[This is a guest post by Paul McMullen, a fellow leader in the Storyline Community.]
I was fortunate to take an intensive theology course this summer. The title was, Theology as a Way of Life, and it focused on the ways in which liturgical and ascetic theology spiritually form the community of God’s people. If that sounds a little heady, it was a bit beyond me, especially since it was taught out of the Anglican/Episcopal tradition, which I’m unfamiliar with.
One of the big takeaways I did have is that God has gifted us with (at least) two rituals filled with power and mystery: baptism and communion. As followers of Jesus, these rituals form us. They define reality. Another way to say this is that, in a mysterious way, these rituals connect us to God’s story on the cosmic level.
God has used water since the very beginning (Genesis 1:2, “and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”) to reveal deep things about reality. The waters [seas] in the Old Testament world represented chaos that Yahweh [God] provided boundaries for. God parts the waters and sends his people through to the other side on a few occasions (the Red Sea & Jordan River, for example). Prospective priests were to be ritually cleansed with baptism waters. By the time of John the Baptist, the waters continued to take on this cleansing element. Being dipped [plunged] in the water was a ritual of renewal.
Jesus not only is baptized by John, but also speaks of undergoing another type of baptism in his death and resurrection. And by the time of the early church, this dipping-in-water ritual had become the active means of aligning oneself with the story of Jesus. This story is the personal level cleansing of sins but it is also the large scale story of community being set free [Exodus] and order being restored from chaos [creation]. The passing through water is what God is doing in the world. He cuts through the chaos and provides a way forward. He walks the path himself, going through death to life. And he says, “Follow me.”
This ritual also connects us with the priestly theme of Israel. Through ritual washing a person joins “the priesthood of believers.” For all of God’s people are now priests of the new covenant. This priesthood is the Church, which is also Christ’s body. The Church [identified with Christ] baptizes the initiate into Christ by the power of the Spirit. The baptized person joins with Christ [and the Church] in his death and resurrection. The identity of the person is now changed. They have died and now are a new creation in Christ.
The ritual is an “embodied act”, meaning it is done with the body. In other words, it’s not an inward subjective experience. It is a physical act by a person and by the Church. The Church, represented by an individual doing the baptizing, physically helps the initiate go through the death-burial-resurrection ritual. Just as Jesus’ physical death brought victory and salvation on a cosmic level, baptism’s physical experience has an effect on the entire person [body, soul, spirit].
So what does all of this mean for us? It means that when we engage in this ritual we are glimpsing the mystery of what God is doing in us and in all creation. Baptism is a gift to us. On one level, it can simply be a person being dunked in water. As with other spiritual activity, it is quite possible for this ritual to be practiced with little “heart” and no expectation of the living God showing Himself. The Gospel of John relays the story of a time when God spoke from above. Some heard the voice but others only heard thunder (John 12). The power of the ritual is in some ways dependent upon faith. Through the eyes of faith and expectation, believers witness in baptism the power of God’s plan revealed to humanity. And God is gracious, willing to work through imperfect ritual and imperfect expectation.
To wrap up these thoughts on baptism, here are a few things I am not saying, as well as a few suggestions for practice that come to mind:
I am not saying:
- That we should view baptism as the action that saves us and gives us a “get out of hell free” card from God. [People are saved by grace and God chooses how and when to give his grace.]
- That baptism is the only important aspect of becoming a Christian. [Becoming a Christian is a process that includes baptism.]
- That baptism should be the focal point of Gospel presentation or persuasion for non-Christians. [Jesus is the focal point.]
I am suggesting:
- That baptism is a gift from God that reveals his death-to-life activity in the world on a cosmic level and in each individual who receives him.
- That we consider the communal aspect of baptism and push against individualistic understandings and practices.
- That we reject the belief that baptism only represents what has already happened in the heart of a person.
- That we celebrate the mystery of baptism – that God is doing something powerful in the ritual – something that defines us.
In a future blog post I’ll delve into the ritual of Communion.
What questions does baptism raise for you?