baptism

Why We Do What We Do: Baptism and Communion

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Listen to the audio here. Watch the Facebook Live stream here

NOTE: Scott Smith filled in for Anthony Weber this Sunday at the last minute. The audio and FB stream feature Scott; the notes posted here are Anthony's. They take a slightly different focus, so the two resources together offer bonus material this week :)

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There are at least two things that Christians do that can be confusing: baptism and communion.

In Bible times, everyone understood the role of baptism. It was a known way of showing one’s initiation and allegiance of a god. If Christians ran into the marketplace and told followers of Zeus that they had been baptized, they wouldn’t respond, “What are you talking about?” They got it; they had been baptized too.

As for communion, the Jewish people already practiced a form of it during Passover, where they drank wine and ate unleavened bread every year.

Living in the United States in the 21stcentury, both of these acts are…different. They are not only not normal, they can be so disconnected from our religious past that they seem unimportant or insignificant.

So, let’s talk about that :)

WHAT IS A SACRAMENT?

Baptism and communion are two things that are often referred to as sacraments. The English word sacrament is from the Latin sacramentum, which means to make holy, or to consecrate. A sacrament is meant to be something that sets us apart, that consecrates or dedicates us to God in some fashion.  If I combine a whole bunch of definitions,

“A sacrament is avisible sign, rite or ceremony ordained of God, instituted by Jesus, confirmed by the command or practice of the apostles, and observed by the church that is the means of or a form of God’s grace.”

In the Roman Catholic Church, there are seven sacraments:

  • Baptism
  • Confirmation
  • Eucharist (or Communion)
  • Matrimony
  • Holy Orders (Ordination)
  • Penance, Confession, and/or Reconciliation
  • Anointing of the Sick (or Extreme Unction, Last Rites)

When the Protestant Reformation began, Protestants pared the sacraments down to two: baptism and communion. As stated in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer:

"The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace… Although they are means of grace, they are not necessary for all persons in the same way that Baptism and the Eucharist are."

To the early Reformers like Calvin and Luther, only Baptism and Eucharist were sacraments; they were the only two in which God actively communicated his grace to us as a result of our obedience.

Eventually, Arminians[1](named after Jacob Arminius, a student of John Calvin’s successor) made a difference between an ordinance(something commanded or ordained by God in observance of a spiritual reality) and a sacrament.

In the sacramental view, the rite is done so that God can give something promised to us. In the ordinance view, the rite is done so that God and others can see our actions, or possibly see something God has previously done in us.

HOW DOES A SACRAMENT WORK?

To sacramentalists like the Roman Catholics, there is power in the physical element. So communion is the taking of the actual body and blood of Christ; “the host” hosts the real presence of God.  The waters of baptism are the vehicle of saving grace. If baptism is an instrument of grace, as Catholics believe, we should baptize babies so they are under grace. They don’t need to understand or even make a choice to benefit from baptism, because the act itself carries God’s grace to them.  We receive grace through the physical object.

The sacramental view held by Martin Luther and John Calvinbroke away from the Catholic perspective. They said that God gives spiritual blessings to us when we participate in the sacraments.God conveys grace through our act of obedience, not through the object.For example, Martin Luther said that the elements of communion don’t literally become the body and blood of Jesus, but that God is  truly present “in, with, and under” the elements in a spiritual way. The grace we receive is because of our obedient participation, not because the symbol itself  (water, bread, wine) has power..

Other Protestants, such as Zwingli, were memorialists.They viewed the sacraments as an ongoing profession of faith, a reminder of the grace that has already been given but not an actual vehicle of grace. In contrast with both Rome and Luther, Zwingli did not believe that the Lord’s Supper was the literal presence of God or that obedience brought fresh grace. The rite is done so that God and others can see our actions, or possibly see something God has previously done in us, not because God is imparting something to us. Baptism is a memorial for those who consciously surrender their lives to Christ. Communion is a memorial to what Christ did for us. [2]We remember what we have already fully received. 

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We are a church in the memorialist tradition. We have always taken the approach that we are reminded of what God has done in us through our participation in communion and baptism.

So, does God honor these rites by revealing Himself  or imparting grace in some way that he reserves for these moments? Personally, I can’t rule that out.  I have been raised all my life as a memorialist, but I see some biblical wisdom in considering there may be more to it.  After all, God often imparts his grace to us through instruments: friends, evangelists, doctors, family, pastors, etc. Why not through the rituals and symbols he has ordained? So,  even as I reaffirm our memorialist heritage, I find I am taking Luther and Calvin’s stance on sacraments more seriously.

If nothing else, I know that if we take baptism and communion more seriously, they are opportunities to sense the reality and presence of Christ, His sacrifice, and His live in ways that we often overlook in our busy lives. Perhaps that is a conveyance of grace in it’s own way. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Stop. Focus. Remember. Be still. God is here.

As I was studying this, a couple quotes stood out to me the captured the solemnity of these things.

LUTHER, in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), wrote,

According to its substance, therefore, the mass is nothing but the aforesaid words of Christ: “Take and eat, etc” [Matt 26:26], as if he were saying: “Behold, O sinful and condemned man, out of the pure and unmerited love with which I love you, and by the will of the Father of mercies [II Cor. 1:3], apart from any merit or desire of yours, I promise you in these words the forgiveness of all your sins and life everlasting. And that you may be absolutely certain of this irrevocable promise of mine, I shall give my body and pour out my blood, confirming this promise by my very death, and leaving you my body and blood as a sign and memorial of this same promise. As often as you partake of them, remember me, proclaim and praise my love and bounty toward you, and give thanks...

From this you will see that nothing else is needed for a worthy holding of the mass than a faith that relies confidently on this promise, believes Christ to be true in these words of his, and does not doubt that these infinite blessings have been bestowed upon it. . . . Who would not shed tears of gladness, indeed, almost faint for joy in Christ, if he believed with unshaken faith that this inestimable promise of Christ belonged to him

CALVIN 

“Godly souls can gather great assurance and delight from this Sacrament; in it they have a witness of our growth into one body with Christ such that whatever is his may be called ours. As a consequence, we may dare assure ourselves that eternal life, of which he is the heir, is ours; and that the Kingdom of Heaven, into which he has already entered, can no more be cut off from us than from him; again, that we cannot be condemned for our sins, from whose guilt he has absolved us, since he willed to take them upon himself as if they were his own. This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness…

A FEW KEY TAKEAWAYS

  1. Theologians have noted that together, baptism and communion symbolize the whole of our Christian life.  
  • In baptism, we are reminded that we are entering into God’s covenant. It happens once as a rite of initiation into God’s family.
  • In communion, we are reminded of our ongoing life within that covenant. It happens over and over as an act of covenant renewal.

On the memorialist view,they remind us that in Him we live, move and have our being. Without Him we are nothing and have nothing and can do nothing of lasting, eternal worth.

  1. Baptism and Communion remind us that salvation comes from the outside. Ourhope in Christ does not come from us, our feeling, our experiences; it comes from Christ, who gave Himself for us as an act of grace. Our hope is in that and nothing else. We are part of an ongoing story, and that we have a part in the unfolding of God’s history, but they are not the foundation of our assurance that God, in Christ, gave His life so that we could live.

3.Baptism and Communion are community events. Because salvation comes from the outside, our observance of baptism and communion  involve something outside ourselves. You notice we don’t self-baptize here, or serve communion to ourselves. Someone else initiates it; someone else makes it happen for you; someone else gives that gift to you. Those offering those services are not the instruments of grace; they are the reminders, as is the water, the bread, and the juice, that we are not self-made or self-sufficient. We need others: God first, and God’s people second.

These moments, then, are meant to remind us of the congregation’s unity in Christ, as we are all drawn together. These are not activities meant to do alone. In a smaller congregation, it would be easier to visualize this having one loaf for an entire congregation, and we would tear off a piece for each of us. We would have on pitcher to our juice. We are nourished by a common source. Our salvation is from Christ, and that we have been saved into a community of Christ-followers.

“Through the interchange of his blessings and our misfortunes, we become one loaf, one body, one drink, and have all things in common.”(Luther, in his 1519 Sermon on the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy)

Now, since he has only one body, of which he makes us all partakers, it is necessary that all of us also be made one body by such participation. The bread shown in the Sacrament represents this unity….We shall benefit very much from the Sacrament if this thought is impressed and engraved upon our minds: that none of the brethren can be injured, despised, rejected, abused, or in any way offended by us, without at the same time, injuring, despising, and abusing Christ by the wrongs we do; that we cannot disagree with our brethren without at this same time disagreeing with Christ; that we cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren; that we ought to take the same care of our brethren’s bodies as we take of our own; for they are members of our body; and that, as no part of our body is touched by any feeling of pain which is not spread among all the rest, so we ought not to allow a brother to be affected by any evil, without being touched with compassion for him. (John Calvin)

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[1]The language of “sacraments” was used by Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed, though they differed on the number. The language of “ordinances,”  was used by denominations leaning in the Anabaptist, Arminian tradition , such as “Methodists, Free Will Baptists, Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, General Baptists, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Church of the Nazarene, The Wesleyan Church, The Salvation Army, Conservative Mennonites, Old Order Mennonites, and Amish and charismatics.” (thanks, Wikipedia)

[2]Worth noting: the New Testament never explicitly mentions the baptism of an infant in a way that signifies the infant received salvation as a result. In fact, the New Testament never explicitly mentions the baptism of any person prior to a confession of faith.

Baptized Into Death - And Life

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I have a short list of things in the Bible that seem unusual to us today that need a context in order for us to understand.

1. The woman washing Jesus’ feet with a tear bottle (Luke 7)

Context: In the first century, tear bottles were sealed shut and kept prominently, then buried with you as a sign of how hard your life was. Some of the wealthier Romans would even hire mourners to cry and fill bottles. In death, there was finally peace. So when she washed Jesus’ feet with her tears she was giving up her hard earn right to be pitied, and in a sense was saying she had found the peace for which she longed.

2. Salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13-15)

Context: Salt was a precious commodity for money (Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt); it obviously also gave flavor to things which were otherwise bland.  Pure salt never loses its flavor, but salt like the salt from the Dead Sea could, because the salt was impure. It was often then thrown on roads because it was useless except to be trampled on.

3. John records an interesting promise from God: “He who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name.” (Revelation 3:12)

Context: At the time of the early church, Asclepius was the god of healing.  In many cities were Asclepions, or hospitals. One daughter was Hygieia (hygiene) and another Panacea.  They would only accept people they thought they could heal, then put an inscription on a tablet or a marble pillar that described the cures and the healed parts of the bodies.  These were testimonies to the apparent power of the gods.    John may well have been saying, “Your lives will show God to be the true healer, the Great Physician.”

I think baptism needs a similar context because it’s not something for which our culture has a shared story around which to unite. It’s a symbol that still haunts our culture – there are baptism scenes in the Matrix and the latest King Arthur movie – but it’s not embedded into our lives, and when we see it symbolized in our cultural stories there is only some vague sense of change, not a real concrete idea of what this means.

Then people come to church, and we say, “Hey, you know you are going to need to let someone dunk you under the water.” Hmmm…

The ancient world was full of ritual of baptism of water and blood, even among the pagans.[1]  No one needed an explanation about why one should be baptized when they joined a religious group. They grew up in a world that understood this was the public pledge of allegiance to that being which you worship.  No one joining the church was surprised.

Over time, baptism become one of several sacraments that the Protestant churches practice. A sacrament is an outward sign of an inward seal that reminds of what God has done and what God intends to do to help us grow in grace. (2 Peter 3:18; Titus 1:4)

  • Sign: I’ve seen it compared to the Batsignal: by our participation we are sending a message to God: “We need you. We are in a situation in which we cannot succeed without your help.” Obviously, God is already there, but it’s a reminder to us.
  • Seal: An ancient king would use a ring to put a seal on a glob of wax on an important letter as a way of saying to everyone who saw it, “Property of the King.” In observing sacraments, we publicly accept the seal of Jesus: “I am the property of Christ the King.”

Sacraments humble us by reminding us of our need for God, yet at the same time they encourage us by reminding us that God has placed His seal on us, and we are under His protection, guidance and Lordship. And when we ask God for help and accept his seal, that humility and surrender is fertile ground for God’s ongoing work of grace in our life.

I want to focus on baptism so that  we understand the rich history of this sacramental symbol. To do that, I need to talk about a story involving water that began at the beginning of time and has been retold for all of human history.

Genesis 1, Creation

Jews were desert nomads; they were not at home on the water. And ancient cultural stories depicted the sea as a monstrous beast and a place where Baal would battle with Yam, the sea god (Yam is the Hebrew word for “sea”). 

  • Leviathan lives there (Job 9.13; Psalms 89.8-10; Isaiah 27.1)
  • Those in distress feel like they are being drowned in deep water (Psalms 69.1,2; Lamentations 3.54)
  • Being saved from an enemy is like being pulled out of the waters of death (Psalms 18.16)

The ocean before creation, the “tehom” or the deep, was unsettled and chaotic. Even the pagans thought that. It was to be feared. But out of the water of chaos and death and formlessness God brought life, and it’s good.

The Flood, Genesis 6-9  The same word used Genesis 1, “tehom,” refers to the waters of the deep that flooded the earth. Once again, on the other side of chaos and evil is new life.  All ancient cultures recorded this. Peter late compared the water of baptism to the waters of the great flood that God used to save Noah and his family (1Peter 3:20 – 21) 


"In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”

The Exodus and Promised Land  (Exodus 14) 

 “For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. (1 Corinthians 10: 1-2)

Note here that they didn’t actually get wet as they passed through the waters that saved them; there was something about the experience of this ‘baptism’ that placed them into the life and legacy of Moses. I could also add here that under the covenant with Moses, baptismal ceremonies were a huge part of become ritually purified.

Jesus himself was baptized (Mark 1: 4-9)

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

Jesus Taught The Importance Of Baptism

Jesus then says to his disciples, “Go into all the world, preach the gospel, and baptize…” (Matthew 28:19-20) [2]

Paul commanded it. He wrote in Hebrews 10:22:

"Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water."

Paul also wrote that Jesus sanctified the church, “having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” (Ephesians 5:26). Note how one washed by water with the word.  There is clearly something symbolic happening that is not connected to some specific magical property of the water itself. 

The audience of Jesus’ time understood the story in which they were being asked to participate.  God brings order from chaos, life from death, purity from dirtiness, and God illustrates this spiritual reality with an earthly metaphor His people understood.

Let's apply all this to today. What does it mean when we get baptized now?

1. It's a public testimony to our salvation. Baptism is not a marker that we have arrived spiritually and now worthy of being initiated into the kingdom because we are so awesome. It’s a public alliance with the only one who can and has saved us.

“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5)

2. It's a spiritual uniting with Christ into His death and resurrection.    

“Remember that all we who are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ are baptized to die with him?  We are buried with him by baptism, for to die, that likewise as Christ was raised up from death by the glory of the father, even so we also should walk in a new life.  For if we are like him in death, even so must we be in the resurrection.” (Romans 6)

If we are going to walk in new life, we have to die first. In baptism, we see the death of the old as we go under the water, and the arrival of the new as we come up. Now we publicly bear the seal of Christ. (I wish there was someway we could stamp you when you come up: “Claimed by Jesus.”)

“We may never be martyrs but we can die to self, to sin, to the world, to our plans and ambitions. That is the significance of baptism; we died with Christ and rose to new life.”     - Vance Havner

3. It's the beginning of a life-long immersion in Christ.

Historians have found a recipe for making pickles that dates back to 200 B.C.  In order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be 'dipped' (bapto) into boiling water and then 'baptised' (baptizo) in the vinegar solution. The first is temporary. The second, the act of baptising the vegetable, takes longer, and produces a permanent change. Genuine baptism ‘pickles us’ into the life of Christ.

This, I think, is what we must remember. We don’t walk away from a sacramental moment and forget about it. They are moments that pledge our lives, and in that outward sign we have participated in the reality of an inward work of the Holy Spirit that is part of our life constantly.

We have publicly said, “I give myself to you,” and that means we are in a process by which God transforms us for the rest of our lives into the image of Christ.

Here, by the way is where the community aspect of baptism comes in. Baptism is more than just you and God; it’s a public and formal alliance with God’s people, specifically the church you are in.

  • It’s an act that gives permission: “You may now hold me accountable as a child of God and a brother or sister in Christ.”
  • It’s an act that states responsibility: “And now I must do the same for you.”

 

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A FEW RECOMMENDED RESOURCES

 “Water Baptism In The Early Church.” http://www.churchhistory101.com/feedback/water-baptism.php

“Sacraments” (Theopedia) http://www.theopedia.com/sacraments

“That Great Day” (Jonny Lang song)

“Water Grave” (Imperials song, but plenty of others sing it!)

“Baptism” (Randy Travis song)

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[1] “Baptism: A Pre-Christian History.” http://www.bible.ca/ef/topical-baptism-a-prechristian-history.htm

[2] The Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:36-38) is a great example.

 

Immersing our Lives in Christ

   

     For the past eight years, Anne and I (Ted Smith) have gone to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina each October – we visit my cousin and enjoy the warmth and the beaches.  
   We love to drive on back roads, discovering new territory and seeing new sights.  So every year, in late August or early September, I get out the big Road Atlas and begin to study it, looking intently to find a new route. 
     But I don’t look state-by-state at first; rather I look at the big picture -- the entire western portion of the United States.  I need to see where I am and where I’m going before I get specific about each part of the journey.
     Looking at the big picture, with our destination highlighted, helps us to choose routes that get the job done.  Then, once we see that clearly, we look at the specifics, state-by-state.
    There is a journey that God has established for us who desire to follow Him. Every journey must start with an accurate assessment of where we are.
First, the starting point: 
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WE ARE LOST (SINFUL) 
Romans 3:23 "For all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious standard."
Romans 3:10 "As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one."
1 John 1:8   "If we say we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and refusing to accept the truth." 
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WE HAVE NO MAP 
Isaiah 59:2 "But there is a problem—your sins have cut you off from God. Because of your sin, he has turned away and will not listen anymore."
Jeremiah 2:22 "Although you wash yourself with soda and use an abundance of soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me,” declares the Sovereign LORD.
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GOD’S MAP ~ THE BIBLE 
John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life."
1 Timothy 2:5 "For there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and people. He is the man Christ Jesus."
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THE DETAILS 
1 John 1:9 "But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong."
1 John 5:11-12 "And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  So whoever has God’s Son has life; whoever does not have his Son does not have life."
     Other world religions encourage man to seek and live a better existence, but only Christianity offers forgiveness of sin through the death of a perfect sacrifice, Jesus Christ Himself. 
    It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that saves us! ("Gospel" is a Greek word which literally means "the good message".) An excellent scriptural description of the gospel is:

1 Corinthians 15:1-4  Now let me remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the Good News I preached to you before. You welcomed it then and still do now, for your faith is built on this wonderful message. And it is this Good News that saves you if you firmly believe it—unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place. I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me—that Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, as the Scriptures said.

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THE DESTINATION (Reconciliation with God and a new life!)

2 Corinthians 5:17 "Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come."
Titus 3:4-5 "But then God our Savior showed us his kindness and love. He saved us, not because of the good things we did, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins and gave us a new life through the Holy Spirit."
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    Paul, in the book of Romans, makes an amazing claim: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?" (Romans 6:3)
     What does it mean to be “baptized into Christ?”  Is it simply referring to something that occurs with water?  No!  Water could never accomplish what Paul is referring to here.  It is only a picture to help us.
     The word “baptize” here is a word that means “to overwhelm,”--- that’s why baptism is often accomplished through complete immersion in the water --- the word does not describe an insignificant action…but rather, it is pointing to an act that produces a permanent change (something that water, of course, cannot do).
     The significance behind the picture is that when Jesus Christ takes up residence in our hearts, He overwhelms our old self and substitutes His new self, producing a permanent change. 

Rom. 6:4-11 "Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.