Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Mark's thoughts: The many facets of Holy Baptism

Just as a diamond has many facets that can be viewed from different angles, so also Holy Baptism is a single gift that produces a result that Scripture describes and explains in several different ways.  First and foremost, Holy Baptism works the forgiveness of sins.  From the beginning this has been a confession of the Church based on Peter’s words at Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  Ananias expressed the same thing when he said to Paul: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). 

We confess this in the Nicene Creed when we say, “I believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” This same truth was confessed in the western Church by the phrase “the forgiveness of sins” in the Apostles’ Creed.  Quodvultdeus of Carthage was a deacon in Carthage under St. Augustine and later became bishop there.  In his Second Homily on the Creed he explained the creed and he told the catechumens, “[We believe] in the remission of sins. Holy baptism completely destroys all sins, both original and personal: things said, things done, things thought, things known, things forgotten –all are discharged.  He who created the person makes him anew; he who is the one who does not look for merit remits sins: for grace precedes even this second infancy, so that, liberated through Christ, those who were once captives in Adam and bound by the devil are free” (10.1-2)

Holy Baptism is one of the located means that God uses to deliver the forgiveness won by Jesus Christ on the cross.  The forgiveness of sins was won on the cross two thousand years ago in Israel.  However, it is not given out there.  Instead, God gives us the forgiveness of sins through the Means of Grace that take place here and now where we are.

Yet Scripture teaches us more than just the bare fact that Holy Baptism delivers the forgiveness that Jesus Christ won on the cross. Paul told the Romans:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5; cf. Colossians 2:12).

We learn that Holy Baptism gives us a share in Jesus’ death and guarantees our resurrection.  When a Christian is baptized, he or she dies with Christ.  We share in Jesus’ saving death through baptism.  The forgiveness that Jesus Christ won through His death becomes ours.  However, Jesus did not only die on the cross.  Instead, He also rose from the dead.  Because in baptism we have been joined to Jesus’ saving death, we also know that we will share in His resurrection on the Last Day.  Holy Baptism provides the guarantee that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we also will share in the same resurrection.  We receive assurance that death is not the final word, but instead that we have been rescued from death and will enjoy the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day.  In Holy Baptism, water is poured on our body.  Through baptism we receive the assurance that our body will raised and transformed to be like Jesus’ resurrected body on the Last Day.

The Paschal candle is a visual reminder of this fact.  This large candle with symbols of Holy Baptism on it stands next to the baptismal font.  It is lit at the Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday as the congregation members remember their baptism.  Saturday is the day Jesus Christ was in the tomb, and so we are reminded that we have shared in His death and burial through baptism.  Yet Saturday evening is also the beginning of the celebration of Easter and so we are reminded that because of baptism we will also share in Christ’s resurrection on the Last Day.   The Paschal candle carries the meaning that through baptism we share in Christ’s death and resurrection throughout the year as after Pentecost it is lit at all baptisms and funerals.

Statements about sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism are only found in Paul’s letters to Rome and Colossae.  Yet this fact has great implications because neither of them were Christian communities that Paul founded (Rom 1:8-15; 15:22-24; Col 1:3-8).  Paul did not teach them, and yet he can assume they share in this understanding about baptism.  Luke Timothy Johnson has observed:

Despite the relatively meager evidence, we must consider that Paul would not evoke this understanding of baptism from two communities (Colossians and Romans) that he himself had not founded, unless it had been part of their tradition.  We may confidently assume, then, that the understanding of baptism as entry into the death and resurrection of Jesus was wider than the Pauline circle and not an invention of Pauline theology (Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary , 95).

We find that this must have been a common understanding about baptism that was shared by the Church in the Mediterranean world.  It was not something that was invented by Paul or exclusive to churches associated with Paul.

Holy Baptism gives the forgiveness of sins.  Sharing in the death of Christ and the guarantee of resurrection are but one more aspect of the gift of Holy Baptism.  Scripture teaches us about others as well.

Next: Blessings of Holy Baptism - New life and the Body of Christ

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