Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, October 21, 2018
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Claimed by God

 

Acts 19:1-7 and Mark 1:4-11

 John the Baptist made quite the impression, and with good reason.  He was the first genuine prophet of God in about 430 years.  And he was a pretty dramatic figure, what with living out in the desert and eating bugs and all that.  So, no surprise that he had quite the following.

 And that following persisted.  For about 200 years after his death, there were still people who looked to John as their spiritual leader, even though he specifically pointed people to Jesus.  This is probably the reason why the story in Acts 19 is remembered.  In Ephesus, almost 1000 miles from Jerusalem, about 30 years after his death, there were still people who looked to John and had not yet known of Jesus’ ministry.  

 John’s message was “repent and be baptized.”  That’s kind of a strange message, given his audience.  John was preaching entirely, or at least mostly, to a Hebrew audience.  And “baptism” didn’t fit with that audience.  In the Hebrew way of thinking, if you were lucky enough to be born a Hebrew, as long as you didn’t completely reject God’s Law, you were already saved.  

 Baptism was a rite of conversion.  When a Gentile converted to Judaism, they would be baptized.  In that way, baptism was seen as the highest form of repentance, which is turning away from sin and turning to God.  Baptism was a person turning away from the pagan world and all its sins and turning to God and his Law.  

 And here is John telling the “already saved” that they too must come to God through repentance.  The “already saved” must also convert, because we all come to God on the same grounds, both Jew and Gentile alike.  

 Why do we baptize?  Why have we held onto this Jewish tradition from the first century?

The obvious answer is “Because Jesus told us to.”  And the second obvious answer is that it connects us to Jesus, who was also baptized.  But let’s look for something more profound.    

 First of all, baptism is a visible sign of regeneration.  It’s a visible sign of the death of the old life and the resurrection to new life.  That was the Jewish symbolism of baptism:  Death represented by being submerged under the water, like a body being buried, and new life represented by being raised up from the water.  

 The New Testament speaks to that imagery.  Romans 6 says, “We were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism.  We joined him in his death.  For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism.”  Baptism is a rite of conversion, done when someone comes to faith, but more than that, it is also a representation of new life in Christ.  

 Secondly, baptism represents God’s claim on us.  Jesus was claimed by God as he came up out of the water.  In a similar way, baptism reminds us whose we are.  We belong to God.  

 And finally, baptism is entrance into the community of the covenant.  It’s the way we come in and become part of God’s people.

 This is the reason why we baptize children and infants.  Not all Christian traditions do.  In some traditions, baptism is only an outward expression of personal faith.  But we baptize children.  And there is Scripture to support that.  Several times in the book of Acts, “households” are baptized, and there is no distinction to say that it was only the adults in those households.  And infant baptism has also been the witness of the Church for many centuries.  

 I think it’s helpful to relate baptism to the old covenant practice of circumcision, which was also a sign of entrance into a community of faith.  It showed belonging to a particular people.  

The two differences are that circumcision was only for males, and also, that it required blood to be shed.  Baptism is for all.  All are baptized because in Christ there is no male or female, no Jew or Gentile.  And blood is unnecessary because Christ has already offered the perfect sacrifice.  

 But it’s important to say that infant baptism is incomplete without confirmation.  Confirmation is when we claim God’s promises for ourselves.  In baptism, God claims us. In confirmation, we claim God.  And baptism is always to be seen as the beginning of a lifetime of Christ-following and discipleship, never as an isolated event.  Baptism doesn’t save us, unless we continue that journey of faith.

 This morning we will participate in the congregational reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant, which reminds us who we are in Christ, what Christ has done for us, and what Christ calls us to become in him.  

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