Living in the Story: Baptism
1 Cor 10:1-4; Romans 6:1-11; 1 Cor 12:12-13
This year we’ve been considering the theme Living in the Story. Today is Shamiah’s baptism and my original intent was to step out of the theme and speak about baptism. I am going to speak about baptism this morning, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realised what I have to share is not stepping out of the theme but is firmly rooted within it. Hopefully you’ll see why as we go. Let me begin with two stories.
This is taken from the Ipswich Journal and Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire Advertiser, Tuesday February 5, 1878.
An inquest was held yesterday on the body of a man named William Last, who was suffocated at the Ipswich Gas Works whilst engaged in the department devoted to the manufacture of sulphate of ammonia. Another man named Thomas Noble, Foreman, also very narrowly escaped with his life. In fact both men were found prostrate on the floor of the shed, having inhaled some of the noxious gases from the tank. Last, poor fellow, the weaker man of the two, unfortunately succumbed, but Noble, though he all yesterday remained in a critical condition, at times partially recovered consciousness, and hopes are entertained that his life may be spared. Most providentially Mr Ebenezer Goddard, the engineer to the Company, in going his usual morning round of the works, happened to go into the shed in question in the nick of time to save the foreman’s life. Had he been one minute later the chances are that the lives of both men would have been lost. Mr Goddard immediately called for help, and the poor fellows were taken at once into the open air, but Last lived only half an hour.
Had Goddard been that one minute later, I would not have been here today speaking with you as he was my great-great-great grandfather. This is part of my story and it shows how events in the past do carry over into the present.
Now let me tell you a little about the story of one of BCSA member churches. Just before Christmas I went to the service for the opening of the Adelaide Chin Christian Church in Elizabeth. It was also the celebration of their 10th anniversary as a church. Those people know how to celebrate!
The service started at 11 and didn’t finish until around 2.30.
- They had brought out their main speaker from the US.
- They had a large choir from Melbourne as well as their own choir.
- They sang, prayed, and had numerous people give speeches.
- They had a founding member speak.
- Each founding member was presented a special medal.
- Part way through the service they rang a large bell (only once), as well as lit a number of large candles—both of which things commemorated particular aspects of their story.
This was a double barrel service: celebrating their opening and 10th anniversary. As such, it was a significant community marker. Everything in the service was symbolically designed to mark their story as a people renewed by the gospel and who have been shaped into a community.
Just as there are stories in my own family tree that in one way or another have shaped who I am, and just as the Chin church marked their story through a celebration, so today Shamiah’s baptism is a community marking story for us. It’s our family story. How does that work out?
Our Family Story
Let me give you a bit of insight into where my mind has gone over the years in regard to baptism.
- Very early on I saw the symbolism of baptism as lying in washing i.e. being baptised by immersion in water symbolised a washing clean by the gospel of Jesus.
- A bit later I understood it more in terms of identifying with Jesus i.e. dying in his death and being raised to life in his resurrection.
- Tied up with that was the dying and rising as symbolised in going under the water and coming up out of it.
- I have understood its purpose to be a public witness to Jesus.
- I have understood it to be primarily for the person being baptised and to a lesser degree for the church.
I still think that all those elements are contained to one degree or another in baptism, but my theologian mate Tom Wright has done another number on my head!
(Much of the following is adapted from NT Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 417-427)
His argument is that we primarily need to understand it from the setting of its Jewish context—and that makes a lot of sense.
1 Cor 10:1-4
Let’s begin with the passage from 1 Cor 10. This particular section of the letter begins in chapter 8 where Paul addresses the question of food sacrificed to idols. There’s a couple of things Paul especially highlights.
Whether or not food had been used in sacrifices to idols was not really an issue for Paul. He really wasn’t bothered about it either way [8:8] and so considered he was free to eat it. But he was also aware that it was an issue for some; so even though it didn’t matter to him, knowing it mattered to others meant while he was with them he wouldn’t eat it [8:9]. The more important principle was not his freedom to eat but consideration of his fellow believers.
For Paul, his primary focus wasn’t on what he could or couldn’t do, it was on the gospel itself, and doing everything for its sake.
- If furthering the cause of the gospel meant having to be a slave, so be it;
- If living as under the law, so be it.
- If being weak, so be it.
Having said all that, in the first few verses of chapter 10 Paul makes it clear why those things are important to him. He and they were all part of a much bigger story, the family story into which they’d all been incorporated. That story began in baptism in sea and cloud when Moses led the people of Israel to freedom out of Egypt through water, and where God was present with them by fire and cloud. That whole event marked them out as a particular community, one formed by God himself, and a community in which they were all one.
Just as the Chin church celebrated their start, so Paul reminded the people of their start. This was the family story into which they’d been incorporated. Herein lies the meaning of baptism: it’s a community marker. It’s an event that symbolises this: you are the people of the new exodus, a people who have been led to freedom from slavery and formed into a whole new community.
That tells us where the focus lies in a baptism and who it’s for. While it is something for Shamiah, and we pray it will be a blessing for her, it’s not primarily a statement about her and her faith, but it’s a statement that says: This is who we are. We are the new exodus people of God, the people whom once again God has set free from slavery and made into a new community of his people.
The Romans 6 and 1 Cor 12 passages give us insight into some of the things that characterise the new exodus community.
Romans 6—A Changed Life
Baptism reminds us we are part of the new exodus community of the people of God and, as such, we have all died and been raised in Christ. Therefore, the new exodus community lives in a God-shaped way, and so it doesn’t make sense to live as we used to live. We have died to that and been raised to a whole new life. Live in such a way that reflects that new life.
1 Cor 12:12-13—No Distinctions
Paul says a similar thing in 1 Cor 12. The chapter is about the church as the body of Christ, a description which is more than simply a metaphor used to explain how things work in the church. The church—together—is Christ’s presence on the earth, and is made up of those who have died to themselves and live a whole new life in the power of the resurrected Jesus through his Spirit. In other words, it’s a whole new community. Further, the distinctions that might apply in a regular community no longer apply.
• There are no ethnic distinctions. White supremacy and/or racism have no place among the people of God.
• There are no social distinctions. A class system or ways of considering other people that would create an informal class system, has no place among the people of God. All are equal before God and within the body of Christ.
So what do we see today as we share in Shamiah’s baptism?
- We see a young lady who has not taken this faith step lightly, but has thought it through very carefully.
- We see a young lady who is serious in her faith and who has a desire to grow in her relationship with God.
- We see a young lady whose desire is to serve him.
- All of that encourages us greatly, and hopefully it both encourages and blesses Shamiah as well.
- We also see a gift to us as a church. We see before us a symbol of our participation in the new exodus. Just as God rescued and formed a people in the original exodus and was present with them, so baptism reminds us we too have been rescued and formed as a new people. In Jesus we have died to the old person and risen to be a whole new creation, a whole new community with whom God is also present.
This is a community marker event.