Baptized Into Death
Water is perhaps the most essential deadly thing on earth. Don’t get enough of it—say there’s a drought or you’re lost in the desert—can’t find enough water, and you die. Too much of it—a river smashes through a dam or a hurricane sinks a town—too much water, and you die. Even just a little water seeped into the wrong place, and your house fills with toxic mold. Or on land, it’s easy for me to run away. But on water, it’s literally swim or sink: every moment on the sea can be a fight to survive. And water, well, it’s not predictable, or at least it wasn’t until modern satellites. Our ancient ancestors couldn’t predict when a storm would come, were never sure when the drought would end, didn’t know when to stockpile before a blizzard. Water in all its unpredictable, chaotic ways—rain that seeps in everywhere, freezing snow that traps you inside, or a lack of water that dries you and your farm to a husk—water in all its forms has been an unpredictable mistress throughout human history. And yet… we require water to live, to grow food, for life. It is no wonder then… that for our ancient Jewish and Christian ancestors… water was a symbol for both death and life, chaos and blessing, destruction and rebirth.
At the start of this month, I performed my first ever baptism outside a church, for a family sheltering due to Covid-19. Usually when I do a baptism, y’all are distracted by the cute baby. So I don’t blame you if you haven’t noticed this before. Here is part of the prayer most Presbyterian preachers—in one way or another—say during a baptism. “Eternal God, at the dawn of time your Spirit moved over the watery chaos, calling forth life and order. In the days of Noah, you destroyed evil by the waters of the flood, giving righteousness a new beginning. You led the Israelites out of slavery through the waters of the sea, into the freedom of the Promised Land. Through the prophets, you promised one day justice would roll down like a mighty stream and that the waters of life shall flow from your heavenly throne. In the waters of the Jordan River, Jesus was baptized by John and anointed with your Spirit. And by the baptism of his death and resurrection, Christ set us free from sin and death, and opened the way to eternal life.” After that mini history, I go on to pray about that day’s baptism in particular, but the history is the important bit today. Do you see what I meant about our ancestors and water? In the Bible, water is raw untamed nature as God first made it. Water is destruction that makes way for new life. Water is a time of trial, where on the other side we emerge stronger. Water is death, for none of us can breathe underwater. But water is also life, for all of us need water to live. Each time we baptize, we remember how God uses water to shape the history of our world and our very lives.
Speaking of water, a church once hired a cheap handyman to repaint its outside walls. He was so cheap, he used only the fewest and lowest quality materials. Partway through, the handyman realized he didn’t have enough paint to do the entire church, so he started thinning the paint with water. The results looked blotchy and awful, but thinning that way was cheap. But when the handyman started repainting the steeple, suddenly the sky darkened, and a voice thundered from the heavens, “Repaint, you thinner! Repaint, and thin no more!”
The Apostle Paul in today’s scripture talks a lot about baptisms… and death. Those aren’t things we normally associate with each other. Babies get baptized, or else it’s adults in the prime of their lives. The ones getting baptized usually aren’t ones worried about death. But Paul, drawing on this rich tapestry of scriptures about water, links baptism… with death. Verse 4: “Therefore we have been buried with Jesus by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Now our reading today is part of a much larger theological framework Paul is crafting, so we can’t unpack every detail. But this is roughly the view of baptism Paul gives here. 1) In Jesus Christ, God became human like us in every way, except for sin. 2) Jesus died for our sins, just as you and I one day shall die. 3) But Jesus—being God—rose from the dead, revealed the truth to his disciples, and later ascended into heaven. 4) Therefore, since we already share this first part with Jesus—life as a human—in baptism we symbolically die (go underwater) and then rise again (come up from the water), just as Jesus already died and rose again. 5) Then when we die for real, just like Jesus did for real, you and I shall rise up from the waters of death as people cleansed and made new, in new life forever.
A metaphor may help here. Imagine you and I are on a ship in the ocean. The ship starts to sink. There’s a coast guard base nearby, safe on dry land. So the coast guard send a rescue boat out across the waves. When the coast guard reaches our sinking ship, some people are underwater and some will go under soon. So rescue divers hop out, and they drag everyone through the waves back on the boat. Once you’re on the coast guard boat, you know you’re safe. But the dry land in the distance, where everyone is waiting and where you’ll be safe for good, is still a ways off. Well, that’s kind of what baptism is like. Life is like the ocean, stormy and unpredictable. Sometimes sin and evil sink us down. So God safe in heaven mounts a rescue expedition in Jesus Christ, who comes out to where we are being tossed by the waves. Christ dives down into the waters of death and sin, but he reemerges carrying rescued people. And we who believe are now on the rescue boat, which is racing back to the dry land that is heaven.
God comes out to us in Jesus, so that we can return with Jesus to safety and life. Basically, Paul says we and Jesus already shared the first part of the journey—life in all its beauty and hardship—so we know we’ll also share the rest of what Jesus has—death for a moment but then followed by resurrection new life. Jesus was with us in the first half—life—and because of that we are with him in the second half—life eternal beyond death.
Baptism, therefore, is a sign of salvation: it reflects and represents what God has done for us in Jesus and what God will do for each of us. Going under water is death [hold breath, sprinkle water]… and life [breathe again] is reemerging cleansed and restored. Baptism is an outward sign of a spiritual reality. Further, baptism is a seal of that spiritual reality, a blessing upon it, a confirmation that signals, yes, this person is indeed claimed by God, they may indeed die as all mortals do [hold breath, sprinkle water]… but by the grace of God [breathe again] they shall live again. As I said before, when we baptize a child or an adult, the prayers said usually talk a lot about death. Would it surprise you to know it’s the reverse at funerals? Whenever I officiate a Christian funeral, I open the service with a prayer giving thanks to God for the deceased person’s life that always includes this phrase, “Especially this day, we thank you for your servant, whose baptism… is now complete in death.” This is the nature of our faith: we talk about death when we baptize a child, and we remember childhood baptisms when we grieve a death. Baptism honors our first and our final transitions: it is our past and our hoped-for future.
On this All Saints Day, we remember the people in our lives who have died, who have gone before us. We call them “saints” because the Bible calls all who believe saints, whether or not they work miracles or slay dragons. Each of us here is a saint. But on All Saints Sunday, we remember all the saints… including those saints no longer with us in body. On this day, when we give thanks for the people God has blessed us with, when we grieve those whose absences still hurt, when we cling tightly to Christ’s promise of resurrection life… I invite you to remember baptism. Picture a person before their baptism: they want to be cleansed, to know God’s grace, to show the world their faith in Christ. This is like our own mortal lives today. Picture that person diving under the waters of a large baptismal font: you can no longer see them, you hope they’re not underwater too long, you aren’t sure exactly what’s happening. That plunge into the water is death. But then picture them rising again: all dirt has been washed away, their face beams knowing they have achieved their goal, they are welcomed into the Church universal by a swarm of cheering onlookers. That is resurrection life.
When we baptize a person, we admit our need for God’s grace. We admit there are waters of trouble, storms of destruction, floods of doubt, and seas of sin. But also when we baptize a person, we celebrate that God brings order out of chaos, that God parts raging seas into highways of deliverance, that Christ calms even the fiercest storms of sin. Baptism is a sign, a reflection, a symbol… of our hope in Jesus Christ. And baptism is a seal upon that hope, a confirmation and a blessing of it. And so on this day when we remember our departed loved ones, I invite you to consider this. They are not gone from us, not for long. They have merely dived under the baptismal waters of death. But they—and we—shall surface again cleansed, restored, and welcomed home… by Jesus the Christ, who shared this life with us… so that when we share death like he did, we might then share his resurrection life with all the saints forevermore. Amen.