Previously I’ve explored Baptism as a source of hope and as a preparation for suffering, and next is Baptism as new life (today) and Baptism as a like to Christ (next Sunday). Note how there’s kind of this progression from esoteric to concrete, from future-oriented to present reality!
Anyway, Baptism is the beginning of a new life. What does this mean? Well, if it’s a new life that must mean that we were dead, and we received new life from God. I want to approach this by asking four key questions, answering each with a couple quotes from scripture and giving some sort of expression of these truths in the context of Christian worship.
#1 How were we dead?
First of all, turn to Ephesians 2:1-10. There we find the answer that we were dead in our sins, and raised by grace with Christ. The idea of sin as death makes a lot of sense, since sin is what separates us from God, the author of life. And when we think back to Genesis 3, we remember that when Adam & Eve sinned, death was pronounced upon them. This illustrates the well-known verse “the wages of sin is death.” But the relationship between sin and death is actually even more intimate than that. If we turn to I Corinthians 15:54-56, we find that the sting of death is sin, which is exactly the opposite way ’round! As we face death, it stings us with sin – as if death wasn’t bad enough.
This idea of spiritual death really comes out in Canticle 14, Kyrie Pantokrator, otherwise known as the Prayer of Manasseh. Manasseh was the worst king that Judah ever had. Not only did he worship pagan gods alongside Yahweh – which we call syncretism – he also set up an idol in the Temple‘s ‘Holy of Holies’ next to the Ark of the Covenant! And he didn’t just reign a for a few years, he reigned for over 50 years, the longest of any king of Israel or Judah, longer than Solomon, longer than David! His horrible legacy was the final straw that provoked God’s decree that Judah and Jerusalem would soon be destroyed by the Babylonians. But late into his reign (II Chronicles 33:12-18) he repented, and this canticle, Kyrie Pantokrator, is attributed to him as the prayer mentioned in verse 18. Whether this is historically true or not, it’s a very powerful prayer of repentance. And taking this context of extreme wickedness into consideration, we can understand the exaggerated language of the prayer – we know that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob sinned. But compared to King Manasseh they were righteous people; they at least strove to follow God in their lifetimes. Manasseh, by contrast, had been dead his whole life! This prayer really brings that contrast into the clear for us.
#2 How did we get new life?
There are two main factors when looking into the question being born again, or receiving new life in Christ. The first is a pretty popular scripture quote, John 3:16-17. If we believe in Christ, God has promised that we will not perish, we will not die. But as it stands, this is only part of the picture. Let us also consider Romans 6:1-14. There we find that we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Our death in sin is completed in Christ’s death, and our resurrection to new life is effected by Christ’s resurrection to new life! At a simple level, it’d be nice to say simply that over the course of belief, repentance, and baptism, we are born again into new life. But the question of infant baptism inevitably comes up here – how can infants be said to believe and have repented? I’ll deal with this question at a later time.
But for now, allow me to share a poem on this subject by George Herbert, an early Anglican priest and poet, entitled Holy Baptisme. I want to mention a snippet from each stanza. First, “Thou didst lay hold, and antedate my faith in me” is a hint of the doctrine of prevenient grace – the idea that God gives us grace before we move toward him. God acts first, we respond; this is true in the salvation of each of us, but most vividly so in the case of infant baptism. Secondly, we see a desire for child-like faith: “soft and supple to thy will.” The image of a child is a positive one in the teachings of Jesus, particularly in how children accept him so openly without so many distractions or hang-ups. Thirdly, his final line, “childhood is health” is an image of the fact that even as the body grows old and dies, its sister, the soul, does not grow old and die, but retains that youthful vigor. For the baptized believer, physical death does not mean spiritual death! That’s a piece of what this new life is all about. Speaking of which…
#3 What is this new life?
In John 3:16 we read that beautiful promise that God gives life to those who believe. In verses 18-21, we get a little picture of what that life entails: no condemnation in the light. If death is darkness and life is light, this image makes some sense – in the light our sins are exposed, not hidden. In the light we’re open and honest about our sinful condition, meaning that we’re open for Christ’s corrective and healing power. But this is all very metaphorical, how about a more technical explanation of what this condemnation-free new life really is? Romans 7:4-6 gives us some of that answer: Baptism into Christ’s death is release from the Law, and Baptism into Christ’s resurrection is a release into the freedom of the Spirit. The Law was given to deal with sin, to identify and condemn sin. When we die with Christ in Baptism, that Law is concluded, and when we are raised with Christ in Baptism, the Law is left behind. You could say the cross is in the baptismal font; we meet Christ there, bringing our sins and death down, and leaving them behind as we rise up with him. The Law is still useful – it reminds us of the sin that was killing us before, and it still guides us in our struggle against sin through the remainder of our earthly lives, but the condemnation of the Law is gone; we are free!
Free for what, though? Re-read Ephesians 2:10 – we’re God’s workmanship, saved for the purpose of doing good works. In our former state of death, we were only able to work within the framework of the world, which was ruled by Satan (and still is to some extent). But now, alive in Christ, we’re free to work empowered by the Holy Spirit, and work with God! Sometimes people get hung up with questions like “have I been raised? Am I born again?” But with a repentance and baptism behind us, a better question to ask ourselves might be “am I really living?” Not to say that we should beat ourselves up over this question – Lent provides enough opportunities for that. But even then, the increased focus on prayer, self-denial, discipline, and so on, that Lent brings, is actually a matter of life – living life to the fullest! Yes, it’s in this context of repentance and sharing Christ’s sufferings, but its focus is Easter, that’s where we’re headed, the new life in the resurrection, the new life into which we’ve been reborn!
#4 How is this new life sustained?
This is kind of a bonus question as we’re looking at Baptism’s role in starting a new life. The short answer to this question, according to the traditional faith, is prayer and sacraments.
An example of prayer is St. Patrick’s Breastplate. I mention this not simply because yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, but mainly because of what it prays. It explicitly binds the daily life of the Christian to God, to the Trinity, to all the blessings that God provides, and also explicitly binds many evils against the Christian. It’s a vivid prayer of spiritual warfare, as we touched upon last time in “Baptism as Preparation for Suffering,” and as the very name of the prayer implies: a breastplate, part of the armor of God. It’s also a preview of next week’s topic, Baptism as a Link to Christ. This prayer is also set to a phenomenal hymn, I Bind Unto Myself Today. It’s really long, but totally worth it.
Secondly, what’s something that sustains physical life? Food! The sacrament of the Eucharist is real spiritual food for our new spiritual life in Christ. Yes, we also feed on the word of God metaphorically referring to the power of the Bible in the life of the Christian, but we also feed on the Word of God literally in the bread and wine that are Christ’s Body and Blood. Here we see one side of the link between Baptism and Communion, and why we only offer the latter sacrament to those who’ve already received the first – you don’t give food to a dead man! You resuscitate him first, and then give him food. Fortunately, God is in the business of doing both. In closing, this is where the collect of the day comes in:
Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen!