Translating Baptism

This past Sunday, our congregation had a special event: the Hmong ministry that operates in association with our church was having a series of baptisms; ten to be precise. I had the privilege to assist our Pastor Charles Robinson, and Pastor Don Vang, in carrying out these baptisms. One by one each person stepped into the water, confessed Jesus as Lord, and was immersed into Christ’s death to emerge into Christ’s life.

While each baptism was special, one of them had its own uniqueness: a mother who is deaf. As you can see in the picture to the right, for this baptism her young daughter came and knelt by the opening. When the Hmong minister asked the mother if she believed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, her daughter began signing those words to her mother, to which she promptly nodded, at which point she was then immersed. The act of translating always seems neat, but I can’t recall another time when it seemed so beautiful. It’s as if the interaction going on between the mother and daughter mirrored the interaction going on within her soul.

When we think of translation, we probably think of it as nothing more than the conversion of information. It certainly is that. A sequence of thoughts and sentences containing meaningful data is received, processed, then conveyed again through an alternate sequence that, we hope, translates to the same meanings.

But if in the conversion of information the meaning of the words transcends the constraints of information, then information becomes something else entirely: revelation.

Revelation is different than information. Information offers knowledge that can be leveraged. Revelation is knowledge that invites us to surrender to something greater. Revelation reaches into our innermost person, divulges its true self and asks our hearts to then do the same. How we respond to revelation determines whether or not our lives will be transformed by it.

This woman’s baptismal event is the climax of many prior hours of teaching, conversation, and prayer; all of which were facilitated through translation—information conveyed to her about Jesus. But at some point that information transcended into something that was transforming her, the revelation of someone who transforms us all. Her response to Christ’s revelation was committing to him through immersion into Christ’s death so that she might translationally emerge into Christ’s life.

Like her daughter, attending her mother, translating her good confession, we can all be instrumental in giving voice and expression to the blessed reality God so longs to reveal and thus embody the beauty that adorns the bearer of God’s good news.

The Bond of Baptism and Communion

This past Sunday I was given the opportunity to deliver the communion meditation, that part of the service where we pause to reflect upon and rejoice in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. This opportunity would also occur on the same day our associate Hmong ministry would be baptizing ten new believers. Thus I felt this would be a good opportunity to discuss how the sacraments of Baptism and Communion are inseparably linked together.

While both are pilgrim rituals through which we identify ourselves with the Lord who redemptively identified himself with humanity, each is a unique phase of the same journey.

The practice of Communion was established at the Lord’s Supper when Jesus took the bread, as it says in Luke, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying “This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”

And then taking the cup, he said “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.”

In the bread is the sin-atoning death of Jesus. In the cup is the abundant life of his new covenant. Christ’s death and Christ’s life. As often as we take this bread and cup throughout our journey of faith, this Communion practice helps us to remember and proclaim to observers that our lives are to be identified by Christ’s death and Christ’s life. But before we can live out that journey, we must first begin that journey.

Paul speaks of this journey’s beginning in Romans 6 where he writes “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

The act of Baptism, of being immersed and then emerging, is meant to mimic or mirror Christ’s death and resurrection. By being immersed into water, we are being buried into Christ’s death, so that the death he died is a death that covers us. And by emerging from the water, we are rising into the life for which he was raised. We die to sin through the death that Christ died so we may rise to life through Christ’s resurrection. As Paul’s words conveyed, we do this Baptismal practice so we might “walk” in life’s newness, thus beginning this journey of faith.

While it is through the continual practice of Communion we are reminded and proclaim that our lives are to be identified in Christ’s death and life, it is at the one-time practice of Baptism we declare that our lives will henceforth be defined by Christ’s death and life.

Baptism marks the beginning of this journey in Christ; Communion keeps us on this journey in Christ. Baptism is not simply a one-time event that exists in our past; it echoes throughout our life through Communion. Christ’s death, which we receive each week in the bread, is the death into which we were immersed; and Christ’s resurrection, which we drink each week in the cup, is the new life for which we were raised. The practice of Communion ripples out from the practice of Baptism.

Why does this all matter? Understanding the connection these sacraments share clarifies their mutual purpose. They clarify how this covenant we have with Christ must remain rooted in Christ. They do not make it difficult to have access to Jesus; they give sanctifying structure to that access. A structure that is meant to conform us to Christ. These sacraments shape in us the type of covenant relationship God designed to share with his people, one that through Christ’s death may encompass those who will embody Christ’s life.

Just a recent baptism story

Every once in a while, you’re reminded of the joyfulness that saturates the Christian faith.  Yesterday was such a day for our congregation.

A man who had been invited by another congregation member has been attending for some time now.  He has listened to the messages, engaged in conversation, and has been experiencing a genuine joy in it all.  He also eventually began bringing his young daughter with him.  Yesterday he committed his life to Jesus through baptism.  That in itself was a joyous moment.  However, he wanted to express his joy in a way that really brought out the celebratory flavors of being born again.

In the weeks leading up to his baptism, he invited twenty friends and family members to attend; around fifteen came, one of whom even flew in from Canada to support him.  After he had made his good confession, was immersed, and then commissioned to servanthood, he provided lunch for the entire congregation and guests.  We all sat around eating like long lost friends.

When Jesus delivered a trio of stories to the scribes and Pharisees in Luke 15 about how we should view those returning to God, three times he emphasized joy and celebration.  In one clarifying comment, Jesus said “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Baptisms are a moment of joyful wonder for congregations.  By sharing in the joy of the one coming to Christ, we infuse joy into the whole congregation, learning anew the joy of knowing Jesus.  By celebrating with the one, we kindle afresh the candle Christ alights in us.  And in that light we see what put Christ in pursuit of that one in the first place—a beloved value that drives God’s pursuit of us all.

The Baptism of Jesus | Matthew 3:13-17

John has been in the wilderness recalling the people to their holy purpose by preaching repentance in view of the imminent Messiah and the incoming kingdom of God.  Many of the people have responded repentantly, confessing their sins and being baptized to mark this returning of their hearts to the Lord.  Thus was the way of the LORD made ready.  One day as John continued his task, Jesus arrived from Galilee.

What would he do?  Would he reveal himself as Messiah, give a speech, gather an army, align with religious leaders, declare war on Rome?  Nay; he came to John “to be baptized by him.”

John protested: “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?”  John’s objection resonates with us all.  Why would the one person who doesn’t need to repent submit himself to a baptism of repentance?

Jesus answers John, but not his question.  He commands, then comments “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

Two words in Jesus’ response bear the weight of what’s happening in the text: righteousness and fulfill.

Righteousness is the state of living rightly before God.  The structural standard or framework for living righteously before God was the Law, which God gave Israel after saving them from slavery in Egypt.  Nevertheless, it was a framework they were historically, corporately, and individually unable to fulfill in how they lived it out; because of either disobedience or their exacting, obsessive, and usually failed attempts to keep the Law completely, the spirit of living rightly before God gradually diminished.  Ultimately, righteousness had become to them something of a puzzle with a few pieces removed, other pieces added, and one whose big picture few could remember anyway.  The people needed a fresh face to remind them what the righteousness of God looked like; thus, fulfill.

When Jesus says “we must fulfill all righteousness”, he is asking John to let the righteous framework to which he has been calling the people to repentantly return to finally reach its righteous fulfillment through the Messiah.  This fulfillment begins with Jesus’ baptism.

If any adjective describes the essence of baptism, I believe it’s identifying.  Jesus submitted to the baptism of repentance, not because he had sinfulness to repent of, but because he was identifying with those who did.  Just as in Christian baptism we identify with Jesus’ death so we can also share in his life (Romans 6:3-5), in John’s baptism, Jesus identified with the people’s repentance so they could share in his righteousness.  He was immersed into the reality of repentance so, having entered the company of the repentant, he could lead them, as Messiah, into the reality of righteousness.  The framework must transition to fulfillment so repentance can translate to righteousness.

The implications of the spectrum between Jesus’ baptism and our Christian baptism are full of wondrous grace: we are now only able to identify with Jesus because he first identified with us.  This should give us pause.  By identifying with humanity, Jesus identified with men and women, Jews and Gentiles; or in more relevant terms, to Jesus black lives matter.  Whatever identifying or compartmentalizing label we tag onto humanity—gay, straight, married, single, rich, poor, young, old, political party, blue collar, white collar, immigrant, illegal, law enforcer, convict, terrorist, victim, introvert, extrovert—Jesus Messiah has identified with all in baptism in order to bring all into God’s righteousness.  Anyone who feels they belong to any such label can know Jesus has come alongside them in his baptism in order to walk along with them, ushering them upon the way of the Lord.

After Jesus’ baptism, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit lightened upon him in the form of a dove; “behold”, Matthew alerts his readers, “a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased’.”

Jesus has identified himself with humanity; now the Father identifies Jesus as His own.  He may be man, but he is so much more.  We are blessed to know Jesus is one of us, but that blessing is contingent on who he really is.  We have been granted access to Jesus because of how he is similar to us, but we have been granted his righteousness because of how he is different.

Amongst the company of the repentant, one stands apart, ready to live rightly before God, fulfilling and revealing what life upon the way is all about.  Christian baptism is a response to what Jesus’ baptism began; the start of a journey upon the path he paved.  I pray that with each daily step you take, know it’s a path permeated with his abiding presence; that this great company of the repentant are being brought into a way rich with righteousness fulfilled on our behalf.  We are free to follow him.