Baptism: a story as old as heaven and earth (Acts 2.37-42) [sermon 8-13-2017]

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August 8, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday August 13, 2017.

We’re plunging into a new 4-week series here: “The water and the table: telling our story.”

Text is Acts 2.37-42. But this sermon focuses on Acts 2.38.

This sermon would have been impossible without the following resources:

G. R. Beasley-Murray. Baptism in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962.

Rowan Williams. Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. Especially pages 1-19.

And especially!

John Mark Hicks and Greg Taylor. Down in the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism as God’s Transforming Work. rev. ed. Abilene: Leafwood, 2004, 2010.

An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.

Today, we’re plunging into a new series, The Water and the Table. You’ve probably figured out what we’ll be talking about the next several weeks. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Some religious traditions call them sacraments. The fifth-century theologian Augustine defined sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. In other words, God works through baptism and the Lord’s Supper to transform us, to make us holy.

God can and does do extraordinary things through ordinary people using ordinary stuff. God works wonders through very raw material. That’s pretty much the story of the Bible.

Speaking of stories, that’s the way I want to shift our thinking about baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I don’t want us to be confused by big churchy-sounding words like sacraments. I want us to revision these practices of the church as retelling an old, old story. A story as old as the heavens and the earth. And a story that will be retold in the new heavens and the new earth. The waters of baptism and the communion table are how the church tells this story now.

If you’re like me and you grew up in the Churches of Christ, you can probably quote a verse from our readings today in your sleep.

Acts 2.38: 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.

This verse is pretty essential to how we in Churches of Christ tell the story of baptism. We believe that God does something to you when you’re plunged into the water. That you come back out of the water transformed, healed, and made clean and new.

Baptize comes from an ordinary old Greek word that means to dip. It was the kind of word you might use any old day. It was a word you might use to talk about dunking your Oreos in milk. But the church gave this plain old word a new life, just as God gives us a new life through baptism. Because the word means to dip, in Churches of Christ we practice baptism by immersion. That means we don’t just sprinkle or pour water on you. We dunk you in the water. That’s important to us. Our ancestors in the faith realized that how you tell the story is as important as the story you have to tell. You need to tell the story the right way.

Not only do we insist on actually plunging you in the water, in Churches of Christ we practice what’s called Believer’s Baptism. Basically that means we don’t baptize babies. Baptism is a way of following Jesus, and we believe you must choose to follow him. We believe that no one can make that choice for anyone else. So we baptize those who can make a choice to follow Jesus, and babies can’t make that choice.

It might even be better to call how we practice baptism Believer’s and Repenter’s Baptism. What did Peter say in Acts 2.38? Repent, and be baptized. Repent is one of those scary-sounding church words. But the words the Bible uses that we translate in English as repent were everyday, ordinary words. They mean you reorient yourself. You turn around and start going a different way.  I really like how the CEB puts it. Instead of repent, it says change your hearts and lives. Repentance means that the deepest parts of us begin to change, and with them, so does our perspective, our attitude, and our actions. People who repent are baptized. You change your course and walk down into the water, where God claims you in Christ. Peter, the same guy who preached Acts 2.38, also called baptism an appeal to God for a good conscience (1 Pet. 3.21).  People feel the need to repent—to turn around, to change their hearts and lives—when they see their life’s journey has gone through dark, twisted, nasty places. You’ve been wounded and you’ve wounded others. You have hurt. Regret. Remorse. Shame. So your heart needs to be healed. You need a new beginning. Baptism is what gives you that new beginning.

Some faith traditions will have you say a Sinner’s Prayer for a new beginning. But there’s not a Sinner’s Prayer written on any page of the Bible. But we did just hear Peter call baptism an appeal to God for a good conscience. In the Bible, baptism is the Sinner’s Prayer. [1]

This is why we insist that we are not saved by anything we do in baptism. Submitting to the water of baptism is the prayer—an acted-out prayer, but a prayer nonetheless—of a person who repents and wants a new life. God answers our prayer by forgiving us, healing us, giving us a new beginning. We believe the story needs to be told the way Peter told it in Acts 2.38. We repent and are baptized so that our sins may be forgiven.

When I was growing up we used to sing a song in worship, Did you repent? Fully repent? I never sing that song anymore, because it promotes a wrong idea about repentance. Repentance is about changing your perspective, and the direction of your life. It’s a turning around and walking a new path. That means it’s a journey—a journey you’ll be on the rest of your life. When you repent and are baptized, it’s not just the end of your old life. It’s the beginning of your new life. That’s what God does for us through baptism. He gives us a new beginning, a new life, so that, in the words of the old Westminster Catechism, we can live to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

As you begin your new life-journey, you’ll need a companion, a guide, a familiar voice to go with you. In Acts 2.38, Peter told us who our new traveling companion will be when we are baptized: you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is how God is present with, in, and among his people. Throughout the Bible, the Spirit nurtures, comforts, guides, empowers, and holds God’s people together.

This is more or less how we have told the story of baptism in Churches of Christ. It’s how I will continue to tell the story of baptism. It’s what I believe God did to me when I was baptized. And what I believe God does for anyone else when they’re baptized.

Our fellowship has done a fantastic job of explaining how to tell the story. But I’m afraid that we’ve put so much emphasis on that, we’ve never actually gotten around to telling the story itself. 

That’s what I want to to do now. Begin to plunge into the old, old story baptism is telling. I promised you a story as old as the heavens and the earth itself. And a story that will continue to be told in the new heavens and new earth. It is the story from which all true stories emerge; and it is the story in which all true stories converge. And to tell it right, I’m going to need to tell it backwards, then forward again.

About three thousand people responded to Peter’s sermon where he called on them to repent and be baptized. That is, they all got dunked in water, believing that God would forgive their sins and give them a fresh start. They didn’t question whether or not it would actually work. Coming to get dunked in water for a new beginning wasn’t a strange idea to them at all. Why not?

Because it was a story they’d heard before. A story they’d heard told in various ways their whole lives.

Just before Jesus began his ministry, his cousin John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness by the Jordan River. The Bible tells us John was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3.3). John even baptized Jesus. Nobody questioned it. People just accepted that if you wanted a clean start, you could get it by being dunked in water. I wonder where they got that idea from?

Many Jewish households in those days had cisterns called mikva’ot that were used for purification. They lived by a story called Torah, which told you  how to be holy, and what was unholy. If you came into contact with something unholy, you were unholy until you purified yourself. And purifying yourself always involved your entire body being immersed—or baptized—in water. The old, old story they lived by already told them you could be made holy by going in the water.

Back in the days of the Old Testament prophet Elisha, a Syrian general named Naaman contracted a fatal skin disease that made him an outcast. Elisha told Naaman to go dip himself—baptize himself—seven times in the Jordan River. And he would be healed and made clean. When Naaman obeyed Elisha’s word, that’s exactly what happened. It’s the same Jordan River John baptized the people in. Did the water have magical healing properties? No! Naaman surrendered to God in the water, and God healed him and made him clean again. They already lived by a story that told them God could make people clean again in the water.

In the Exodus, God saved the Israelites by leading them through the Sea of Reeds. They’d been slaves in Egypt, but God was setting them free to be his people and serve him with joy. The Egyptians chased them through the Sea, but God drowned the Egyptians in the water. Just as God drowns our sins and our shame in the waters of baptism.  The apostle Paul actually described the Exodus as a baptism. He said: our ancestors were all … baptized … in the cloud and in the sea (1 Cor. 10.1-2). That’s how God gave them a new life. The Exodus was the big story they lived by. They already knew God saved people and gave them a new life through water.

Way, way back in the days of Noah, the earth was so full of evil and violence that God sent a flood to purify the land. But Noah and his family were saved by God—along with all the animals they took on the ark. Peter compared baptism to Noah’s flood in one of his letters. He reminded his readers how in the days of Noah … eight persons were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you (1 Pet. 3.20-21). The earth was made holy again, and life began anew through a flood of water. They already lived by a story that told them new beginnings come through water.

This old, old story of healing, cleansing, and new life coming through God working with water runs deeper than you might know. And it’s when Jesus comes to John for baptism that you see just how deep it goes. Why did Jesus get baptized when he didn’t have any sins to forgive? According to Matt. 3.15, Jesus said he had to do it to fulfill all righteousness. That was his way of saying: This is the right thing to do. This fits with the old, old story. According to the old, old story, new beginnings come through water. It’s also what we humans needed him to do. Jesus was born and lived and suffered and knew shame and died all in solidarity with us. So that he could defeat death for us, and we could be raised to live a new life with him. When he went down into the waters of baptism, that was his way of identifying with sinful humanity. He let himself be plunged into our mess with us.

Oh, but it’s even deeper than that. Luke 3.21-22 says that when Jesus was baptized, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” You have water, and you have the Holy Spirit, and you have the voice of God declaring that he’s pleased.

You know how deep this story goes?

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep—it was chaos and darkness—and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters (Gen. 1.1-2). It’s at that point God begins to speak into the chaos and darkness to create our universe and put life in it. And when he finished, he was well-pleased, and said so: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good (Gen. 1.31).

So the creation story. There’s water. And there’s the Holy Spirit hovering. And there’s the voice of God declaring how good this all is. Baptism plunges us into that old, old story. A story as old as the heavens and the earth itself. In the waters of baptism, God reaches into the chaos and darkness of our lives to create something new. The Holy Spirit midwives our new birth. And just as God’s voice declared Jesus his beloved Son as the Spirit hovered over him after baptism; in Rom. 8.16, Paul says: the same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. [2]

So, at the creation, there was water and the Spirit and the voice of God saying how good it all is. At Jesus’ baptism, there was water and the Spirit and the voice of God declaring Jesus as his Son—and how pleased God is. And when we are baptized into Christ, there’s water and the Holy Spirit;  and through the Spirit God proudly claims us as his sons and daughters.

In 2 Corinthians 5.17, Paul tells us: if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! And near the close of the Bible, in Rev. 21.1-5,  we’re told there will be a new heaven and a new earth. In this new heavens and earth, God has defeated darkness and chaos again and dwells among the peoples. And he says: Look! I’m making all things new. Just like we are made new through baptism.

I told you—the story baptism tells is as old as the heavens and the earth, and will continue on in the new heavens and new earth. It’s the same story that’s told in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus—the story we are plunged into in the waters of baptism.

And that old, old story is this: God always brings light out of darkness. Order from chaos. Life out of death. Darkness, chaos, and death never get the final word. Because God is a God of light and life and newness. He is the one who always says: Look! I’m doing a new thing (Isa. 43.19). And: Look! I’m making all things new.

Baptism is how you get written into that story. It’s where you surrender yourself to God, who shines light into the darkness of your life. Who brings order to the chaos of your life. And who promises that life—not death—will have the final word.

[1] This point–baptism is the sinner’s prayer–comes directly from John Mark Hicks and Greg Taylor, Down in the River to Pray, 25-27. I’m not clever enough to come up with anything that pithy.

[2] This section–connecting baptism and the creation story–comes from Rowan Williams, Being Christian, 2-12.


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