Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Water Before Table? Or Not?

In a previous posting I raised the question of what baptism might look like, or at least be understood, in the context of the practice of the Open Table. If all are invited to the Lord’s Table, where does that leave baptism? As I’ve noted in previous essays I am part of a Believer Baptism tradition. It is a position that I have come to embrace. I believe that it has a strong biblical foundation, but I understand that the infant baptism tradition has a long pedigree.

I’m writing this essay on the afternoon of Pentecost Sunday. It is on the Day of Pentecost that the Spirit falls on the church leading to a display of the Spirit’s presence that leads to a sermon by Peter. People ask Peter about the steps needed to be taken to be saved, and Peter offers this formula – repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s a simple process that offers a strong foundation to the Christian experience. In Romans 6, Paul dives deeper into the meaning of baptism. He suggests that baptism connects us with Jesus. That is, we identify ourselves completely with Jesus’ own experience of death, burial, and resurrection. The actual process of immersion beautifully illustrates this act of identification. We experience and burial as we enter the water, and we experience Jesus’ resurrection as we come out of the water.

As we consider the meaning of baptism in the 21st century, especially when it involves adults who have decided to become part of the Christian community, baptism serves as a sign of union with Christ.  Church of Christ theologian John Mark Hicks offers this vision that I think is helpful.
Our union with Christ means that his experience becomes our own. We are not only baptized into his death, but die with him in that baptism as we are plunged into death itself. Our old humanity is crucified and buried with Christ just as Christ’s own Adamic humanity was crucified and buried. Jesus was raised as a new human, free from death itself. So, also, we are raised a new humanity free from the guilt and power of sin as well as from the dominion of death. Our union with the death of Christ is also our union with his resurrected life. We rise from the watery grave to live a new life. [Hicks, John Mark (2014-04-27). Enter the Water, Come to the Table (Kindle Locations 977-981). Abilene Christian University Press. Kindle Edition.]
Union with Christ means that Jesus’ life experiences (including death, burial, and resurrection) become our own. With him we become a new person.

Baptism, as I’ve noted before, has a variety of meanings and purposes, but ultimately it’s about union with Christ. Even becoming a church member through baptism involves in a sacramental way union with Christ. In baptism we become part of the Body of Christ. As Paul tells the Corinthians:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we are all made to drink one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).

Baptism is more than a rite of passage or the necessary first step to taking communion. In this new day communion will often come before baptism. We do experience union with Christ at the Table, but in baptism we consciously seek to unite ourselves with Christ. The Table is the first step toward union, which takes place as we enter the water and then rise again with Christ.  Baptism allows us the opportunity to make this choice to fully identify with the one who died, was buried, and was raised by God so that we might taste the blessings of union with Christ.


John said...

I am sorry but I just don't buy it. Baptism for me is not about joining with Jesus in his experience of death and Resurrection. First let me say that Jesus' death and Resurrection are his unique experiences which are not accessible to me even on a metaphorical level. To try to understand Jesus death and Resurrection as something that I can experience even on a metaphorical level seems to me serves only to minimize what he experienced and to overstate what is authentically accessible for me as a human being.

Alternately, I like the the Pauline metaphor of the Israelites going through the waters of the Red Sea or the metaphor of Israelites crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. I also find the Johannine metaphor of being born again as far more attractive and accessible, and thus more helpful than the notion of reexperiencing the death, crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus.

More than that, I understand baptism in a different way, perhaps best described as 'charismatic,' that is I understand that baptism is an anointment. By which I mean it is where the new Christian is christened and/or anointed, and in this way brought into the community of Christians as a fully embraced, fully endowed, participant; with baptism one now fully claims their "inalienable" personhood as one of God's chosen people.

When understood in this way infant baptism and adult, believers baptism allow for different valuable conceptualizations of the christening/anointing process. Both fully embrace the idea of an anointment or christening of the new Christian into the community and of the responsibility for the growth and development of the new Christian embraced by the infant's community and/or by the immersed "adult" believer. Both honor the participation of God in the process.

Whatever metaphor one uses, teaching possibilities are offered. It just seems to me that the metaphor of "anointing" is more genuine and offers a more authentic and accessible understanding of what is being experienced by the baptized, especially among youth who are typically are the ones being immersed.

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

I know some, perhaps many, experience baptism as a 'death and resurrection' experience, but that experience is just not accessible to me. And then again I have to ask how Jesus' own baptism affects our understanding of the institution of baptism. Jesus' baptism is rooted in the teachings of John the Baptist and it predates Jesus' own death and resurrection. So then what are we to make of this and how do these factors inform our teaching.

Bob Cornwall said...

the good thing about Scripture is that it offers a variety of metaphors and concepts that we can explore. This is true for both the Eucharist and Baptism. Paul's linkage of baptism to Jesus death and resurrection is but one. The idea, as I see it, is that in baptism we are caught up in Jesus, and that includes his death and resurrection.

As for John's baptism, it was one of repentance, with Jesus' baptism being one of the Spirit. Peter brings the two together in Acts 2. What we probably should remember in all of this is that Paul's writings predate the Gospels, and each writer has a different audience and purpose.

I hope to more writing on Baptism as I think it is important that we look at how it figures in our current context, especially in light of the practice of the Open Table.