18th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 1 August 2010

Baptism: A matter of death and life

Colossians 3.1-11
Luke 12.13-21

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

LP Hartley started his 1953 book, The Go-Between, with this wonderful sentence. It’s just about become a proverbial saying, and it would be hard to find a better way to begin a book. Or a sermon, for that matter. So why not? Let’s do it:

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

But first, let’s think about how we do something now. That something is baptism. Most times, we baptise babies or small children. It’s easy to get caught up in how cute they are. It’s possible to think of baptism as the way cute babies become part of the church family.

But when we read the bible, we see that baptism is spoken of very differently. It’s a matter of life and death. More accurately, it’s a matter of death and life. It’s about the person to be baptised dying with Christ and rising again with him. Sometimes, we forget that.

I think we’d be doing baptism better, and being reminded of what it means, if the font were shaped like a cross. And we laid the baby down in it. It would be challenging in the extreme, but it would show what baptism is really about.

Let’s now switch to the past. Don’t forget:

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

I want you to imagine that you live in Rome in the fourth century AD. You wear Roman clothes; you eat anchovies and olives and rancid feta cheese, and quaff poor-quality red wine diluted with unsafe drinking water. It is a foreign country, and they really do things differently there. Including baptism.

You were brought up a pagan, but you’ve been converted to Jesus Christ. For three whole years you have been instructed in the Christian faith. In that time, you have never been to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. You haven’t been told what happens there; you have been dismissed after the ‘prayers of the people’ to continue being taught and formed in the Christian faith.

But now, Easter is approaching; and at the Easter Vigil, at last you’re going to become part of the Christian Church in baptism.

You haven’t been told what will happen then either. Back in your day, way back in the fourth century, the life of the Church was kept secret from all except those who had been fully initiated. They do things differently there, remember?

You’re feeling a little weak, because you’ve been fasting. For the whole of Lent you’ve had no meat and no dairy products. And now you’re fasting from all food and water. You’ve picked up enough to know that the ritual you will go through has something to do with death and dying and new life and rising, and being cleansed. You’re feeling a little nervous.

The bishop comes into the room, looking tired already. Lent and Holy Week have been long and arduous. The one thing you’re not prepared for is his first words:

‘Take off your clothes!’

You’re so surprised, you do just as you’ve been told. Any jewellery—necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings—must also be removed. You must be naked as the day you were born.

Now, not only are you faint from hunger, you’re freezing. And embarrassed too, even though the men and the women are shielded from each other.
Eventually, you are ushered into a room you’ve never been inside before. The door to this room has always been closed to you. You see that there are mosaics depicting bible stories all around the walls and on the high ceiling, and there is a small pool in the centre. It’s in the shape of a cross.

Soon, you’re going down the steps into the pool. It’s like going onto the cross; it’s like going down into a tomb. It’s like being crucified with Christ. Water—lots of it!—is poured over you three times, in the name of God the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now you’re hungry, cold, embarrassed and dripping wet.

You then come up out of the water—rising out of the tomb, being raised from the dead—and you are towelled off and then given a new alb which you are later told means that you have put on Christ. Then you go to the Lord’s table and receive Holy Communion for the first time ever. You have never been allowed at this meal before.

The past is a foreign country; they do things very differently there.

This kind of baptism—one where death and new life are vividly symbolised—is what St Paul is talking about when he says,

You have been raised with Christ.

But notice one thing: being ‘raised with Christ’ comes at the end of your fourth-century baptism. What comes first is stripping off your clothing, stripping off the old. Can we see?

We have to remove the old before we put on the new.

We must turn away from sin to embrace the life of faith.

We have to die to the false self that is grounded in ourselves and what we want before we can be alive to the true self that is grounded in Jesus Christ.

We need to grow from the immature spiritual self that thinks it’s all about us, and grow a mature spirit that looks outward.

That’s what it means to live as a baptised person. Baptism isn’t something that happens once and then it’s all over. Our baptism is just a start, it’s just the beginning of a whole life of dying and rising with Christ. And friends, the order is important. It’s the same order as Paul has in Colossians chapter 3. Paul says,

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

You have been raised with Christ, but you can only be raised with Christ if you’ve died. And you died in baptism. And because of that, ‘your life’—your true life—‘is hidden with Christ in God’.

Notice that nothing can touch the true ‘you’, the real ‘you’ hidden with Christ in God, the ‘you’ who has been born again in Christ. We need never be afraid, because whatever comes, disease, divorce, death, our true life is hidden with Christ in God. And we sons and daughters of God are so much more than we appear to be.

We are afraid from time to time of course, because we don’t live out of that true life, that true self, that mature spirit. We live out of the false self.
So Paul says,

…you have died…So put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)…you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another…

These are the things you have died to, he says. So, put them to death. To use another picture: be rooted in Christ the living soil, and not in the world’s soil. Live out of Jesus and the life he has brought. Don’t live out of your own fears and prejudices and distortions.

God called the farmer in Jesus’ parable a ‘fool’ because he lived out of his fear and anxieties. He didn’t let go; he sought security in getting more and more. He had ‘the desire to acquire’. We might call him a good businessman, a prudent businessman. God names him ‘Fool’.

Remember last week, we heard these words from St Paul (Colossians 2.6):

As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord,
continue to live your lives in him,
rooted and built up in him
and established in the faith.

Does that mean that if we are rooted in Christ we’ll never do these things? Never lie to one another? Never get angry without cause? Never commit sexual sin? No, it doesn’t. We continue to be sinners on the way with Jesus. But when we strip off the old life and put on Christ, we change the ground in which we are planted. When we put on Christ, we have his attitude to our sin: we forgive it. We forgive ourselves. Sometimes it’s harder to forgive ourselves than to forgive others. But that’s the way forward. Isn’t that Jesus’ attitude to sin? Forgiveness is the way of Jesus Christ. Remember the Lord’s Prayer? The only thing we undertake to do is forgive.

Notice why Paul says we are to put these wrong things to death. We must do it because

you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

We put these wrong things to death because as baptised people, we belong to Christ. It’s all about how baptised people should live. You went down into that pool, that tomb, and you died. You stripped everything off, you stripped off the old self. And then you re-emerged and clothed yourself with the new self. This new self, this true self, isn’t perfect. It’s on a journey—a journey of renewal. It’s ‘being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator’. We are being renewed in God’s image. And guess what—we know what that image looks like and we know what to aim for. The true image of God is Jesus Christ. So if you are rooted in Jesus Christ, don’t worry that you’re not perfect. Forgive yourself for that. But keep putting on the new self.

Have you noticed in all of this that baptism is not magic? We have died with Christ, our true life is hidden with Christ, but we have to put to death the things that belong to the old life. It’s perfectly possible to be baptised, to be in church every Sunday, and yet not have put these things to death. Never to have turned away from them. It’s perfectly possible to have died with Christ in baptism and yet still be dead in our sins today.

To be a Christian is not to be perfect. It’s to turn away from centring our life upon ourselves; it’s to put away and to keep putting away the things that characterise that self-centred kind of life: lies and sexual immorality and greed and slander.

You might wonder why I’m labouring all this. One reason is that this is what the passage is about. Here’s another reason: over the years, I’ve come across people who have gifts they want to use in the body of Christ. That’s a wonderful thing. They want to ‘put on’ a new role in the church. But they’re doing it out of the desire to be in control, or to be noticed. Their desires are directed by their false self. They have to take off, strip off their need to control (or whatever their issue is) before they can genuinely seek to serve God.

If they don’t do that, their work in the church is motivated by the wrong reasons. The rule is simple: ‘Let go before you put on.’

Baptism is a matter of death and life. It’s about dying and rising with Christ. And so is the whole of life. Unless we let go of the false self and put on the true self, we are only playing at being Christians. Unless we allow God’s Spirit to gently yet firmly show us what needs to go, we will not grow in faith. Unless we’re prepared to die, we will not truly live.

Let’s put Jesus first; let’s take off the dead weight of sin, and put on Christ.


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