BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
Isaiah 43: 1 – 7
Acts 8: 14 – 17
Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22
Some of you know that I love mountain biking and occasionally I’m asked to do a skills clinic – to teach someone the basics. I once had a pair of sisters as pupils and they were wonderful. They started out keen and (critically) obediently. They listened to every word of advice and put it into practice. By the end of the day they were tearing down rutted steep slopes and sharp corners with courage and enjoyment. They were carrying out the fundamentals well.
Their brother, on the other hand, was an altogether different prospect. He was confident he could take on the activity without any coaching and the little I gave him was ignored. Within a short while he had a broken wrist and a badly bruised nose. He found that without carrying out the fundamentals things could become difficult.
Motor cars and buildings need Warrants of Fitness and I believe our faith does as well. It is good to take an active role in examining whether we have the fundamentals properly in place. Sometimes we discover something vital we have never put in place. At other times we discover something we have let slip and need to re-establish.
In the Common Lectionary today the Gospel reading focuses on the Baptism of Christ, and baptism is a good lens with which the inspect some of the fundamentals of the Christian faith.
Baptism is both an initiation rite that is associated with salvation and also a daily choice we make that is associated with discipleship. Both are important.
BAPTISM AS PART OF SALVATION
In Anglican circles we normally don’t have much personal choice about baptism (it happens to us as infants – thank God) but we do have a choice as to whether we will follow Jesus or not.
- Here is a very good question: Are you (and I use the word advisedly here) saved from sin? In other words rescued as Paul says from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son he loves. (Colossians 1: 13). Because Paul makes it quite clear that there are two states of being: one is where we are ruled by darkness and the other where we are ruled by Christ.
Another way of asking this question is, have you consciously asked God to forgive you based on what Christ achieved on the cross, reoriented your life towards God and promised to acknowledge God as the Lord that he is?
I don’t mean just asking God to forgive you for something you’ve done wrong. It’s not about having a list of wrongs and rights we may have done or not done. It’s not about trying to keep a clean slate. That we do in the Confession each Sunday.
I mean asking God for forgiveness for living a life of self-centredness outside of God’s rule and then asking God to change that status by making conscious use of the forgiveness available because of Jesus’ death on the cross and then fully intending to remain under God’s rule. This is a very conscious understanding that we are changing sides.
Just like any kingdom, the kingdom of God’s Son has a king (Jesus) and kings rule. Their subjects are subject to them. In our overwhelmingly secular world we can be uncomfortable with the idea of being subject – understandably so because there is a great amount of abuse of power in a world separated from God. But God is the source of all life and goodness and being subject to God is life-giving (freeing ironically!)
Baptism is viewed as a confirmation of the Covenant Jesus came to establish between humankind and himself. It is intricately tied to salvation – the prime fundamental of the Christian faith.
- Here’s another good question: If you have been baptised but never given yourself over to God, as I have just described, are you a Christian?
In other words, does going through a ritual as a baby make you a Christian? The New Testament has a lot to say about how people become Christians and about how Christians live.
If we have been baptised but don’t evidence any of the becoming and continuing aspects of Christianity, can we call ourselves Christians?
- And a third one: If you have not been baptised but have given yourself over to God, as I described a moment ago, are you a Christian?
If either of those conditions applies to you it is certainly worth thinking and praying about because if the answer is “No,” then it would make obvious sense to rectify that situation and I would be very happy to speak to you about it.
And don’t be fooled into thinking that simply because you may have attended church services for a long time that those two conditions are met – as though these things are taken care of by a process of osmosis. Church attendance on its own no more makes you a Christian than living in a garage makes you a motor car.
These are some of the most important questions to deal with. They get us thinking, not only about eternal consequences, but about how we might walk in fellowship with God right now. The one thing we should not do is ignore them.
BAPTISM AS PART OF DISCIPLESHIP
So baptism is associated with salvation. I once wondered why we needed baptism, but then I was challenged as to why Jesus (the perfect Son of God) needed it. Nobody could provide me with a satisfactory answer as to why Jesus was baptised other than to suggest that he set us an example to follow.
But as I said, baptism has a second function and that has to do with growing in Christ-likeness – which is a form of discipleship. How does that work?
Well, like everything that means anything in the Christian life, this involves faith.
The form of baptism – what does it look like? Well, it’s about dying and rising. The water is a grave image. It’s about being buried under the water and then coming back up out of the water.
We are to follow Jesus in his example of baptism, not simply to undergo a symbolic ritual that has something to do with salvation, but to proclaim that we are associating with him in his death and in his resurrection.
“What does that do?” you may well ask.
Paul tells the church in Rome in Romans 6: 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
The life we lead as Christians is not our own. Ours is crucified and buried. This is a tough pill for our old nature – our anti-Christian nature – to swallow. But when it is swallowed, when we, as it were, move towards Christ, the selfish nature is largely nullified. We emerge on the other side of our decision to put to death our own desires with that surge of spiritual excitement which is the resurrection life of Jesus as we make room for him in the very core of our beings!
Paul puts it this way in Romans 6: 11 – In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
In some ways this is the essence of appropriating the grace of God. If we hang onto our old nature we find ourselves in a legalistic relationship with God – with a sense of him impinging on us and our so-called freedoms which often amount to our rebellious desire to do what we like, when we like. The only way to experience the freedom of Christ is to first put to death our own agendas. Then we are free both to accommodate and rejoice in Christ’s life, for we have more nearly aligned our own life with that of Christ.
In doing so, we become more like him.
The thought of this can be unpleasant to some, but God says
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
43:2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
43:3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
God will always work with us for our good. He will only get rid of those things in us that hinder life and goodness.
So when I by faith, count myself dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus, I consciously put to death what Paul calls the works of the old nature, and consciously align myself with the nature of Christ. In this process I experience Christ’s life (his resurrection life) becoming more and more prominent in me.
It is this process (something I do in faith) that sees me growing gradually more Christ-like.
THE ROLE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT IN BAPTISM.
When Jesus was baptised, we read in Luke 3:22, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. Baptism pleases God!
However when we throw the Holy Spirit into the mix, some people get nervous. But it’s worth noticing who it is at the heart of this. John the Baptist remarks in Luke 3:16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Notice who does the baptising! Jesus does.
A discussion around baptism is useful for examining two of the fundamentals of the Christian faith: salvation and sanctification (the process of growing Christ-like)
- Baptism plays an integral part in salvation. However a conscious commitment to Christ goes hand in hand with baptism.
- Baptism plays a critical part in our growing in our faith – becoming like Jesus – and we do so by considering ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ on an ongoing basis.
- Jesus (and the Holy Spirit) are very much involved in both these central aspects of Christian faith. Jesus, who himself was baptised) is the actual baptiser.
May we all ensure that we are fully engaged in the fuller meaning of baptism.
He is the one who translates us into subjects of his kingdom, and the one who aligns us with the values of the Kingdom. Both these are necessary if we are to carry out the Great Commission – introduce others to the kingdom – which is the prime purpose for which we exist as Christians.