“But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So, you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:8-11)
When’s the last time you had a good theological conversation with someone? I mean a solid talk about some topic as it relates to God’s person or purpose. Not counting the sermon, l bet it’s been ages. Well, I had a theological conversation just the other day. A member came into my office and in our conversation happened to mention that NASA has been searching for earth-sized planets outside our solar system that might be able to support life. So far, the Kepler mission has discovered about six planets the approximate size of earth and one of these is the right distance from its sun to support life! (If you live in Virginia you know this is about as close to the sun as can sustain life!)
The person said to me, “Imagine another planet with human life! Now how would you explain that theologically?” And suddenly we were into a theological conversation about what it would mean for God to have also created life on another planet. How would that mesh with the biblical record? Well, it was a refreshing conversation. We don’t talk theology near enough!
But today you are in luck, because we’ve stumbled onto a deep theological conversation between Paul and the Roman congregation. The book of Romans is by far the most theological letter that Paul has written. It provides the theological argument for salvation by grace. We are not saved by strict adherence to the Law of Moses; in fact, Paul claims the Law was never intended to be our hope of salvation. Its purpose was to show us just how sinful we all are and how futile our efforts to secure our own salvation. We are in a hole so deep that we can’t get out on our own. So how is salvation possible at all? Paul concludes it’s through the grace of God in our Lord Jesus Christ that we are saved.
So, chapter five culminates in a crescendo of grace where Paul goes so far as to suggest that the degree of sin does not matter…in his own words: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” So, God gets to speak the last word and that word is “eternal life through our Jesus Christ our Lord.”
In chapter 6, Paul begins using a literary technique called hypophora – raising a hypothetical question and then answering it. The question is this: “Shouldn’t we then continue in sin so that God’s grace may abound?” That’s an interesting question - if an increase in sin leads to a greater abundance of grace, then why not continue sinning? The more we sin the more grace! And to this Paul responds: By no means! That is a dangerous rabbit hole if there ever was one!
And you don’t have to be a theologian to understand why – even a kid can understand that.
When I was a kid we used to play in the sprinkler on hot summer days to cool off. On one occasion, we were running through my friend’s sprinkler when I noticed there was a hole in the hose and a long arc of water was spurting out of it. I picked up the hose at the point of the leak and positioned it so that the stream of water sprayed against one of the bedroom window of the house. To the naked eye, it appeared that the screen was repelling the spray! I said to my friend, “Hey, look at that, the water can’t get through the screen even though it’s full of holes!” My friend took the hose and tried it for himself… and sure enough it seemed to block the stream of water. So, there we were witnessing this scientific wonder until his sister walked into the bedroom and shouted out the window - “Robbie what’s going on, there’s water all over the bed in here! We wanted to explain but suddenly our defense didn’t seem especially strong. Just because we thought the screen was stopping the water stream, that’s no reason to spray water upon it.
And in a manner of speaking that’s what Paul is saying. Just because the power of grace outstrips the power of sin, that’s no reason to continue sinning! Besides, he continues, how can we who died to sin go on living in it? And at this point Paul launches into his theology of baptism.
Now, many people today consider baptism little more than a rite of passage. We dress the babies up, parade them before the congregation, introduce them using their full name, have the minister dab water on the baby’s head and then the whole family goes out for pancakes. It’s a rite of passage ‒ short, simple and pleasing for all!
Now, contrast that with Paul’s understanding of baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” For Paul, baptism is about dying and rising with Christ. This makes baptism the primary source of our identity as Christians. It says that we belong to God.
There is an obvious gap between what we think of baptism and what Paul thinks of it… and in part, that can be attributed to our method of baptizing. In the early church baptism was done by immersion… the whole person went down into the water. But when we Presbyterians baptize we tend to just sprinkle a little water. I understand that water is just a theological symbol within this sacrament, so a little dab will do ya… But isn’t something of the meaning of the sacrament lost when we use just a little? Isn’t baptism’s meaning clearer and richer with immersion?
In immersion, the person actual goes down into the depths symbolizing their drowning, their dying to their old way of life. And when they are raised up again, they are rising to a new way of life, which is a resurrection of sorts.
Immersion actually gives the baptized person an experience of dying and rising with Christ. It’s hard to miss the connection with Christ’s death and resurrection when you go under the water and then are lifted out of it again. The sacrament practically explains itself. But sprinkling is the preferred method among Presbyterians, largely, I suppose, because we tend to major in infant baptism and that would make them cry… but haven’t we sacrificed meaning for convenience…
That doesn’t mean we need to re-baptize everyone by immersion, it simply means we need to use more words when we plan baptisms so that people understand its meaning. We are united with Christ through our baptism… and made one with our Lord. He died and we died, but he rose and so we rose too.
Now, Paul also links baptism to the Exodus story. When Israel was in Egypt they were slaves under Pharaoh’s hand. Paul describes this as laboring in bondage to sin. God heard the cries of the Israelites and through Moses, led them to freedom from their bondage through the waters of the Red Sea. So, by going through the waters, the Israelites were beyond Pharaoh’s grasp… beyond the dominion of sin… And God went with them, leading them to a new life in the promised land and giving them a new identity as his people.
So too, when we go through the waters of baptism, we arrive at a place where sin no longer has dominion, and where God transforms us into his people and leads us to new life.
Paul’s understanding of baptism is rich and meaningful, and it serves as a corrective to those of us who think of it too simply. It’s more than just a celebration of the waters of life… baptism is drowning/dying to our old life and a rising to a new life. This is more than a washing ritual; the exodus allusion reminds us that we are now dead to sin and alive in Christ. Most of all, it makes clear that baptism is not just a personal/private affair between God and the individual. Baptism has social consequences… it unites us to Christ and one another, makes us brothers and sisters in Christ. Baptism is our common denominator… the sacrament that unites us as the body of Christ.
Now why is all this theology so important for us today? Because this is the mirror through which we must see ourselves and others. We are living in an age of great division. People today are divided into so many different factions – we are divided by race, color, religion, sex, age, politics, nationality, and socio-economic class. It’s no different in the Christian church – it, too, is fractured into different groups – Catholic vs Protestant, Conservative vs Liberal, traditional vs contemporary, black churches, White churches, Yellow churches and churches of other cultures.
During my sabbatical in 2014, I visited a congregation in Minneapolis called Church of All Nations. It’s a congregation that claimed to have no ethnic majority…. It’s about 30% white, 30% black, 30% Asian and 10% Latino. When I visited I found that this was indeed true… the church is truly living up to its name. I asked the pastor how the church got started. He explained that the church used to be called Grace Korean Church and one day two black people showed up! “Obviously, they couldn’t read,” he joked, “the sign specifically said ‘Korean’ and yet here they were sitting in our church!” These two guests became the catalyst the congregation needed to imagine themselves becoming something more than a cultural church, and so was born CAN. The name was presumptuous at first because they were still Asian-dominant but in time they have definitely grown into their new name. Not only are they culturally diverse but they are denominationally diverse too – representing people from almost every branch of the Christian church today. CAN is breaking down the walls that divide us by focusing on what unites us ‒ namely our baptism… we are all united in Christ through the waters of baptism!
We Presbyterians claim to be reformed… which means we believe that God continues to reform the church still today… that God is still shaping us and building us into the image of God and into the Kingdom of God. Paul’s understanding of baptism is central to this reformation. We need to be reminded that we are all united in our baptism – we are one people in Christ.
And all these factions we’ve been emphasizing – liberal/conservative, contemporary/traditional, Black/white/red/yellow… regular attender/lapsed attender… They are all unimportant categories considering the unifying factor of our baptism into Christ. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. When we look at one another we should not see them as a newcomer or a young person or a senior, or a staunch traditionalist; we should see them and celebrate them as a child of God, claimed by Christ through our baptism.
Let me close with part of a poem I once heard about this baptism of ours:
“Let the Sacred Waters flow…”
Let the Water flow into every bay and inlet of your lives.
Let the Water flow into every bay and inlet of our church and our world.
Let the Water flow.
And we will hear again the voice of God… and it was very good.
And we will hear again the voice of God. “You are my own. My beloved. With you I am well pleased!”
Poem by Betty Lynn Schwab, Kitimat, BC., 1991