Sunday, January 16, 2011

Baptism: pathway to the Cross

Matthew 3:7-17

In light of the renewed commitment to the Covenant we made to the Lord and to one another a couple of weeks ago, now is a good time to begin a new series to explore the Wesleyan understanding of grace, the "means of grace", and how grace translates through these means. By and through our Methodist heritage we grow in and explore the blessings of prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace - the Lord meeting us and speaking to us at various stages in our spiritual development as we learn to see the world through His eyes, becoming more and more Christ-like in our daily living, seeking wholeness in unity with the Holy Spirit.

We need to understand the nature of divine grace and what it means to us in terms of how we navigate an unbelieving world as filled with goodness and beauty as it is with evil and injustice. It is necessary for us to understand that coming into the Lord's grace does not mean problems will magically disappear, nor does it mean we are granted "excuses" for our un-Christ-like, immoral, and unrepentant behavior. Instead, we come to understand that through His grace we are assisted by the Holy Spirit who is imparted to us through covenant and continues to speak to us through diligent prayer, Scripture study, public worship, and other means of grace. By this grace we are empowered to resist evil and other temptations that serve only to separate us from the Lord; and by this grace to actively work toward justice for those to whom justice has been denied. These and other works of piety and mercy are the fruits of the Holy Spirit made manifest in the life of the Church through divine grace.

It all begins at baptism, the sign and mark of the New Covenant in Christ, the outward expression of an inward grace, the means by which we are symbolically yet spiritually washed cleaned, young and old alike. The power of the Lord to forgive sins through baptism is a mystery to us because there is obviously not enough water in the world to cleanse the soul, but we must also understand there is much more than water that comes into play when one is baptized into the Covenant and into the Church.

Baptism is one of the two "means of grace", or acts of piety, embraced by the United Methodist Church as sacramental (the other is Holy Communion), sacramental being understood as evidence of the Lord's giving of Himself by His actual presence. Through the Sacraments of the Church we celebrate these divine moments in eternity when the Lord touches the human soul in an unmistakable way. It is sad that these two practices of the Church universal are more often "flash points" of conflict and misunderstanding than they are moments and means of comfort and unity, but they are unmistakably biblical as practices of the Lord Jesus Himself; sanctioned, sanctified, and ordained in His Body the Church for all time and for all who would call Him "Lord".

In order to explore the sacramental nature of baptism, is it necessary to compare and evaluate the various practices and traditions in order to find the one we like and dismiss those we don't? Not really; the reason being that the nature of such evaluation puts way too much stock in the doctrines and individual beliefs of man. It is much more helpful to consider the theology and commonalities of the various practices and, ultimately, the common denominator; that element of baptism which finally and completely acknowledges the Lord Himself as the only means by which one is washed clean and made new. We also understand that, like Holy Communion, there can be nothing "private" about it because the whole congregation takes part. Baptism is a public declaration indeed, but the greater question to us might be: who is making the declaration?

John's baptism was one of repentance as a means by which to prepare for the presence of the Lord's Anointed, as it is written, and we can clearly see the many who came to John to receive this baptism of repentance in preparation for the Lord's actual presence. It is a mistake, however, to believe that what John was doing was somehow new. It is not reasonable to suggest John the Baptist just "made it up" solely for the coming of Jesus anymore than it is reasonable to suggest that small children were not also part of "all Judea" who came to present themselves. The practice of baptism as a means of purification is not strictly a New Testament idea, nor is its practice strictly reserved for the River Jordan - or any river, for that matter.

There are many OT references to the Lord's command to be "sanctified" (washed, purified) before entering into His presence on the holy mountain, in the Tent of Meeting, or in the Temple itself. Yet Jesus, the One who was without sin and had no need to repent, also presented Himself to be baptized, to be "sanctified", to be "purified"? Why? The answer, of course, is recorded for us: "to fulfill all righteousness". Fair enough, but what does this really mean? And how is such a statement translated to us here and now in the 21st-century Church when and where Christianity is not exactly new?

And here is where we get stuck in the past. In the context in which Matthew's account is written, Christianity has yet to be born as a religion. A Jewish culture with Jewish practices which means all the little boys are likely already "marked" with the sign of Abraham's covenant is the contextual setting. This means a covenant is already established, and children are already being raised in households marked and identified as households of faith within that covenant. That same context does not apply in the 21st century because Christianity is not new.

In Matthew's account there are two important elements involved. One is the obvious common act of "Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan" who presented themselves for sanctification: repentance; "to prepare the way of the Lord, to make His path straight", to make one worthy of the divine Presence. The other element that is clearly present is the Holy Spirit "descending like a dove", but it is a mistake to believe it took an act or even the faith of man to make that moment possible or even likely.

The Lord was at work in Jeremiah's life before he was born, even before he was "formed in the womb" (Jeremiah 1:5). This is what Wesleyan Methodism teaches about "prevenient grace". The Lord is already and perpetually at work in every single life that is formed in the womb - without exception. It so happens Jeremiah was "ordained as a prophet". Obviously we are not all prophets, but we are all unmistakably "ordained"; set apart for the Lord's good purposes long before we are even aware of His presence. It is in this vein that United Methodism, like many other traditions, has retained the practice of infant baptism for centuries. It is in that divine moment when new life, young AND old, is proclaimed by the Church and given to the Lord through His Covenant.

As it pertains to human practices, we must acknowledge there is no way - NO WAY - humans will ever "get it right" or "do it right" because it is not ours to "do" or to "get". It is ours only to respond. And because we are admonished that "it is impossible to please the Lord [without faith]" (Hebrews 11:6), it necessarily falls to us to respond "in faith" without holding anything or anyone back, especially our children, because the Covenant belongs to the Lord alone. It is His eternal Promise that ALL are invited into His Household, but the invitation must be answered in and on His terms. It is parallel to the reality of the Cross; we cannot have Christ without the Cross - nor can we have part in His Covenant without actually being in the Covenant. It is not unlike the terms of a contract. The contract's owner sets forth the terms of the contract, and other parties must enter into that contract ON ITS TERMS as set forth ... or not at all. The contract does not apply to any who are outside that contract.

This is a Promise you and I can surely embrace only if we can put aside the inconsistent practices of humanity and give it all over to the Lord where it belongs. How dare any human suggest that a child - or ANYONE who lacks the capacity to speak or otherwise communicate in his or her own behalf - cannot be baptized into the Lord's Covenant; such a declaration presumes that the Lord cannot or will not act until or unless He is cued or summoned by man! Baptism as a sacrament is an act of the Lord, not the will of man. Jesus Himself said, "You did not choose Me; I chose you" (John 15:16).

The Baptists are not "right", the Catholics are not "right", nor are the Methodists "right". It is the Lord alone who is "right" and Righteous, and it is that divine righteousness we are being baptized into! It is the Lord's Promise to give and to give freely. It is the prevenient act of the Lord to bring Light into darkness, to bring order from chaos as He has from the beginning - all without man's permission! It is a Promise we must necessarily affirm often and be always mindful of - as the Body of Christ and as disciples, for we are covenanted with Him to follow Him all the days of our lives ... all the way to the Cross. And beyond.

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