Remembering Your Baptism
This fall, I am on a small team of ministers doing interim preaching for a local congregation. For the series, we decided to preach Paul’s letter to the Romans—light stuff, right? Last Sunday I was up and Romans 6 was my text. I began by recalling a notable film released in 2000.
Remember Joel and Ethan Coen’s film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Homeric exploration of depression-era Southern culture? Perhaps you recall the three main characters - Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar - the escaped prisoners from the chain gang. They hear singing and see men and women walking through the trees toward the river. Folks are gathering to be baptized. Delmar, good ole Delmar, joins the crowd and runs into the water. He comes out of the water and excitedly proclaims to Ulysses and Pete, “The Lord has saved me from all my sins ... the preacher’s done washed away all my sins and transgressions, including the Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.”
Ulysses interjects, “I thought you weren’t guilty of that.”
“Well,” says Delmar, “I lied about that, but God has forgiven me of that, too! It’s the straight and narrow from here on out. Neither God nor man has anything on me now. Come on in boys, the water is fine!”
Delmar understands baptism as a self-initiating act that procures the freedom to live however you wish to live. We might call it a form of fire insurance for the hereafter. Delmar says, “This is too good to be true! God’s grace is so powerful that it takes away whatever evil sin dishes out.”
Coming back to Romans 6, Paul’s response is to take his listeners right back to the meaning of baptism. Paul expects them to know—from their own experiences—a clue to the question he is asking. “Do you not know?” Paul seeks to evoke memory and a renewed connection to a shared body of knowledge, a shared tradition.
What is that knowledge?
Namely, that baptism is not merely a ritual of initiation; rather, it is an active participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The action of baptism is a reenactment of Jesus’s own story.
In Jesus’s dying, we die. We participate in his dying.
And in his rising, we are raised with him. We participate in his rising.
Baptism is participating in the central aspect of Jesus’s identity—his dying and rising, his obedient death and his new life.
This is the pattern of Christian existence! Paul says it in a similar way in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me.”
Baptism is not an arbitrary ritual. To quote Karl Barth on baptism, “it is what it signifies.” And, as disciples and as leaders, one question we might ask of ourselves is whether we are living a “baptized life.” Do we claim the implications of our own death to sin? And are we living a life characterized by the grace-filled love of Jesus? Churches and families need leaders who are committed to live out the reality of the baptized life. May God bless you in such rich living!