This Morning’s Passage:
“[Spiritual cleansing] does not happen by the physical water but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God, who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, who is the devil, and to enter the spiritual land of Canaan.”
~ from Belgic Confession Article 34: “the Sacrament of Baptism”
God uses baptism to start us on a new life, washing away the past.
Last week, we saw in Israel’s exodus from Egypt that our journey into our new life in Christ typically begins with a crisis of decision that compels us to make a fresh start with urgency and confidence. That journey will prove challenging. We are being called to live a new kind of life that is so out of place in this world, and so against the ways of this world, that we will be frequently faced with the opposition and animosity of others. Jesus showed us this in his life, as he endured the hatred of the world against his radically new kind of life. And Jesus told us that that same hatred would be aimed at us when we left behind the ways of the world and lived instead Christ’s new kind of life. Jesus even went so far to say that we are blessed “when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely” on account of Jesus (Matthew 5:11).
We can only persevere under that kind of enmity for so long on our own. Our individual reservoirs of will and intention and resolve will be exhausted all the sooner, the greater the danger appears to us. Like Israel, our fear and anxiety will convince us that this fledgling new life is not worth the world’s hatred, and we will quickly come to think that it would be better for us to go back to living like the rest of the world.
Of course that is not true. We have been transplanted from the slavery of darkness and death into the marvelous light of eternal life. It would be the worst kind of foolishness to exchange life for death. Therefore, God has made a way to separate us from the death of our past life, while at the same time filling us with a reservoir of grace and power and will that will never run out, because it’s filled with His Spirit of life. That way is baptism.
The sacrament of baptism marks the end of our previous life of slavery and darkness. In baptism, the Spirit of God brings us to share in Christ’s crucifixion, so that our sinful self “with its sinful practices” (Colossians 3:9) is no more. The sacrament of baptism then also marks the beginning of our new life of freedom and obedience. In baptism, the Spirit of God brings us to share in Christ’s resurrection, so that our “new self” is born, and we begin to be “renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10) Jesus Christ.
Just as it would be impossible for the people of Israel to go back to Egypt after miraculously crossing the Red Sea by God’s grace, in the same way it is impossible for us to return to a life ruled by sin after we have been baptized. There is no going back.
God uses baptism to make us a new people in the world, a family of faith.
And if that’s all baptism does, it would be enough. But something more happens in the waters of baptism, just as it happened at the Red Sea. Remember that when the Hebrews left Egypt by night, they were a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38). That means that some Egyptians had come along. Maybe they had come to believe in the Lord God through the Israelites’ worship and witness. Maybe they had seen the Israelites painting their doorposts with the blood of the lamb, and fearful of the last plague, decided to do the same to save themselves and their family. Or maybe they had decided last minute to join the exodus with these strange and powerful people. Whatever the cause, God’s chosen people have set out on this journey home with strangers and aliens in their midst. But once they cross the Red Sea, they are no longer “a mixed multitude,” but “the people of Israel” (Exodus 14:29), God’s chosen people.
In the same way, the sacrament of baptism shows us that God’s covenant promises create a new people in the world. If it is true that each of us who are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection leave behind the ways of the world and start a new life, then it is also true that all of us who have started a new life in Christ are bound up together into a new people, no longer of this world. Where the people of Israel were bound together as God’s covenant people by their ancestor Abraham’s blood, we are bound together by our forgiveness in Christ’s blood; where Israel was bound together by the sign of circumcision that showed them God’s favor, Christ has given us the fulfillment of that ancient sign, and we are bound together – male and female – by the sign of baptism, which shows us that God is our good Father in Christ.
When we celebrate Christian baptism together, we hear anew God’s covenant promises to us as our good Father, that He will continue to be faithful to us, to forgive our sins, and to renew us by His Holy Spirit. We also make strong promises of our own, promises to be faithful to each other as the family of faith. In baptism, we who are baptized become a kingdom-shaped community that bears witness to the truth of our living Lord Christ together. Our relationships of mutual encouragement and accountability become sacramental – empowered with the potential to bear and display the real presence of Christ to the world. Our authentic relationships of forgiveness and reconciliation become living testimonies to the forgiveness that has been given to us. Even immense personal differences are overcome in unity of baptism; because we have been brought through the sea, the truest thing about us now is Christ. In Christ alone we find our capacity to stand in fellowship with strangers, aliens, and even enemies.
God uses baptism throughout our whole life, to renew us by His Holy Spirit.
The sacrament of baptism marks us as Christ’s own as individuals, and incorporates us into the faith family of Christ’s Church in all space and time, and unites us to this particular expression of the faith family in this place, at this time. But the water of baptism does not carry the power of salvation in itself; the font is filled with ordinary water. The water of baptism is a temporary, visible sign that signifies the eternal, invisible grace of God at work in our souls by the Holy Spirit to renew us and purify us. Even though the water dries from our skin, the spiritual mark of baptism endures on our soul throughout our whole life.
Our public Profession of Faith is a continuation of the baptismal covenant in our life, where we acknowledge publicly the promises of God made to us in our baptism, and we choose to answer those promises with our own promises of faithfulness and obedience, committing ourselves to this particular Christian faith family for mutual encouragement and accountability, so that we all might continue to grow in grace and truth.
Christian weddings can be seen as a continuation of the baptismal covenant in our life: a husband and wife recognize publicly that God’s covenant faithfulness goes before them as they make their covenant promises to each other, to be faithful and loving to each other the same way that Christ is faithful and loving to His bride, the Church.
Christian funerals are a continuation of the baptismal covenant in our life. Because in baptism we have already died to sin and death, we have all comfort, for ours is the promise of the full victory Christ has won for us. Even in our grief, we can stand on the words of Scripture:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
~ 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, cf. Isaiah 25:8, Hosea 13:14
Because the covenant promises of God made to us in baptism are sure, a Christian’s death is not fearful or futile; for, like Paul:
“I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
~ Romans 8:38-39
And in and through and among the baptisms, and Professions of Faith, and weddings, and funerals, we have a second sacrament that ties directly to the sacrament of baptism. The sacrament of communion is the continuation of the baptismal covenant! Where in baptism we have been adopted into the family of faith, so that we are now called children of God, in communion we are fed at God’s table the visible sign of His invisible grace. The Lord is the host of this holy feast, and all who are baptized into Christ Jesus are welcome at His table, if we are fully living into our new lives in Christ, made ours through the grace-filled waters of baptism. All who are truly sorry for their sins, and are eagerly striving to live the new life of righteousness, will find at Christ’s table grace upon grace, and will be strengthened by His body, the bread, and His blood, the cup, to continue more and more to live the holy and blameless lives Christ has won for us in His death and resurrection, and made ours in the gift of baptism.