New Life

On Pentecost, Jews and Jewish converts from around the world were in Jerusalem. It was a great day: just about every language spoken under heaven could be heard in the streets, in restaurants, markets, and the courtyards of the temple. Translators were in high demand, and those who couldn’t find one used gestures and facial expressions to communicate, some even drew pictures in the dust or on wax tablets. It was like the whole world had come to Jerusalem, and the noise and the chatter were exhilarating to some, exhausting to others.

On that day something amazing and perplexing happened: the disciples of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, began to speak in other languages. The whole world was gathered in Jerusalem, and they heard, each in their own native language, the disciples speaking about God’s deeds of power.

Something new and unheard of was on the loose, something that transcended cultural differences and language barriers. “What does this mean?” people asked, and the apostle Peter preached the good news:

Jesus of Nazareth, a man through whom God had done deeds of power, wonders and signs, a man who had been crucified and killed – this Jesus God raised up, making him both Lord and Messiah.

Now when they heard this, they said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” How does one live in this new world where Jesus is Lord? What is the proper response to what God has done in Jesus Christ? Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”[1]
Repent and be baptized, for on the cross our sin is judged and forgiven.
Repent and be baptized, for God bears the deadly consequences of our alienation from God and from one another and gives us new life.
Repent and be baptized, for in Jesus’ death all that must die has died: everything old has passed away; everything has become new!
The message that transcends cultural differences and language barriers is the good news of Jesus Christ: he is God’s gift of new life for Israel and the nations and all of creation. In response to that good word we turn away from the old ways of the old world and let ourselves be immersed in the life of Christ.

Through baptism into Christ
we enter into newness of life
and are made one with the whole people of God.

Baptism is nothing less than the whole story of God and the people of God condensed into one moment:
It is the sea through which God’s people escape to freedom and in which the powers that oppress and enslave them drown;
It is the river God’s people cross to enter the promised land;
It is the flood from which a renewed creation emerges;
It is the call of John in the wilderness and the obedience of Jesus;
It is the water that breaks at the birth of a new humanity;
It is the washing of feet at the end of a long journey and the bath on the eve of the great sabbath;
It is the river of life that runs from the throne of God.

We discover the whole story of God and God’s people in the sacrament of baptism – not because water ties it all together so beautifully, but because Jesus does. In his life and teachings, his death and resurrection we find God’s purposes revealed and God’s promises fulfilled. In baptism we give thanks to God for choosing us in Christ and drawing us into the divine life, and we praise God by living no longer for ourselves but in Christ.

When we answer Christ’s call to discipleship and kingdom mission, our old life comes to an end and our new life begins. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans speaks of baptism as a burial:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore 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.”[2]

We affirm that through Christ everything has become new, and in baptism we embrace that newness.
In Christ our sins are forgiven – wash them away, O God.
In Christ our old self has died – bury our selfishness, every last remnant of it, O God.
In Christ death is overcome – raise us up, O God, raise us up.

In the ancient church, new disciples would take off their clothes and enter the water of baptism naked, leaving their old life behind like a pile of old clothes; when they emerged from the waters, a deacon would dress them in a white robe.

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ,” Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[3]

The white robe speaks of purity and heavenly citizenship and it declares that distinctions of ethnicity, class, status, and gender no longer apply.

But Christ is not a new outfit we put on and take off as we please. Baptism incorporates us in the body of Christ, and by being made one with him we are also made one with all for whom he died, one with the whole people of God.

Baptism is deeply personal: to the believer it is the tangible and memorable assurance of God’s love and forgiveness as well as the tangible and memorable expression of God’s claim on his or her life.

But baptism is also deeply communal: newness of life is not a private adventure but life as a member of God’s covenant community, life with the brothers and sisters of Christ.

In baptism the whole story of God and the people of God is condensed in one moment.
God acts by embracing us as God’s own, incorporating us into the body of Christ, and giving us the Holy Spirit. The church acts by obeying the command of Christ and welcoming new disciples as brothers and sisters and equipping them for ministry. And the individual believer acts by responding to God’s call in Christ, renouncing the false gods of this world, and committing to a life of discipleship.

As Disciples we are part of a church tradition that affirms that ordinarily people old enough to speak for themselves are the appropriate candidates for baptism. For decades in the 19th century, according to Ronald Osborn, one of the main topics Disciples preachers discussed in their sermons was baptism. “They delighted to tell the story about Alexander Campbell’s perplexity after the birth of his first child. Should the little girl be baptized or not?” Osborn writes. Campbell had a Presbyterian background but had begun examining closely every doctrine and tradition of the church against the witness of the New Testament.

What he was debating with himself was whether or not infant baptism has any sanction in the scriptures. (…) Campbell studied every passage which refers to baptism. After days of pondering this matter, he reached three conclusions: First, baptism is for responsible believers only, not for infants. Second, baptism means immersion. Third, he himself, though christened in infancy, had not been baptized. So not only did he not baptize his infant daughter, but he and his father [Thomas] and their wives went down to Buffalo Creek to be immersed, with a Baptist preacher officiating. [4]

Campbell’s conclusions determined Disciples practice for generations, far into the 20th century. Disciples congregations baptized believers by immersion and rebaptized people who had been baptized as infants or who had not been immersed.

But then some of our leaders began to realize that by immersing people who had already been baptized, be it by pouring or sprinkling or christening, we were not only calling into question the validity of other church traditions but God’s own action in their rites of Christian initiation. As a consequence, we became a little less certain of our own certainty and more interested in the theological reasoning supporting baptismal practices we had dismissed before. Through ecumenical dialogues with other churches we began to see the truth and beauty of their witness.

When the church baptizes infants it celebrates the grace of God who claims us in Christ as God’s own without condition: when we are little more than bundles of need and utter dependence we are already surrounded and held by God’s yes.

When the church baptizes believers it celebrates the grace of God who calls us to live in faithfulness: we are honored covenant partners whose free response God invites and awaits.

By studying the apostolic tradition together we learned to affirm our faith together: through baptism with water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit we become members of the universal church, the body of Christ.

On Pentecost, the whole world was gathered in Jerusalem, and for a moment cultural differences and language barriers didn’t disappear, but became fully transparent, and all ears could hear clearly the one story beneath, behind, and between all the stories: the story of Jesus, the good news of God’s salvation. For a moment, God’s future lit up the present, and the New Jerusalem, the City of God became manifest among the nations.

“Brothers, what should we do?” the people asked. And the apostles answered, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

[1] Acts 2:4-39
[2] Romans 6:3-4
[3] Galatians 3:27-28
[4] Ronald Osborn, The Faith We Affirm, p. 59