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Monday, August 13, 2012

Baptism: What It is and Why It Matters

Ever wonder why Christians have such an odd ritual of initiation? We take people and put them under water or we take babies and sprinkle them with water, we daub them with oil and then we say, “Welcome to the body of Christ!” (The most unusual baptism I think I've ever seen was in a Mennonite Church. There they took a whole pitcher of water and poured it on the heads of the ones to be baptised. It looked like fun for the pastor, not so much for the baptisees.) We understand baptism best when we understand a few things about the Old Testament. First, we understand that God made the world and “it was good” and He made you “in His image.” In spite of our sins, the world that God made is still good. In spite of our sins, we are still made in His image, as great-great grandchildren of Adam and Eve. Secondly, because of sin, mankind ruined the world God created and ruined the image of God that is in everyone: "Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth" (Gen. 6:11-13). In a sense, Noah’s flood was the first baptism. St. Peter alludes to this in I Peter 3. God enveloped the earth with water to purify it from sin. Thirdly, ever since the Flood, washing was associated with removal of sin. The Law (Torah) is full of prescribed washings: for priests, for the people for the animals being sacrificed, for the altars, the candle stands, etc. These washings were to be repeated over and over again. Why? Because sin was/is an enduring condition. It happened and it happens again and again. You and I know this to be true, don't we? We make our resolutions to God to 'never say that again' or 'never go there again' or 'be more holy', etc., only to find that by the next morning, we have failed. The endurance of sin outlasts the endurance of our own wills. Fourthly, Jesus Christ took on the sins of the whole world, "the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God" (I Peter 3:18). As the Apostle continues, he teaches us that baptism connects us with the resurrection of Christ. The symbolism the of baptismal waters is clear: into the water, as Christ entered the earth, out of the water, as He arose from the dead. Just as Noah and his family exited the ark into a world untainted by sin, just as Jesus Christ rose the Victor over sin and death, so we rise from the waters of baptism to lead a life that is new, washed, and directed.
So then, what is Baptism to use and why does it matter? Baptism is an expression of Faith. It is an expression of one's personal dedication to Jesus Christ, or, in the case of infants, the faith of the child's parents. * It is "New Birth" in John 3 (sometimes called ‘regeneration’). * In Acts 2, it is a matter of Acceptance. The crowds understood St. Peter’s sermon and cried out, "What must we do to be saved?" * In Acts 8, Faith is seen as understanding who Jesus Christ is. The account of St. Philip and the Ethiopian is a good story of people finding Christ by a growing understanding of God's word. * Acts 9 demonstrates Faith as Conversion. St. Paul’s dramatic conversion on the Damascus Road shows how some of us need to be knocked to the ground in order to be raised up by God Who loves us. * Faith as "Salvation" is seen in Romans 10:9, 10: “Confession is made unto salvation.” Whatever the experience of your faith may be, Baptism acknowledges the call of Jesus Christ in your life and it is united to the faith of the Church and around the world by the washing action of Baptism. That is why it is important to also understand that Baptism is not merely an action of your personal experience of faith in Christ. It is necessarily also an expression of the Faith of the Whole Church. This is why at Baptism we re-state the Baptismal Creed, commonly known as The Apostles' Creed: I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Make of Heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into Hell. The third day He rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven And is seated at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen. While we affirm the Faith of the Church in the Nicene Creed at the Eucharist and on other occasions, the straightforward simplicity of the Apostles' Creed seems to be best for the straightforward simplicity of Baptism. We affirm the faith of the Church at Baptism as a way of expressing that we are not Christians just out on our own, doing our own thing, "just Jesus and me." We affirm that faith is a personal experience, but belief is a corporate experience. We declare that being a Christian means something, God and to us. We agree that many saints have gone on before us and will come after us, not based on our experience of faith, but of the timeless faith of Christianity. A friend of mine once described Baptism in the context of rock climbers. As climbers ascend the face of a cliff, they tap small toe holds into the cracks of the rocks. These toe holds not only assist their climb: they also mark the way for those who follow after them. Where there are no toe holds, there is likely a good reason not to go that way. And when the climber reaches the top of the rock, exhausted, tired and sweaty, he can look back down at those toe holds and recall just exactly where his journey has taken him. Finally, Baptism is "faith in action." We sometimes associate "faith in action" with charitable works, good deeds, and a sort of 'show me' religion. While these are good, true faith in action is to follow Jesus Christ and to follow Him into the waters of baptism: "Then said they unto him, "What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?" Jesus answered and said unto them, "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent" (John 6:28-29). We may do many great things in our lives, many good works to assuage our guilt, many noble humanitarian acts to help our brother in need. But true faith in action is to follow the Lord Jesus Christ and to be His disciple. And it all starts with that odd ritual of initiation we call Baptism. Discussion Questions: What is your experience of faith in Jesus Christ? In what ways will baptism mark your faith experience? Coming next week: Faith: What God Does for Us in Baptism

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