The meaning of baptism

St Michael’s, 6th November 2016

Readings – Colossians 2:6-15; Luke 20:27-38

Bishop Michael once told the story of a village in Nigeria. It was a village divided by a river. On the one side there was the pagan half of the village who worshipped the gods of their ancestors and followed their traditions. On the other side was the Christian half of the village who worshipped Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. And in between was this river which you had to cross to get from one side to another.

And when someone from the pagan side of the river decided to become a Christian there was no going back. The moment you decided to follow Jesus and were baptised in the river, you literally left everything behind. From that point on, your home only could be in the Christian half of the village.

I often remember that story when I think about baptism. In the West we have generally turned baptism into a ceremony which has less to do with our faith, than the traditions of our ancestors. You baptise your children because you, your parents and grandparents were themselves baptised. The service generally doesn’t cost you anything, unless you splash out on a big party afterwards. And it has to be said that sometimes, sadly, it doesn’t appear to have much effect on the way people live their lives afterwards.

But for the first Christians to whom the apostle Paul wrote this letter, their experience of baptism was far more like that of those villagers in Nigeria. Their background was in the Roman and Greek world where many gods were worshipped, and the emperor himself was seen as divine. (And I don’t just mean good-looking!). But the moment they professed faith in Jesus Christ they said goodbye to their old way of life. They owned Jesus as Lord and worshipped just one God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I hope you can start to see why baptism was such a big deal.

For a start, baptism was a political statement. Now when we say or sing Jesus is Lord, we perhaps don’t think too much about what we are saying. It’s a phrase we may have used hundreds of times before. But when the first Christians said Jesus is Lord, they were saying He is the one they were going to obey above anybody else. And that was something that made the Romans deeply, deeply unhappy. For Paul to write as he does in our first reading that Christ…is the Head over every power and authority was in their eyes treason. As far as they were concerned, the power and authority belonged to Caesar and how dare this bunch of upstarts say anything different! That’s why so many Christians ended up in the arena, as food for the lions.

And in many parts of the world today baptism still is a political statement. So, for example, back in Peter and Olivia’s home country of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has been ruling for well over 30 years and as far as he is concerned he is the head over every power and authority in that country. It’s one reason why Peter and his family have settled here among us. As baptised followers of Jesus Christ they have dared to claim that the Lord is the one who reigns over all, and Peter and Olivia are part of a church that has courageously defied the government for many years, often at great cost to themselves.

Maybe one reason why we don’t tend to think that much about calling Jesus Lord is that we don’t like to think too much about the cost of following Him. When we share the good news of Jesus we tend to skip over the bit when He calls us to take up our cross and leave everything else behind. Yet even here in the apparently comfortable West there is a cost to following Jesus. Yes, admittedly we don’t have policemen watching this service, taking down our names and waiting to follow us home. But if we are serious about making Jesus our Lord, then baptism reminds us of a truth we must not ignore – that following Jesus really is about dying to an old way of life.

Now I want you to imagine that you are a young person in first century Colossae. You’ve just been invited to a feast at the temple of Bacchus, the god of wine, women and song. How are going to react? “Oh, no not another party!” “Do I really have go?” No, you’re going to be straight in there, joining in with everyone else. Because the thing about what the Bible calls sin is that it is attractive, really attractive. So often it just seems like a bit of harmless fun. Everyone else is doing it, so why not me? And so long as we aren’t hurting anyone else, it can’t be that bad, can it?

Well, the message of the Bible is clear: The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). You see, when you live for yourself and for your own pleasures, you aren’t thinking about what God wants for your life. You end up in habits you cannot break, doing stuff you later regret, and yes, in the end hurting those you love the most.

That’s why Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow Him. It’s not because Jesus is a killjoy and wants us to stop having fun. It’s because He is telling us to leave behind an old way of life that in the end can actually do us no good. But – and this is really important point – we have to make that decision to cross from one side to the other for ourselves. Jesus’ love for us is so great that He doesn’t force us to do something we don’t actually want to do. We have to want to change, or to use the language of the Bible, to repent.

And how do we express that desire to change? This is where baptism comes in. You see, in the Bible there is often a connection between passing through water and death. It makes sense, really, if you think about it. So when you are baptised, or declaring your faith at your child’s baptism, you are saying you want to leave an old way of life behind. That’s why in our reading Paul talks about being buried with Jesus in baptism (Col 2:12). As Jesus’ earthly life came to an end in a cold, dark tomb, so we are declaring we wish to put an end to a life lived without God, in sorrow for all the wrong we have done.

Now I realise all this sounds fairly heavy, and if baptism was simply about giving stuff up, then the Christian faith would be dull and gloomy indeed. But that would be to miss the most important and wonderful truth of all about baptism – that it involves rising to new life with Christ. That’s the point Paul makes in verse 12 – that not only have we been buried with Christ in baptism, but also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

So if there’s nothing else you take away from this morning, remember this: the Christian faith is ultimately about life, a new existence where we can know God as our Heavenly Father, where we can know His Son Jesus as our Saviour and our Friend, and where we can know the power of the Holy Spirit living in our hearts to comfort, lead and encourage us.

That is why the Christian faith is such good news. So how is it possible for us to experience this life? Paul tells us in verse 13: When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us – how much of our sins? 10% 20% 50 % of our sins? No, he forgave us all our sins. Just think about that for a moment. Sometimes people say, “God could never forgive me for the wrong things I have done” or they say, “Well, I believe God can forgive other people, but He can’t possibly be interested in me”. The truth is that on the cross Jesus really offered Himself for every wrong thought, every wrong word, every wrong deed committed by anyone. All you have to do is decide to come, follow Him and this offer of eternal life is yours.

But please don’t make the mistake of thinking that baptism is the end of the story. Because, you see, Jesus calls us not only to accept the good news that He brings, but also to be good news to others.

Now when I prepare folk for baptism, I ask them to think about one question they would like to ask God. Time after time the answer comes back: “Why doesn’t God show Himself?” And that’s a good question. Life would be so much easier if only we could see what God is like and we knew what it meant to serve and obey Him.

Of course the simple response would be to say that God has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, and that is something I believe one hundred percent. When you meet Jesus for yourself, your whole life is transformed as you understand the wonder and the depth of God’s love for you. But the question then comes back, “Where can I see Jesus?” And the more think about it, the more you realise that our calling as a church is to make Jesus visible. When people look at us, they should see community of new life, full of love and joy and peace, and all the other gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Sadly, when folk encounter the church, they often discover miserable Christians for whom their faith is a duty and a chore. They discover grumpy Christians who are always being negative and finding fault with others. They discover happy Christians who are still trying to live the old way of life, as if their faith didn’t really make that much difference.

Brothers and sisters, our identity as the church is the body of Christ. Remarkable as it sounds, God has chosen us, with all our faults and failings, to make Jesus known in the world. At the very least that means that when people see us, they are not left wondering about who God is or what He has done in Jesus Christ.

That’s why we need to take on board Paul’s words in Colossians 2:6-7:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

Or to put it another way, we need to show life on this side of the river is pretty good! And it’s important we do this, not just for the sake of the people we meet day by day, or for the community living in this area. It’s important we also show what life in Christ is really like for the children who are growing up as part of this church.

In a moment I will invite Peter and Olivia to come with the godparents to the front of the church, and I will baptise Rudairo and welcome her into the life of St Michael’s. I am told the name “Rudairo” means faith in the Lord. So the question is – how will Rudairo come to a living faith in the Lord Jesus unless we show her what a joy and privilege it is to serve Jesus as our Lord?

So today, when we stand to declare our faith, consider what it means for you to say Jesus is head over every power and authority. Think if there are old habits you need to leave behind at the foot of the cross, and sins you need to confess. And above all ask for the filling of the Holy Spirit so that you may be good news to all whom you know and love. In the wonderful name of Jesus, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.

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