Tuesday, December 29, 2009

From Eternity to Here: Baptism, Eschatologically Considered

Sometimes we Reformed paedobaptists spend so much time defending the confessional view of the status of covenant children that we forget that baptism is a way bigger topic than merely the mode or subjects of the sacrament. Sure, the sprinkling-water-on-the-baby’s-head part is integral to the baptism discussion, but to focus solely on the mechanics and beneficiaries of baptism is to exalt the trees over the forest, or to change the metaphor, it is to use the microscope to the exclusion of the telescope. To modify the words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 3, there’s a time to zoom in, but also a time to break out the wide-angle lens.

Peter’s words to the crowd on the Day of Pentecost have a much broader significance than we often realize:

Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself (Acts 2:38-39).
In a word, what the apostle is inviting his hearers to do is something every bit as cataclysmic and profound as what happened to Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy when they dared to venture through the back of that magical wardrobe into the strange, new world of Narnia. Baptism represents an intrusion of the age to come into this present world, a breaking-in of the dynamic of heaven to the here and now. As the waters are applied, the sky is split and the pavement cracks, and all that we once were is forever changed. William Willimon writes:

In baptism, we are subsumed into a story of water and the word. A story of creation formed out of dark waters. A story of a God so righteous that he was willing to make war on the world he created.... A story of a people, created out of nothing, by a God determined to be worshiped rightly, led through waters into the desert as imperial chariots foundered. A story of a Jewish woman visited by God in a way that confounded her fiancé but caused her to sing. A story of a crazy man out in the desert proclaiming a new kingdom coming in water and fire. A story of One who saved by an issue of water and blood.[1]
The first thing that baptism accomplishes, claims Peter, is giving us a new past: “Be baptized... for the forgiveness of your sins.” The connection between baptism and forgiveness of sins is also made by Ananias in his instruction to the newly-converted Saul of Tarsus: “Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16), and is echoed in the Nicene Creed’s statement that “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” “Do you not know,” Paul asks the Romans, “that as many of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” In the same way that Christ “died to sin,” so we who have been united to him participate in that death to all that once defined us.

In addition to giving us a new past, baptism gives us a new family in the present. As Peter’s words in v. 39 indicate, our earthly, familial ties are transcended—and in some cases trumped—by our baptismal union with “all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Despite our modern and gnostic desire to maintain our personal relationship with Jesus apart from the awkward and inconvenient tie to the church (filled as it is with actual—and often annoying—people), the fact is that we can’t have the Head without the Body. Through baptism we are ushered into the middle of a tale quite long in the telling, a saga having been spun for thousands of years. This redemptive drama began with a married couple, then grew into a family of eight, then a tribe under the leadership of a chieftain, then twelve tribes that grew into a nation ruled by a king, until it eventually expanded into a truly worldwide and catholic Church with members from every kindred, tongue, people, and nation. Paul tells the Galatians that “As many of you as were baptized into Christ Jesus... are all one in Christ” (3:27, 28). And furthermore, whenever God’s people worship, we do so in the presence of this great “cloud of witnesses” together with whom we are summoned into God’s heavenly presence. Patriarchs and prophets, apostles and martyrs, bishops and fathers, sinners and saints—all of them gather with us as we, together with innumerable angels in festal array, get a glimpse (albeit brief) of the glorious banquet at which we will sit with the Mediator of the New Covenant whose bloods speaks a more comforting word than that of Abel (Heb. 12:1, 22-24).

Lastly, baptism bestows upon us a new future. “Be baptized,” Peter insists, “and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38). The Spirit is always spoken of in the New Testament in terms that hearken us forward to the new age, the age to come that began to dawn on Easter Sunday and will be finally consummated when Jesus returns. “You were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,” Paul writes to the Ephesians, “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (1:13-14). The Greek word that is translated “guarantee” (arrabōn, used in modern Greek for engagement ring) denotes a down payment toward something that will be fully acquired in the future. Through baptism God the Father marks us off as his own, bestowing upon us the Spirit of the age to come whose role is to bring the dynamic of the “not yet” to bear upon the “already.” David Dark writes:

Whether it’s trees clapping their hands, stars falling from the sky, bloody red moons, or crystal seas—it’s as if the new world on the way requires constant re-articulation to best bear witness of its freshness and new-every-morningness, perpetually straining forward to what lies ahead.[2]
One of the ways this “new world on the way” is “re-articulated” in the here and now is through the sacrament of baptism. Living the Christian life, therefore, is tantamount to living the baptized life, for this ancient ritual serves to pull the future into the present, effectively bringing the believer from eternity to here.

[1] William Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 5.
[2] David Dark, Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002), 12-13.