Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 21, 2020
Romans 6:1b-11 Commentary
Baptisms are usually joyful occasions. In the church I pastor we gather children to a place where they can watch what’s happening. Most of us end up smiling before the baptism’s all done. However, as a colleague has noted, if we really understood what’s happening when we baptize people, we might be more sober about it.
Some people think of baptism much like they think of having a photographer take their baby’s six-month portrait. Baptism is, for some, just one of those rituals good parents perform for their children when they’re babies.
On the other hand, some have always thought of baptism as a kind of magic. They assume that it somehow automatically gives those who are baptized a ticket to heaven. Some fear that if their baby dies before baptism, he or she will be lost.
So, for example, my grandfather rushed my father to the baptismal font on very the first Sunday of his life. My grandma couldn’t even join them because she was still recovering from giving birth.
Christians profess that baptism has no magical powers to guarantee anyone’s entrance into heaven. We don’t view Jesus’ followers who die before being baptized as somehow forever lost. Baptism, after all, symbolizes something that’s true from the moment of a Christian’s child’s conception: Christians’ children are holy to God.
Most of God’s adopted children believe that baptism is more than a ritual but also less than a magical ticket to heaven. Basically, we profess that in baptism God comes to the church with both a reminder and an assurance.
When, after all, Paul mentions baptism in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, he doesn’t speak of either a hollow ritual or magical power. In fact, he basically seems to mention it to remind and assure his readers of our riches in Christ Jesus.
Baptism reminds God’s dearly beloved people that Christ has completely washed our sins away with his precious blood. In baptism God reminds and assures us that Christ’s blood is even more effective at washing away sins than soap and water is at washing away COVID-19 particles.
So, for instance, in I Corinthians 1:12-13 Paul points a divided church to its baptism. “How can you possibly claim that you belong to Paul or to Apollos or to Peter?” he rhetorically asks the Corinthians. When we were baptized, after all, the apostle insists, we were permanently identified with Jesus Christ.
As a result, the apostle basically insists, those whom the church has baptized must not return to our pre-baptismal ways. We must live as those in whom Christ’s Spirit lives to make us more and more like Jesus Christ.
Yet those who proclaim Romans 6 might want explore how the racism and racial injustice that led to the deaths of our African-American neighbors belies this claim. Regardless of the color of their skin, when our neighbors are baptized, they’re identified with Jesus Christ and, as a result, with us. The kind of individual and systemic racism that plagues so much of North American culture contradicts the Christ-likeness that God longs to produce in God’s adopted children.
Christians also profess that baptism points us to and reminds us of both the reality of our sinful nature and Christ’s finished work on our behalf. It reminds us that we can’t somehow scrub away our own sins like racism. Our baptism reminds us that only Christ’s blood and Holy Spirit can wash away our sins.
So as a colleague has noted, though we sometimes link the words “remember and believe” only to the Lord’s Supper, they also apply to the sacrament of baptism. When we baptize people, we incorporate them into Christ’s body. However, the sacraments also vividly remind us of what Christ has graciously done for us.
So every time the church baptizes someone, God’s dearly beloved people remember and believe that Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again. Each baptism reminds us that we are people whom God has made dead to sin and alive to himself in Christ. So each baptism also challenges us to live up to our high calling as those for who Christ died and in whom his Spirit now lives.
Yet in Romans 6 Paul also strongly implies that baptism doesn’t just point Christ’s followers to what Christ has done. In fact, the apostle seems to suggest that baptism somehow changes those whom the church baptizes. Paul, after all, suggests that our baptism is really about a kind of drowning and death.
Those, whom the church baptizes, Paul says, are baptized into “Christ’s death.” While we’re not sure what that exactly means, we can at least say it means that God frees those whom the Church baptizes from slavery to Satan, sin and death. God somehow uses baptism’s waters to loosen the grip our sinful nature has on those being baptized.
Of course, the baptismal water itself doesn’t free that baptized person. Nor does the baptizer change him or her. It’s God’s Holy Spirit, working in that baptized person, putting to death his or her sinful nature.
Those whom the church baptizes still commit sins. However, Christ’s Spirit also gives baptized people the power to resist temptation. So as one theologian notes, baptism, in a way, somehow de-claws sin’s fierce power.
The Christ into whom we baptize people is also, however, the risen Christ. So the Spirit who breaks sin’s iron grip on us also raises the baptized person to new life. After all, just as God raised Jesus from the death, God also raises the baptized person so that he or she may too live a life of a faithful reception of God’s amazing grace.
However, we sometimes assume that we must remember our baptism in order for it to affect us. Yet what if we saw baptized Christians’ profession of God’s saving work in their lives as the reception of what God already did at their baptism? What if baptized believers’ growing faith and obedience is a sign of their death to sin and resurrection to a new life that God affected at their baptism?
Even though we may not remember our baptism, we can celebrate the affect it’s had on us, by God’s grace. God’s beloved people can celebrate the faithful obedience that has, through the power of the Holy Spirit, somehow grown out of it.
Of course, this raises some painful questions about people whom the church baptized but have now abandoned the church and Christian living. Those questions prompt not easy answers, but, instead, perhaps, both a challenge and a promise.
The church’s challenge is to persistently point people who have been baptized to the promises embedded in their baptism. When we baptize people, the church promises to do everything we can to help them accept the promises God made to them in it. After all, while God has done everything necessary for our salvation, baptized people also need to faithfully receive that finished work.
So God’s adopted children constantly pray that those whom we baptize will faithfully and persistently recognize God as their God and themselves as God’s children. To that end, Christians receive baptized people in love, help to instruct them in the faith and include them in our fellowship.
Yet we also know that some people respond to their baptism, as well as our love, support and prayer and sometimes even Christian education by turning their backs on the Lord. Virtually nothing grieves Christians more than this awful rejection.
Yet baptism keeps hope alive for spiritually wandering loved ones. A dear colleague likes to say that when we baptize someone, it’s as though God attaches one end of a bungee cord to that person and the other to the baptismal font. So while people may wander far from that font, the Spirit serves as a kind of bungee cord that keeps drawing them back. As long as they live, after all, God makes the power of God’s amazing grace available to those whom the church has baptized.
So those whom baptized people have wounded by their faithlessness can cling to their baptism as a reason for hope. Peoples’ baptism is no magic guarantee of their salvation. And of course their sin matters to them, God and us.
Yet Paul strongly suggests that something happened in and to them when even eventual spiritual wanderers were baptized. God’s Holy Spirit planted a seed that God persistently waters, fertilizes and cultivate so that it flowered into a new life of faithful obedience.
So, as one scholar notes, when Spirit turns a baptized person’s life back toward God, we shouldn’t be stunned. If before they die those whom we’ve baptized finally find they’re moving toward the Kingdom of Christ, we shouldn’t be shocked. If they finally find that Spirit’s movement sweeping away their resistance to God, we shouldn’t be startled.
After all, the love of the Christ whom we meet at the baptismal font is unconditional. The power of the Spirit who moves into those who are baptized is great. And the grace that collects those whom God has chosen is, through the work of Christ and his Spirit, irresistible.
Harry Ashfield is the main character of Flannery O’Connor’s, “The River.” This young boy who calls himself Bevel grows up in what a largely loveless home. His abusive parents spend most of their time either drinking or recovering from their drinking. Virtually everything they say to Harry is either a sarcastic joke or cutting criticism.
One day, Mrs. Connin, Harry’s religious babysitter, takes him to the river where the unpretentious but charismatic Rev. Summers is baptizing people. Mrs. Connin convinces Summers to baptize Harry, whom they both mistakenly call Bevel.
After baptizing Harry, the preacher tells Harry that he now “counts,” that he’s finally someone. Harry, whom O’Connor calls Bevel throughout the rest of the story, leaves the riverside feeling for the very first time that he now somehow matters.
Yet his baptism leaves Bevel feeling unfulfilled. While the preacher had promised him that he’d enter the Kingdom of Christ when he baptized him, Bevel doesn’t feel like he’s entered anything yet. He, after all, must still enter his loveless home.
So the day after he’s baptized, Bevel returns to the river committed to finally entering this Kingdom of Christ. When, however, he tries to baptize himself by plunging under the water, he can’t stay submerged. Bevel just keeps bobbing back up to the surface.
He decides this whole baptism thing is merely another cruel joke, just like the ones his parents so often told or played on him. So in anger, Bevel kicks out at the river … and loses his footing.
The river’s current, says O’Connor, catches him “like a long gentle hand” and pulls him “quickly forward and down.” “For an instant,” O’Connor adds, Bevel “was overcome with surprise; then, since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and fear left him.”
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