Sunday, June 22, 2008

Dead or Alive

Dead or Alive

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder

Romans 6:1b-11

June 22, 2008

Any of you who found yourselves seated near the front when I have conducted a service of baptism here may have noticed that I believe in the liberal use of water to make baptism an observable act of the church. If we are going to carry physical elements in here — water, bread, wine — then I believe we should take advantage of the symbolism they bring by making them as visible as possible. It is the reason we use a whole loaf of bread to break at communion and pass around, the reason we pour out the wine in order to hear it was well as taste it. So I believe in using lots of water in baptism.

A couple of years ago, after I had given one youngster in my confirmation class a good sloshing, someone said to me on their way out of the church, “Too bad you spilled that water during the service, but thank goodness it doesn’t stain the carpet, so no harm was done.” I should probably have responded – especially in light of what Paul has to say in Romans 6 – that it was not a spill, not an accident; when I slosh water during baptism, we are – all of us together – engaged in an act that, while it is a happy celebration, is also very serious, and very intentional.

In our culture, many of us have grown up with some curious and even non-biblical ideas about what baptism is. I have sometimes heard it referred to by Presbyterians as “christening,” which, while I would never say that is an unacceptable term, I would share with you that that word has mostly to do with naming, which is why we use it when we christen or name ships, and why I prefer to say we baptize believers and their children.

One writer, commenting on the subject of baptism, said that it is a sacrament which demands enough water to die in.1 While it is said that people have died in an inch of water, most of us would agree that enough water to die in would demand a significant amount. Why enough to die in particularly? Because Paul has spoken of our baptism in Christ, saying, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Have you ever thought of baptism, that sweet sacrament we celebrate so often with infants as well as youth and adults, in quite this way, as an initiation of sorts into the death of Jesus?

Culturally, baptism is often conceived as a sweet, sentimental sort of action, while the New Testament sees it as nothing of the sort. Someone once said that the knowledge of Christ imparted through baptism is the bath house variety, it is something almost too uncouth to bring up at the dinner table, because situations demanding polished social manners cannot bear too much talk of earthly things. In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, on being informed that her two grown nephews were soon to be baptized, the noble auntie objected that such a thing must be regarded as gross and irreligious. If the bath house Christ, with sloshing pales of water down in the front of our otherwise orderly and tidy sanctuary, leaves us uncomfortable, then it could just be that that is precisely what it should do. Remember that Jesus himself had a rather consistently unsettling effect on most of his contemporaries.

So baptism, in the way Paul speaks of it here, is not so much a christening, that is, not a naming, and certainly not a modest “dampening” with a thimble full of water, not a sweet little entitlement of childhood. One other thing it clearly is not. It is not exclusively an event of the distant past. For many of us, our own baptism may be an unremembered act, performed on our behalf long before we were of an age to have any idea what was happening, by an adult who then presented our parents with what may now be a dusty certificate lying all but forgotten in the bottom of a remote drawer in a neglected cabinet somewhere. Others of us, who may have been baptized after reaching what is commonly referred to as “the age of reason,” if there could possibly ever be such a thing, may remember their baptism as a significant moment in their lives, but one that is in the past, set now among dozens of others of life’s significant moments. But this passage from Romans helps us see that baptism is a life long calling. To paraphrase Martin Luther, baptism is a once-and-for-all sacrament that takes your whole life to finish.

I have often thought that churches in other traditions have a good idea in placing water at entry points into the sanctuary. That way, every time a worshiper enters the sanctuary, he or she is immediately reminded of the fact that their baptism still stands, that they are in the midst of the household of faith that is drawn together around the baptismal bowl. On the other hand, other traditions have a good idea with their immersion tanks built right into the sanctuary. In such places there can be no mistake that baptism can require enough water to drown in.

One pastor friend of mine has settled on a method for helping members of his congregation recall their own baptism whenever the sacrament is celebrated. After the person is baptized, the congregation sings a hymn while he walks up and down the aisle of the church, dipping his hand into the bowl and flinging a light spray of water over the worshipers. The reaction of the unsuspecting at this moment is amazing to behold. Some duck for cover, some worry about the pages of their hymnal but most see the sense of it. This gives the sacrament a sense of constant presence among the people. The baptismal font in my previous congregation was given to the church in 1909 by the Steusloff family in memory of Johanna, almost 100 years ago. It was so long ago, no one remembers her or her family in the church today. No one, that is, except for the One who is the Lord of baptism. I always enjoyed reflecting on a vision of all the thousands of people presented at that font from that time to this, all lined up at that font in a line that would stretch out the door and down the street and around the block, people who had been received – one by one – as precious subjects of God’s love right at that very font. The thought reminds me of the presence of the great cloud of witnesses described in the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament.

Some in our world think it strange that we keep a cross and a baptismal font in the sanctuary, but Paul shows us that cross and baptism are intimately related. Why should baptism demand enough water to drown in? To reveal what Paul said to us: “...we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Death to the old, giving life for the new. Paul seems to have a curious view of death. We tend to think of it as a finality, an end of the road. But Paul carries around the idea that death leads to something else, and not just a life after a physical death. Paul suggests that we go through deaths in this life, that we might be more alive, still in this life. When we baptize sweet little babies on a Sunday morning, who among us is led to thoughts of death? But in this way the Bible is realistic about life in ways that our own culture seems not to be. In a pessimistic moment, we acknowledge that all of us are born to die. Our culture would want to deny that, want to see baptism only as a sweet, quaint little rite of passage, a harmless little ritual.

The symbolism of death with Christ suggests that with him we die to so much that the world holds dear because we want to be in touch and in line with what Christ holds dear. So we die to the world that we may live to Christ.

I took part in home-building missions in Mexico for ten days every summer for almost 15 years. The world might wonder why anyone would set aside their own life for ten days of discomfort sleeping on the hard ground, with days of hard labor. But the body of Christ knows that in attending to the needs of others, and especially of the poor, we attend to that which is close to the very heart of God. We die to this tiny portion of our lives that we may live to Christ. I remembered that death to our own lives one summer when we baptized one of our church’s beautiful young people there in Mexico.

Once, during the turbulent course of the Viet Nam war, a college chaplain I know was conversing with a group of students on campus when one, thinking of that war, said, “There is nothing in the world that is worth dying for.” To that, the chaplain replied, “Well then, since we all must die, that will mean that you will one day be confronted by the absolute necessity of dying for nothing.”

It was a hard word but an honest one. If the only good any of us ever did in the world was to spend a few weekends building a Habitat house, or spending a few summer days in Mexico trying to help lift up some of those who are down-trodden, or to encourage through financial gifts or prayer those who are more able than we are to face the rigors of mission work in far-off places as well as near, if the only good any of us ever did was something like this, then ever after it could never be said of us that we had given our lives for nothing. Today we might do well to remember people in our own Presbyterian Church USA who give their lives for work in Christ’s name in Asia, South America, Africa, on reservations with Native Americans and in remote Amazon jungles. We celebrate them not just because they doo good and helpful work. We celebrate because these missions represent a baptismal reality in the church in which people literally die to their own lives for a time that they might live to the mission and ministry of Christ.

Praise be to God then who gives us his work to do in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1. Aidan Kavanaugh: The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christina Initiaton, Liturgical Press, 1991, Page 179.