Monthly Archives: March 2009

Remember Your Baptism into Christ

Blind Faith (No. 13, 2009)

Last Friday, more than 100 followers of Jesus were baptized in the Jordan River as 1,700 people from around the world celebrated the dedication of the Baptism Center at Bethany beyond Jordan.  King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein and Prince Ghazi Bin Mohammed of Jordan facilitated the building of the Center for use by Baptists and other evangelical Christians to mark the importance of Jesus’ baptism for their faith.  Among the speakers at the dedication of the Center was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and now a special U.N. envoy to the Middle East.  Blair noted that it took courage and leadership for Jordan (a 92% Muslim, 6% Christian nation) to allow the Center in a part of the world so often torn by sectarian strife, and that it modeled the spirit of love, compassion, mercy, justice, and renewal of faith that animated the ministry of Jesus.

(“Baptism Center Opens in Jordan,” Associated Baptist Press, 3/23/09, http://www.abpnews.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3948&Itemid=53)

Even though the dedication was attended by a former British Prime Minister, a moderate Middle Eastern monarch, and the president of one of the world’s largest Christian communions (the Baptist World Alliance), the event was almost completely ignored by mainstream media world-wide.  The few secular news outlets that gave any attention to the Baptism Center opening in a Muslim country simply ran the ABP story unedited.  Local Jordanian news coverage was an unusual positive boon for Baptist Christians in that nation. Jordanian Baptist pastors immersed 120 people who professed faith in Jesus Christ, but almost no one was interested or took notice.

Baptism plays a pivotal role in Luke’s careful account of Jesus’ life, death, and significance.  John’s urgent call to return to living by active commitment to God and God’s ways of justice, mercy, and grace sets the stage for Jesus’ personification (or incarnation) of those godly purposes. People representing the whole spectrum of society, from common people to Roman soldiers, testify to their commitment to God’s new direction for everyday life by being baptized.  Jesus validates John’s message and the powerful symbol of baptism by allowing John to baptize him in the Jordan River.  Baptism is important for Luke’s story, both for the one that is baptizing people who respond to God’s call to a new way of life, who is committing their lives to God and telling other people by their baptism, and for who is not being baptized because they have not surrendered themselves to God’s ways.  Jesus and people eager for new, genuine relationship with God submit to baptism, but self-satisfied Pharisees do not.  Baptism in Luke’s gospel clearly makes a sharp distinction between people who are committed to living by the standards of love, mercy, justice, and grace of the Kingdom of God and those who persist in living by violence, self-vindication, and faltering human power.

Read carefully Luke’s account of the purpose of John’s preaching, the responses of people who want to live with God the way John describes that life, and God’s interaction with Jesus at his baptism.  Then we will look at how Luke links Jesus’ ministry and the life-commitments people made at their baptism:

At this time, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. {3} He went all over the area around the Jordan River preaching a baptism of changed hearts and lives for the forgiveness of sins. {4} As it is written in the book of Isaiah the prophet: “This is a voice of one who calls out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord. Make the road straight for him… {6} And all people will know about the salvation of God!'” {7} To the crowds of people who came to be baptized by John, he said, “You are all snakes! Who warned you to run away from God’s coming punishment? {8} Do the things that show you really have changed your hearts and lives. Don’t begin to say to yourselves, ‘Abraham is our father.’ I tell you that God could make children for Abraham from these rocks. {9} The ax is now ready to cut down the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

{10} The people asked John, “Then what should we do?” {11} John answered, “If you have two shirts, share with the person who does not have one. If you have food, share that also.” {12} Even tax collectors came to John to be baptized. They said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” {13} John said to them, “Don’t take more taxes from people than you have been ordered to take.” {14} The soldiers asked John, “What about us? What should we do?” John said to them, “Don’t force people to give you money, and don’t lie about them. Be satisfied with the pay you get.” … {18} And John continued to preach the Good News, saying many other things to encourage the people.

{21} When all the people were being baptized by John, Jesus also was baptized. While Jesus was praying, heaven opened {22} and the Holy Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, whom I love, and I am very pleased with you.” (Luke 3:2-4, 6-14, 18, 21-22, NCV)

Sometime later, John sent some of his helpers to confirm that Jesus was actually doing what God had promised through Isaiah’s prophecy.  Jesus had preached from Isaiah when he was in Nazareth, and had applied God’s promise of healing, justice, and grace to his own life, work, and words. Jesus cites the evidence from his ministry that corresponds precisely with Isaiah’s description of God’s way of life.  Note how baptism comes up again in the story:

Then Jesus answered John’s followers, “Go tell John what you saw and heard here. The blind can see, the crippled can walk, and people with skin diseases are healed. The deaf can hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is preached to the poor. {23} Those who do not stumble in their faith because of me are blessed!” {24} When John’s followers left, Jesus began talking to the people about John: “What did you go out into the desert … to see? A prophet? Yes, and I tell you, John is more than a prophet. {27} This was written about him: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the way for you.'”
{29} (When the people, including the tax collectors, heard this, they all agreed that God’s teaching was good, because they had been baptized by John. {30} But the Pharisees and experts on the law refused to accept God’s plan for themselves; they did not let John baptize them.) (Luke 7:22-24, 26-27, 29-30, NCV)

Pharisees refused baptism, and Luke observes that they were at least consistent, because they had also refused to live God’s way in everything they did.  Baptism was not just some casual religious rite, but instead made a profound statement about the commitments attitudes, and actions that decisively set the course of a person’s life.

One of the most stirring worship services I have ever attended was at St.Paul’s Cathedral, London.  My wife, Sherron, and I were celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary, taking the trip in early January.  We went to Westminster Cathedral for the morning worship service, and decided to attend St.Paul’s that Sunday evening.  We did not know that the service would be the 1st annual Candlelight Epiphany-tide Service of Lessons and Carols.  It was magnificent!  Anglican vicars read Bible passages telling the story of Jesus’ life, from the escape to Egypt as an infant to his crucifixion.  Interspersed were anthems by the St. Paul’s Choir and faithful British hymns.  The worship service closed with the congregation standing, having walked a few steps across the cathedral as a sign of following Jesus to the cross.  Then a priest took a censor and began passing through the worshippers, splashing people with water from the baptismal font.  He repeated as he sprinkled the symbolic water, “Remember your baptism into Christ.  Remember your baptism into Christ.”  Having just recalled the life of sacrificial love and grace Jesus lived, his healing touches, his gift of new life offered to the whole world, from the least to the greatest, it was easy to remember what baptism into Christ truly meant.  Just as Jesus was baptized to proclaim his commitment to God and God’s ways of grace, we profess a life-changing commitment to God and God’s grace as our way of life by following Jesus in baptism.

Remember your baptism into Christ. The Baptist preacher’s line is, “You’re the same after baptism as you were before, only wetter.”  But is that true?  Luke says that people who were baptized lived, acted, spoke differently.  What difference does your commitment to Jesus, demonstrated in your baptism, mean each day of your life?  Remember your baptism into Christ.

– J. Edward Culpepper, Ph.D.