BAPTISM: as Ritual
Text: 1 Corinthians 10:1-4; 1 Peter 3:20-21;
Genesis 17:7,10-11; John 13:5-17
“Space… the final frontier… these are the voyages of the starship Enterprise…”
One night many years ago I sat down to watch Star Trek: the Next Generation. I enjoyed the show for all the technology and space-travel, but this particular night it was a different kind of show, marking one of the most memorable television episodes I have ever seen of any series. The crew of the Enterprise was meeting another species for the first time, hoping to establish friendly and diplomatic relations with them. They had records of previous failed attempts, failed because of a basic lack of communication. So, too, as the initial conversation began, it seemed doomed to failure. The other species only mentioned names and places, speaking in short animated phrases like “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” Captain Picard launched into an opening diplomatic speech full of technical jargon and carefully chosen phrases. And both groups looked perplexed at one another. Then, the captain of the other group said something to his first officer, who seemed to protest, but the order was given: the other captain pulled out two knives and the next thing you knew he and Captain Picard disappeared, beamed off their ships to the planet below.
What unfolded was fascinating. We come to realize that the alien species communicates by metaphor. The names and places they spoke (their only speech) called forth for them a historic event between two people; whatever happened at that event was meant to speak to the present situation. We come to realize that “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” was a famous encounter between two strangers who faced hardship together (at a place called Tanagra) and became friends and allies. The alien species was also interested in a diplomatic relationship, but the only way they knew to say so was unintelligible to Captain Picard and the other humans. So what the alien captain did was to transport the two strangers to a place where they would face a common foe, a terrible beast on the planet below. The knives weren’t to be used against Picard, but shared with him as they defended each other together. They would create a new story which both groups would be able to refer to as the start of their alliance. In the end, what actually happened was that the alien captain lost his life defending Picard, who was able to explain this to the alien crew using his discovery of their communication patterns. “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” became “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.”
I was struck, while watching this story unfold, of how God came and became one of us to live out the baptism story: judgment, mercy, salvation, and presence. It was something more than words could bear, so the Living Word, the Logos, came among us.
Today we are going to look at baptism as PUBLIC RITUAL, something very close, in fact, to the mode of communication in the story I just related. Baptism has a way of not just pointing to what God has done, but calling it forth in front of us. It is, in many ways, a kind of drama, an acted out portrayal of something to communicate meaning to those who witness it. Using some of the symbolism and scriptures from previous weeks, I’d like to walk you through four Biblical events (there are even more) dramatized and recalled by baptism.
Noah and His Family in the Ark (1 Peter 3:20-21)
20 …the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. 21 Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ… ~1 Peter 3:20-21
Let’s begin with “Noah and his family in the Ark.” 1 Peter 3 makes a link between baptism and the Ark. The waters of the Flood were God’s rightful judgment on human sin, but God also spoke and provided a way through the judgment, an Ark of Refuge, for Noah, his family, and other created life. “Noah and his family in the Ark” was for the generations before Jesus, as well as those after, an example of God’s way of pursuing us: rightfully judging our sin and disobedience, yet coming to us with deliverance and mercy, and with a promise never to leave us. As those early Christians were trying to understand all the implications of a Savior who had been crucified, but also raised, Peter’s reference to one of their ancient stories helped explain to them in ways they could understand: what God has done through Jesus is like this, like “Noah and his family in the Ark.”
Abraham and God with the Covenant (Genesis 17:7-11)
7 “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. … 10 “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 “And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. ~Genesis 17:7,10-11
Moving chronologically, let’s consider “Abraham and God with the Covenant.” We talked about the covenant last week, God’s promise of land, descendants, and blessing, which included the intended purpose of blessing the world through this covenant people. In Genesis 17, we read of the sign of the covenant, circumcision, which we saw last week corresponds to baptism as a sign of the new covenant. Again, for generations of people before Christ and for those early Christians, being given a new covenant sign helped explain to Jewish and especially non-Jewish Christians how Jesus fulfilled, completed, and perfected the Old Covenant rather than signaling something new and completely different. Jesus and baptism is like “Abraham and God with the covenant.”
Moses and Our Fathers through the Sea (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)
1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. ~1 Corinthians 10:1-4
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul references “Moses and our fathers… under the cloud and… through the sea.” He makes all the connections there with words. Those ancient Israelites had passed through the waters of judgment, delivered not only from death there but from slavery and death behind them in Egypt. They were “under the cloud” of God’s Holy Spirit, eating spiritual food and drinking spiritual drink provided by God. They were being sustained by a “spiritual rock” that would come later, and that rock was Christ. Again, for early Christians (and us) trying to understand how Jesus fit into God’s plan, the Jewish people, and life in this world, Paul uses a story and an experience etched into the collective memories of the Jewish people – the “baptism into Moses” events of coming out of Egypt and through the Red Sea – to explain in ways they could understand what God has done through Jesus. Salvation in Jesus is like “Moses and our fathers through the Sea.”
Jesus and Peter, Washing the Feet (John 13:5-17)
5 Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. 6 So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” 8 Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” 9 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” 10 Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” 11 For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. 14 “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. 16 “Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. 17 “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. ~John 13:5-17
And then Jesus, himself, did this kind of lived-out explanation on many occasions. One excellent example, where the connection with baptism is easy to see, is when he washed the disciples’ feet. Surprising them all, he took on the servants’ role and went around the room washing and wiping his friends’ feet with a towel. What better way to explain what was about to happen then to demonstrate it with actions? Soon he would give his life as the ultimate act of service for the sake of the world. He even said to Peter, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” (John 13:7) We’ve already talked about one aspect of baptism – and Christ’s work – as being washed clean of sin or forgiven. Just imagine what it was like for Peter later, after Jesus forgave him for his denials, after Jesus’ death provided forgiveness for all his sins, to think back on that foot-washing and understand: “Jesus and Peter, washing the feet.”
Jesus and Robert, Marked with Water
And so, think about these waters of baptism. Not only do they dramatize and communicate the specific and eternal story of God’s judgment, mercy, salvation, and presence through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit, but that story – that reality – rests on many, many stories of God acting out that same pattern in more limited ways: “Noah and his family in the Ark”; “Abraham and God with the Covenant”; Moses and our Fathers through the Sea”; “Jesus and Peter, washing the feet.”
And on top of all that, what these waters of baptism dramatize to me every time I see them or think about them is God’s story with me: “Jesus and Robert, marked with water.” It is my specific story that rests in the rich drama of God’s loving pursuit of humanity since before the foundations of the world. It is my specific story of covenants and family and church, of identity and promise, of faith and acceptance, of calling and purpose.
We tend to think of rituals as mindless repetition, but what they are meant to be are re-enactments of powerful stories. Baptism is a PUBLIC RITUAL, enacted to tell the ancient, present, and eternal story of what God has done in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t just communicate information; it tells a story. And it’s not just a story to entertain, but communicates a reality based in history and relationship. What a powerful gift God has given the Church, this ritual of Baptism!
If you have never been baptized, and are interested, I would love to talk to you more about it! And for all of you, every time you see a baptism, think of baptism, or walk past this font, be reminded vividly of what God has done. It is the story of the ages! Amen.
- The Solid Rock (SOLID ROCK)
- Have Mercy on Us, Living Lord (ST. FLAVIAN)
- CHOIR: Witness (Mark Patterson)
- SOLO (Billy Howell): I Need You (Howell)
- I Have a Shelter (Cook and Kauflin/Sovereign Grace)