what this means, but we can imagine where people later developed their understandings. In Acts, Jesus himself tells the disciples that they will soon be baptized by the Holy Spirit. Then Pentecost comes, accompanied by speaking in tongues (if not necessarily the kind most commonly practiced today). And I imagine that any of the faithful who witnessed a fellow believer burned at the stake couldn’t help but think of the promised baptism by fire.