To drown and to swim

On Pentecost, Jews and Jewish converts from around the world were gathered in Jerusalem. It was a great festival day: just about every language spoken under heaven could be heard in the streets, in the markets, and in the temple. It was like the whole world had come to Jerusalem, and on that day something amazing happened: the disciples of Jesus, all of them Galileans, proclaimed God’s deeds of power, and the whole world heard them, each person in their own native language. They were amazed and perplexed. Something new and unheard of was on the loose, something that blew through language barriers like wind through a fence.

“What does this mean?” people asked, and Peter responded by telling them of Jesus of Nazareth. He talked about the deeds of power God had done through him, and how he had been crucified and killed. “This Jesus God raised up,” he declared, “making him both Lord and Messiah.” The miracle of mutual understanding they all had been part of that day had been brought about by Jesus the Messiah – by his life, his death and resurrection. Amazing stuff, but what did it mean for them? How were they to respond to what God had done with this Jesus? How does one live in a world where Jesus is Lord, rather than Caesar? “What should we do?” they asked, and Peter said, “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” (Acts 2:4-39).

God had raised Jesus from the dead, inaugurating a new creation, and the way to enter it was through water. Repent, for the old ways of the old world have been judged. Be baptized, for God calls you to live the new life of the new creation in the power of the Holy Spirit. The miracle of the whole world gathered in Jerusalem, each person hearing the mighty acts of God proclaimed in their own language – that miracle was not just for a day. It was a glimpse of the future, a glimpse of the fullness that had been unveiled by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The love of God in Christ is the reality that transcends all our cultural differences, and we enter this reality through water.

In the beginning, when the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2). Water and the Spirit go together, in creation and in the new creation we enter through baptism. Water and the Spirit go together in moving life toward fulfilment.

In baptism the church from its earliest days has perceived echoes of the whole story of God and the people of God. Every baptism contains the flood that threatens to undo creation, and yet we emerge to live. Every baptism contains the sea in which the powers of oppression drown and through which God’s people escape to freedom. Every baptism occurs in the river which God’s people cross to enter the promised land, and where John the Baptist calls them to repent and Jesus obeys. We are baptized in the river of life that runs from Jesus’ wounded side on the cross and from the throne of God. Baptism is the water that breaks at the birth of 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.

Water and the Spirit go together. When Peter preached in Caesarea, he and the other circumcised believers were astounded to realize that the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. Pagans were extolling God! Nobody asked, “What does this mean?” or “What should we do?” Peter simply stated, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Baptized into Christ, we learn to follow the movement of the Spirit who tends to act in ways that astound us.

We look at Jesus, and we find in his life and teachings the embodiment of God’s compassion and power to heal. We hear God’s call to trust God’s promise that all of life will be redeemed and renewed in Christ. We hear a call to live in Christ. And the call to live in Christ is more than a call to believing differently, or to thinking, talking, and acting in more promising ways;  it is all that, but it is above all a call to be renewed in the image and likeness of Christ; it is a call to say yes with our whole being to the work of God. And saying yes to one thing implies saying no to others.

“You were taught to put away your former way of life,” we read in Ephesians, as though saying no to bad habits, loveless attitudes, and selfish practices were as simple as giving your old furniture to goodwill. “You were taught to put away your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Yes, we were taught, by apostles, prophets, parents, teachers and preachers, but the old self can’t be put away by teaching.

In Romans 6, Paul gets to the heart of the matter, which is why we read this passage every time we have a baptism: “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” (Romans 6:3-4). Baptism is the burial of the old self.  The new self is not a better educated version of the old; the new self is being born and raised in Christ; the new self belongs to the new creation.

Martin Luther called the old self the old Adam, and he reminded the church “that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new human being daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”[1] He didn’t suggest that we need to be baptized every day, but that we remember every day that we are baptized and that Christ has made us his own. Because we are in Christ, the knowledge of our falling short of “true righteousness and holiness” doesn’t lead to despair, but opens the door to greater trust in the power and mercy of God. In Christ, everything has become new, and in baptism and discipleship we embrace that newness and we are embraced by it, held by it. Living in Christ is a lot like learning to swim. We float on grace with complete trust that we will not sink.

I want to go back to the image of clothing ourselves with the new self. In the ancient church, that imagery was an important element of every baptism. New disciples took off their clothes and entered the baptistery naked, leaving their old life behind like a pile of old clothes. When they emerged from the water, a deacon dressed them in a white robe – but not silk for some and scratchy wool for the rest; no, the same white robe for all, because in Christ the world’s distinctions of ethnicity, class, status, and gender no longer apply. Or as Paul put it, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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” (Galatians 3:27-28). We are one in Christ. In baptism we are made one with him and through him with the whole people of God.

Baptism is very personal. To each believer baptism is the tangible assurance of God’s love and forgiveness and the equally tangible expression of God’s claim on his or her life.  Baptism is deeply personal; 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, past and future, 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.

In baptism, God draws a line between our old self and our new life.  We know that, but we tend to redraw that line. Rather than seeing ourselves as fully claimed by God for God’s mission and God’s future in God’s world, we draw a line between religion and the rest of our lives. We draw a line around a little garden, where Jesus lives and where we love to go and visit; but we don’t live there. Most of our life takes place outside the little garden, on the other side of the line, and there, it seems, idols of our own making and beyond our control are in charge. But God is faithful. God doesn’t leave the world to our idolatrous tendencies. God continues to call us and claim us for the mission of transforming all things in the Spirit of Jesus, beginning with ourselves. So remember this: We are baptized. Christ has made us his own. We belong to the new creation.


[1] Small Catechism IV.4.