On the day of Pentecost, the people gathered in the streets of Jerusalem asked Peter what they needed to do to be saved. Peter told them that if they would repent and be baptized, they would receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38). That passage of scripture has been a foundation stone for Disciples life from the beginnings of the movement. In some circles, just giving the biblical reference Acts 2:38 is like saying John 3:16. Everybody knows what it says.
Baptism comes up again in Romans 6, where Paul is in the middle of a conversation about sin, law, grace, and the Christian life. In Romans 5, Paul wrote that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” It seems that there were some Christians in Rome, who believed that grace was an eternal get out of jail free card, so why not throw caution to the wind. After all, God will forgive. There’s a name for this belief – “antinomianism.” That’s Greek for “no law.”
While we value freedom, after all the 4th of July is on the horizon, freedom needs to be accompanied by responsibility. As many college freshmen learn, too much freedom, too soon, can create problems. College life offers lots of temptations – especially if you get into a frat – or so they say. I don’t know this first hand, because I went to a Christian college. There were rules to follow, and we broke some of them. Some of my friends, some of whom are now pastors of note, even pushed the boundaries of acceptable behavior, but that was nothing compared to what went on across the street at the University of Oregon!
In preaching a gospel of grace, Paul opened the door of freedom, but he also spoke of responsibility. So, when it comes to the question whether we should “continue in sin in order that grace may abound,” Paul offers a very strong “NO!”
Getting back to baptism, what does it mean? What is its purpose? It is a sign, but what is it a sign of?
We Disciples have historically practiced “believers’ baptism.” We have looked to Acts 2:38 for guidance. Repentance precedes baptism, and with baptism comes forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We immerse because that’s what baptism means in Greek. Founder Alexander Campbell put it this way:
Therefore, none but those who have first believed the testimony of God and have repented of their sins, and that have been intelligently immersed into his death, have the full and explicit testimony of God, assuring them of pardon. [Alexander Campbell, Christian System, in Royal Humbert, ed., Compend of Alexander Campbell's Theology, (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1961), 195-96.]
Today Disciples practice “open membership,” which means that we recognize that what happens in other faith communities when they baptize carries the same meaning as our practice. In doing this we recognize that these other faith communities are fully Christian.
Turning to Romans 6, we’re reminded that when we’re baptized we’re not just going through an initiation ceremony for a church, we’re identifying ourselves with Christ. In traditions that practice infant baptism, promises made by parents are confirmed by those who wish to identify themselves fully with Jesus and his community.
Paul teaches that in baptism we identify ourselves with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. This is illustrated in the act of being immersed in the waters of baptism. You might say that when you’re immersed, it’s as if you’re being drowned, especially if the preacher wants to make sure that every hair on your head is completely wet. This act of being buried allows us to identify with the cross of Jesus. By identifying with his death we experience dying to the old life. At death, you’re free from all debts and obligations. Creditors can go after family, but not you.
Of course, we don’t stay buried in the water. We rise from the waters of baptism, and as we do, we identify with the resurrection of Jesus. So, as theologian Karl Barth puts it: “The man who emerges from the water is not the same man who entered it. One man dies and another is born” (Epistle to the Romans, (Oxford, 1968, p. 193). We see something of this image in the Gospel of John, where Jesus speaks of being born again. To put it in economic terms, baptism is a bit like bankruptcy. When you go through bankruptcy, you get to start over. Now, the key, moving forward is not to get yourself in that predicament again!
According to Paul, sin defines the old life, and baptism serves to break its hold on our lives. But what is sin? Well, it’s more than simply doing the wrong thing. It’s more than breaking the rules. No, sin is more basic than that. Sin is our human tendency to mess things up. It has to do with the orientation of our lives. Paul wants us to understand that when we’re baptized, we change the orientation of our lives. From now on, we live in Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.
While I’m not a big believer in the idea that people die, go to heaven, and come back to life, I do believe that people can have mystical experiences during life and death moments that change their lives. There are too many death bed stories of people, seemingly having died and then having a life altering experience, which in their mind is the gift of a second chance in life. Getting that second chance, they want to live life differently.
Although it’s not quite the same situation, isn’t that the point of the story of Ebenezer Scrooge? Three ghosts take him on a journey that allows him to look at his life, and how he has interacted with others. He also sees his future – the future of a lonely and despised individual. Facing his own grave, he asks whether these are shadows that must occur, or whether he can change his future. Well, you know the rest of the story – he decides to make the changes, and it’s said of him that no one celebrated Christmas quite like him.
And so it is with baptism. In Christ, we choose to identify ourselves with his life, his death, and his resurrection. It is the means by which we signal our desire to follow Jesus, so that even if no one goes with us, we won’t turn back. The cross lies before us, the world behind us.
Now Paul knows human nature. He knows that baptism doesn’t make us instantly holy. He knows that it is a lifelong process, with perfection waiting for another lifetime. But, in baptism, as we identify ourselves with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we allow him to define our identity.
Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime sacramental event. We come to the Lord’s Table weekly, but baptism normally happens just once. But, every day we experience spiritually a baptismal moment. Because we continually make decisions that aren’t in sync with the desires of God, even after we’re baptized, we experience spiritually the washing of the Spirit and we start over with God. We can do this because God’s grace and unconditional love makes it possible. It’s just – we shouldn’t take this love and grace for granted. Baptism needs to lead to a change of life, or it is simply a meaningless ritual.
There’s another image that can help us make sense of our baptisms. The Exodus image stands behind the conversation here in Romans 6, and Paul brings it out explicitly in 1 Corinthians 10. So, even as the people of Israel walked through the sea and came out on the other side, so do we. And even as the waters of the sea returned to their original location, in baptism there is no going back. Whatever the enticements of Egypt, going back means a return to slavery. Water is the dividing line, separating slavery from the promised land.
As you know, the journey to the promised land wasn’t easy. The people wandered around the desert for forty years, because they couldn’t let go of the past. The generation that crossed the sea didn’t get to walk across the Jordan. That belonged to a new generation that didn’t know Egypt.
In baptism, however, we walk through the sea and we cross through the river into the land of promise. There we find God’s abundance. Yes, when we cross the sea we discover the fullness of grace, which covers our continuing relapses. Still, baptism has changed our orientation. Our allegiance belongs to Jesus. So, shall we sin so that grace might abound? No – let us walk in newness of life, letting Jesus set the agenda.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
June 22, 2014