Wineskins Archive

November 25, 2013

Shaping Our Identity: The Role of Baptism in Telling Our Story (Sept-Dec 2003)

Filed under: — @ 4:34 pm and

By Carson Reed

Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Homeric exploration of depression-era Southern culture, produced at least one eye-opening worship experience for Westlake Church of Christ. One Sunday, about a year after the movie, some of our singers prepared and sang the old spiritual, “Down to the River to Pray.”  The song appropriately led the congregation into a time of prayer.

But the real surprise came after the service when one of our sisters, eighty-two years old, approached several of us, with tears in her eyes, and recounted the memories the song invoked. Growing up in south central Kentucky, the song was often sung at baptismal services on the river. Through the distance of decades past, her memory envisioned her baptism anew by singing that simple song. For seventy years her baptism, which launched her journey as God’s daughter, continues to nurture her identity.

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are two God-given gifts to the church. One brings us into the community of Christ and the other sustains our life together in community. As such, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are divine ways of telling the story, evoking the church’s connection with God’s work, and drawing the believer into living fellowship with the Lord.

Understanding the rich theological well of baptism is a good place for churches to begin. To reduce baptism to a mere step a person takes to complete a process or something a person does to have salvation, negates the full meaning that God intends.

Scripture presents baptism in a multitude of ways.  Baptism is birth (John 3) and death (Romans 6); it is being incorporated into the body (1 Corinthians 12) and being washed and made clean (Acts 2). It parallels the experience of Israel’s water crossing (1 Corinthians 10). We receive God’s Spirit and we put on Christ. By weaving the many images of baptism into our congregation’s life through word, music, and symbolism, we establish links to the gospel story.

One ministerial task I take seriously is to meet with every candidate for baptism and have some conversation and prayer. One of the dimensions of baptism I explore is based on Paul’s rich expression of baptism in Romans 6. Here is what I say:

You know the Jesus story, don’t you?  He came into the world bringing the message that God’s love and power is available to everyone. However, that message was not universally received and He was condemned to death. Jesus’ death, though decreed by Roman authority, was really at the heart of God’s eternal plan.

So Jesus died on a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem and he was buried in a nearby tomb. That Friday evening looked very bleak to those who followed Jesus. However, God’s plan was not yet finished. By the early morning hours of Sunday, some of the women who followed Jesus experienced more of the story. The tomb was empty; Jesus was alive to never die again!

Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection was God’s way of dealing with human sin and his way of clearly announcing His love for every man and woman. The Jesus story, that is, the gospel story is really the story of God’s people, the church.

And next Sunday, when you come forward in the assembly, stand among the congregation and announce your belief in Jesus and your submission to His rule in your life, you are participating in the divine story. Just like everyone else who makes up the church you too will participate in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.

After you change out of your clothes and put on a white garment that symbolizes the purity of a new beginning, you will step down into a pool of water. After I announce the words that have been given to us, “I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” something occurs that connects you directly to Jesus own experience. I will take the old you, the dead you, and “bury” you underneath the water. The old you is dead and buried—as was Jesus on that historic Friday night. Then, with joy, I will lift you up out of the water—resurrected and alive.

Paul’s words are true:  “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” (Rom 6:4). Baptism is the point where your life and God’s love meet. You become a living part of God’s drama.

When people are baptized at Westlake we hand them a small white towel, laced with a blue stripe. They may hold it over their nose or dry baptismal water from their face, but that little towel is a tangible reminder of the day when they were ushered into God’s family. White represents purity and holiness; the blue stripe recalls the waters of baptism.

At Westlake, baptisms are embraced with joy. Family members are invited, friends and mentors crowd around the baptistery, our children’s worship is dismissed and the youngest among us, with their eyes large and expectant, are ushered into the front seats. God is at work, disclosing once again the miracle of new birth and the wonder of his power. We celebrate, read Scripture and tell the story again. But there is still more to do. We talk about God’s story and our place within it with new adults who come into the congregation.  What lies ahead for us at Westlake is learning to intentionally teach our children the gospel story and provide clear entry points into that story.

By intentionally teaching children—and adults—the story and its implications we are following in the footsteps of Peter. Many scholars suggest that 1 Peter 2:9-10 might be a hymn that was sung at baptismal services in the early church. If so, the purpose is clear. The early church understood that baptism marked a person; baptism shaped one’s identity.

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Baptism marks our place among God’s own people. My hope is that seventy years from now, there will be people who will remember the day when their lives connected with the gospel story, embracing it through the waters of baptism. My guess is that the remembering will come through music, word, presence, and symbol. We are singing “Down to the River to Pray” again this Sunday. I’m glad of it! And when we sing, I won’t be surprised if tears of joy appear on some faces of the congregation—particularly on the face of our sister from Kentucky.

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