This past Sunday we celebrated baptism as a church. It was a good day. Eight different individuals were baptized including two of my own sons. It was a good day. Here are some thoughts on why baptism matters and what has to happen next.
Baptism Message 9-12-21
This is a good day. Even setting all of my incredibly proud dad feelings aside, today is a good day. Today we are celebrating the growth of the kingdom of God in as direct and practical a way as we possibly can. Today we have baptized eight individuals in obedience to our Lord’s command. Now, different faith traditions believe different things about baptism. I’ve talked with you before about what we as Baptists believe, but let’s just refresh that for all of our sakes.
Baptists believe that baptism is a symbol. It doesn’t save anybody. Rather, it is a proclamation of a salvation that has already happened. In baptism we are symbolically taking part in Jesus’ death and resurrection. As we go under the water – something we consider of particular importance because that’s how Jesus did it, and that’s what the word actually means – we are buried with Him. As we come up out of the water, we are raised with Him to new life. That’s why I say the words I do when dunking folks under the water. I say they are buried with Christ and raised to new life. That’s not because those words are somehow magical. They are descriptive of what the person has experienced and is proclaiming to the world.
And yet, if we are not exceedingly careful, we may have all our theology about baptism correct, but still be thinking about it in ways that keep it from being for us and the world around us what it is intended to be. Let me explain what I mean like this: For hundreds of years and well before Christianity burst onto the scene, baptism was practiced by multiple different religions. And in each of these, its function was roughly the same. It was a common rite of initiation.
This means that baptism has long marked a beginning point in someone’s journey with a particular group of people. That’s far more significant than it sounds. We live in a place where the culture of the church is still pretty strong. Well, in places where the culture of the church has been strong in the past, being a part of a church was viewed by many as something significant for religious reasons, yes, but also for social ones. When you were a part of a church, you could be a part of society. Because of this, in the minds of many folks personally, but also for, say, their kids and their grandkids, becoming a part of a church was a big deal. It meant you had arrived in society. Well, how do you become a part of a church? Practically speaking, the same way you become a part of any organization: you get initiated. Are you with me? How do you get initiated into a church? You get baptized.
You see where this is going, right? For many folks baptism has long been seen as an arrival point. It may have marked the beginning of a person’s membership in a church, but that in and of itself was seen as an end goal; and so baptism with it. Well, if you’ve got someone thinking that baptism marks the end of their journey rather than its beginning, then at the point they get baptized, they’re going to fairly well quit growing. They won’t really even try anymore. It’s the same mistake many young couples make in thinking the marriage ceremony marks the end of the journey rather than its beginning. When you reach the end of the journey, you stop journeying. If baptism marks the end of a journey, then when we achieve it, we stop journeying. To quote Jesus’ brother James completely out of context: My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
Baptism doesn’t mark the end of anything. It marks the beginning of a whole lifetime of following Jesus. Now, perhaps that journey started years before – decades even – but even in this case baptism is a reminder that the growing isn’t finished. Indeed, when we have planted ourselves in Christ, the growing isn’t ever finished until He has returned and we are fully perfected in His image.
Let me read for you some words Jesus spoke that don’t have anything to do with baptism, but everything to do with the necessity of our growing in Him. Jesus spoke these words when He and the disciples were on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane the night before the crucifixion.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me. If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown aside like a branch and he withers. They gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be my disciples.”
Now, there have been whole books written about these few verses and we don’t have time for that this morning. Very quickly, here’s what Jesus is saying: If you are in Him, you are growing. If you are not growing, then you are not in Him. If you pretend to be in Him, the pretense will be laid bare by the lack of growth in your life. If you are growing – that is, if you are demonstrating with more and greater consistency the character of Christ in your life – that’s evidence by itself of a transformed life. It is such evidence because such growth cannot happen without the power and presence of the Holy Spirit unleashed in our lives which only happens when we are in a right relationship with God the Father through Jesus. See how this all goes together?
What all of this means is that what you have witnessed this morning, what we have rightly celebrated this morning, is a beginning point. It is the beginning of growth. These baptisms by themselves don’t mean anything. They didn’t accomplish anything magical. No one became a follower of Jesus because of that water. It’s just normal water; there’s nothing particularly holy or even special about it. But when you add the Holy Spirit to the mix, everything changes. The change, though, isn’t on the outside. It’s on the inside. If the Holy Spirit through Jesus is working in your life – which is what baptism proclaims is happening – then that work will eventually be evident to everyone around you. It will be impossible to miss. The fruit will be there for all to see. If these things are not happening; if there is not fruit being produced, that’s a sign you are disconnected from Jesus and need to do some pretty serious self-evaluation.
I should note, though, that this growth won’t happen on its own. The Holy Spirit will absolutely work with you to make you more like Jesus, but you’ve got to work with Him too. He’ll enable you to work, but you’ve got to do your part. And doing your part means you are engaging with the Scriptures on a daily basis. It means you are developing a habit of consistent prayer. It means you are serving others in Jesus’ name. It means you’re sharing the Gospel with those who don’t believe it yet. It means you are actively connected to and involved in the church and not just when it’s convenient for you. In fact, let me just lay this on the line for you: If you claim a connection with the church and yet you miss worship more often than you make it because you’ve got other stuff going on, you need to take a fresh look at that connection you claim. The odds are good that you’re not growing like you should be because you can’t grow like you should be without the church. All of these are the things that will keep the soil of your life fresh and tilled so growth can happen. And when the growth happens, you’ll be showing the world you are connected to Jesus. You’ll show the world not that you have arrived, but that you are on the path to life. And that, my friends, is a very good place to be. So, whether you are freshly baptized, long past that momentous occasion, or still considering whether or not to take the plunge, may you plant yourself deeply in Christ and walk with confidence on the path to life, growing as you go, producing fruit that leads to more growth in others. There’s just no better place to be than that.