A Theological “Chicken or Egg”

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by Bob Cornwall

SacramentsIn a previous posting I raised the question of what baptism might look like, or at least be understood, in the context of the practice of the Open Table. If all are invited to the Lord’s Table, where does that leave baptism? As I’ve noted in previous essays I am part of a Believer Baptism tradition. It is a position that I have come to embrace. I believe that it has a strong biblical foundation, but I understand that the infant baptism tradition has a long pedigree.

I’m writing this essay on the afternoon of Pentecost Sunday. It is on the Day of Pentecost that the Spirit falls on the church leading to a display of the Spirit’s presence that leads to a sermon by Peter. People ask Peter about the steps needed to be taken to be saved, and Peter offers this formula – repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s a simple process that offers a strong foundation to the Christian experience. In Romans 6, Paul dives deeper into the meaning of baptism. He suggests that baptism connects us with Jesus. That is, we identify ourselves completely with Jesus’ own experience of death, burial, and resurrection. The actual process of immersion beautifully illustrates this act of identification. We experience and burial as we enter the water, and we experience Jesus’ resurrection as we come out of the water.

As we consider the meaning of baptism in the 21st century, especially when it involves adults who have decided to become part of the Christian community, baptism serves as a sign of union with Christ.  Church of Christ theologian John Mark Hicks offers this vision that I think is helpful.

Our union with Christ means that his experience becomes our own. We are not only baptized into his death, but die with him in that baptism as we are plunged into death itself. Our old humanity is crucified and buried with Christ just as Christ’s own Adamic humanity was crucified and buried. Jesus was raised as a new human, free from death itself. So, also, we are raised a new humanity free from the guilt and power of sin as well as from the dominion of death. Our union with the death of Christ is also our union with his resurrected life. We rise from the watery grave to live a new life. [Hicks, John Mark (2014-04-27). Enter the Water, Come to the Table (Kindle Locations 977-981). Abilene Christian University Press. Kindle Edition.]

Union with Christ means that Jesus’ life experiences (including death, burial, and resurrection) become our own. With him we become a new person.

Baptism, as I’ve noted before, has a variety of meanings and purposes, but ultimately it’s about union with Christ. Even becoming a church member through baptism involves in a sacramental way union with Christ. In baptism we become part of the Body of Christ. As Paul tells the Corinthians:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we are all made to drink one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).

Baptism is more than a rite of passage or the necessary first step to taking communion. In this new day communion will often come before baptism. We do experience union with Christ at the Table, but in baptism we consciously seek to unite ourselves with Christ. The Table is the first step toward union, which takes place as we enter the water and then rise again with Christ.  Baptism allows us the opportunity to make this choice to fully identify with the one who died, was buried, and was raised by God so that we might taste the blessings of union with Christ.


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