Later this month Woodland Hills will be doing our annual baptism ceremony at Lake Phalen, and so in light of that Greg used this week’s sermon to talk about baptism and contrasting it with the magical way of thinking about it that we see in the movie ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’.
In today’s addition to the “Moving Pictures” sermon series, we watched a clip from ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’, where they come across a church doing a big baptism in a river, and swept up in the moment, Pete and Delmar get baptized. They go for a quick dunk then come back saying “all my sins are forgiven! God ain’t got nothing on me no more!” But this attitude about baptism is not what baptism is really about — it’s magical thinking. It assumes God is mad at you, and this short ritual is how to assure you will not go to hell.
Greg himself is a little bit familiar with magical thinking, since he spent most of his early years thinking God was mad at him, too (since he was a bit of a troublemaker). Somewhere along the line he thought he had heard a nun say if he went to 9 consecutive special masses where you say a special prayer called the Novina prayer to the Virgin Mary, she will guarantee you’ll go to Heaven. Even if you sin later. The thought he had was that this single act (9 of them to be exact) could wash away his past sins, AND put a sort of protective shield around him to hide his future sins. Totally magical thinking. Magical Thinking is where you believe that if only do a certain ritual — certain behaviors or formulas in certain way — you can get God (or gods depending what you believe) to do or give you what you want.
These characters in the movie have a magical view of baptism. It has nothing to do with where his heart is, it’s just the single act of being baptized. There are a couple of negative implications from this. First, it gives a false sense of assurance. Keep living just like you were and you’re good to go. There is no relationship with God. Second, it assumes a jaded picture of God. If baptism washes away sins then that means if there is no baptism then there is no salvation. His old church, a Pentacostal church, they taught that baptism had to be done the right way, too. Special words were said (and if you said the wrong words, it wouldn’t work) Makes you wonder what would judgment day look like — would God say “I love you but there’s this technicality so I can’t let you in?” This is a Pharisaical view of God.
People who think this way treat baptism as a quid pro quo — if I do this you’ll do that. Making deals with God, if only you’ll give me this thing I want, then I’ll quit drinking (or whatever). Or if you just believe the right things in the right way then you will be healthy wealthy and prosperous. And if you aren’t these things then you must have believed the wrong thing in the wrong way. It’s all magic. God is not a cosmic Monty Hall from Let’s Make a Deal. Salvation is not a deal. God is not your genie. He wants to be the lover of your soul. Wants to save us because he loves us and wants to share life with us. Salvation IS nothing other than this relationship. We see this in John 17:1-5 “…now this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Eternal life is to KNOW God as revealed in the son. It’s not information about God. Knowing is more intimate than that. In fact the Greek word used in this verse means Intimate knowledge, like consummating a marriage. Salvation IS this Intimate, knowing relationship we have with God. All the knowledge in the world doesn’t do you a bit of good unless you act on it. God doesn’t want our rituals and sacrifices and superficial prayers. The one thing that God wants, it’s you. All of you. Not just the good parts. He wants the broken stuff too, all the stuff we hide and pretend we don’t have, that’s what he wants– because it’s part of the whole of you. By giving it ALL to him, he transforms it, and transforms us from the inside out. Not our rituals or our perfectly-pronounced prayers.
So if baptism isn’t a magical washing away of sins, then what does baptism do? Baptism itself doesn’t do anything — it is a public decaration of the new covenant you are entering into. If eternal life (salvation) is our marriage to God, then baptism is the wedding ceremony. You’ll find this language all over in the Bible. We see Yahweh referring to Israel as the bride. And then Jesus comes and he uses this same language to say that he is a bridegroom searching for a bride. The church is the bride and Jesus is the groom. We officially join the bride through baptism. Whereas the magical view leaves you unchanged (and instead changes God, if anything), this covenantal view of baptism changes everything. It’s the point from which we turn from one way to living to a new way.
This is why Peter associates baptism with repentance. In Acts 2:38 he says Repent and be baptized. But he says “repent for forgiveness of your sins” and that language is part of where people get the magical thinking from. The the Greek word “for” can mean to cause something but it usually doesn’t. It usually means “in light of” and that is exactly what we see in this culture at the time — they would frequently perform rituals and ceremonial washings. But they did not think the washing *caused* the events, rather it is in light of or a dedication to the thing. Like a commemoration. We’ve discussed before that Repentance is an about-face. The word means to turn around. A pledge to now live for Christ. Stop a previous behavior. Just like how’re say in marriage I’m no longer living for “me”, but for “we.”
Alan Streett’s book Caesar and the Sacrament (forthcoming, 2018) is all about baptism in the context of the Roman culture. Their social structure at the time was held together by people exchanging oaths and pledges to one another. They’d pledge allegiance to Rome, or Caesar, or their captain, or their employer — there were all these pledges (and there was often a ceremony around it). The pledge for them was to say there is no other leader (or boss or what have you), the pledge was understood to subvert and renounce all other pledges.
In this same way, early Christians understood baptism to be the pledge to subvert all other pledges. From here forward you will renounce all other kings or masters, in favor of just one. That perfectly encapsulates what the baptism pledge is all about. It’s you promising regardless of what the world says about me or what my past says about me, I will believe what God says about me, and will act in this way that follows suit.
In Romans 6:1-4 The community that Paul was writing to had heard “where sin abounds grace much more abounds” and interpreted it as a strange justification for sin — in that if God loves to forgive then let’s sin more to let him do what he likes to do! Paul reacts to this with a superlative that means “No way!” He says “By no means!” you are dead to sin. That is your new identity. When Christ died, you died. That’s what baptized into his death means. We identify with him going into the water and dying and coming back out of the water into new life. A few verses later in Romans 6:11-12 he says in light of all that, since you are this way, start acting this way. See this about yourself. Consider yourself in this way. Think of yourself as dead to sin. This thought process is core to discipleship. It starts between your ears, taking every thought captive. Do you believe what God says about you is true? Or do you believe what your mom or teacher or the world says about you? It starts by believing that we ARE what Jesus says about us. Be it. And since you ARE this, now use your mind and think this about yourself. Monitor and correct your thinking so that it is in line with who you now are. And finally, act in a way that corresponds to your identity.
It’s like this: Be > Think > Do. Start by being it, then think it in your mind, and then the doing follows (often all by itself). Note, however, how it does not go in the opposite direction! In baptism, we take a moment to publicly pledge to turn from our old way of living to new way, from an old way of thinking to new way of thinking. An old way of acting to a new acting.
So who should be baptized? Our view At Woodland Hills is that it’s like marriage, so therefore you should ideally be old enough to get married (Which in the old days was after puberty, not necessarily as long as we wait to marry nowadays). The point is you should be old enough to understand what it means to be a disciple, know what you are getting into, and make a responsible decision. That’s why we do three weeks of pre-baptism classes– think of it as Pre-marriage counseling for Jesus. It’s a beautiful, powerful ceremony and we take it seriously.
What about if you were baptized as infant? Some people don’t want to offend their parents by getting re-baptized, or they wonder if it’s even necessary to do again. In the old days, marriages were arranged by the parents when they were children but then at some point they would have a wedding and at that point they’d own the marriage for themselves. That’s how infant baptism is. You were pledged to your future spouse by your parents, but then in adult baptism you are owning it for yourself and that is when you actually become married. Far from invalidating your infant baptism, you are affirming it and saying Yes I now own this for myself!
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