What “comes with” baptism as a Christian?

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Today we hear St. Peter talking urging people to be Baptized “so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” But what does that mean to a Christian – to you or to me – living here in 21st century San Francisco? Why is baptism important? How should baptism change our life?

One of my colleagues, Fr. John Kirkley over at the Church of St. James, tells the story of the first time a Yankee traveler ordered breakfast down south. Once his order arrived he called the waitress over and started to complain. “What’s this on my plate?” he asked. “Why those are grits, sir” came the reply. But I didn’t order any grits,” the man argued. You see he was worried he would be charged for something he did not order. “Oh honey, you don’t order grits – they just come with.” Today we need to consider what “comes with” baptism as a Christian. 

Detail of a youthful-looking Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist.

First century Christians had a very different answer to this question than some do some of today’s followers of Jesus. In the years after the first Easter, people who wanted to become Christians had to both learn how to live like a Christian and they had to change their life to reflect these values. What “came with” baptism into the early church was the requirement that you would become part of your local Christian community – your church – and that your life would clearly reflect the teaching of Jesus. In fact, you could not be baptized until you had changed your life to live like Jesus.

Today some Christians have a completely different view of baptism. For example, Evangelical Christians say their baptism was a milestone in the development of a “personal relationship with Jesus.”

But that’s not what St. Peter meant nor is it how early Christians viewed baptism. Only in the ego-centered world of modern theology could an individual’s “personal relationship with Jesus” take center stage in a Christian life.

Chad Bird is an author who believes the Gospel is for broken, messed up people like himself – and like you and me. He recently argued online that:

Christianity is not about a personal relationship with Jesus. The phrase is never found in the Bible. And the whole biblical witness runs contrary to it. Our life with Christ is communal, not personal or private or individual. When the Scriptures speak of believers, they are part of a community, a fellowship of other believers. Christianity is about a church relationship with Jesus.”

Chad argues – and I believe – that “Christianity is about a church relationship with Jesus.” True Christian faith does not, we believe, center on an individual’s own relationship with Jesus. Think about it.

In the prayer Jesus gave us, do we pray “My Father who art in heaven?” No: we pray “Our Father who art in heaven.” Even when we pray alone we pray the Our Father in the plural – and that makes sense because our relationship with God is framed with our community of faith. Here at St., Cyprian’s, each week we sing together, confess our sins together, and receive absolution together. We argue about scripture together, drink coffee together, share bits of our lives together, grieve and heal together. And together we share the one bread and the one cup that makes us the Body of Christ, the continuing incarnation of Jesus in today’s San Francisco Bay Area.

So our commitment to forging a spiritual path, our commitment to a Christian life, comes through building our relationship with Jesus in the communal life of a congregation. Some spiritual paths do not require people to live in community. Jesus does: being part of the resurrected Body of Christ is inextricably bound up with doing what Jesus would do. Perhaps St. Theresa said it best:

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

And that’s why baptism is important: it is the way we become part of the body of Christ, part of the Jesus Movement. “Christianity is not a solo endeavor,” Chad continues. It is “[n]ot a private relationship between Jesus and me.” Instead, Christianity is a communal endeavor, something we do with others as we search for a way to follow Jesus during these difficult and trying times. And that’s how Christianity supplied the strength for some of us to resist evil in the first 100 days of the current administration. And it is how we will support our ability to resist for as long as it takes.

We pray, in the words of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, that God “[g]rant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil, and to make no peace with oppression.” We’re 100 days into a nightmare that may last a lifetime. But we will not make peace with oppression. Not after 100 days, or 100 months or 100 years. We are the Body of Christ: we will never surrender to those who oppress the weak, ignore the sick, neglect the hungry, or cause children to suffer.

Let us pray,

  • Elusive God,
    companion on the way,
    you walk behind, beside, beyond;
    you catch us unawares.
    Break through the disillusionment and despair
    clouding our vision,
    that, with wide-eyed wonder,
    we may find our way and journey on
    as messengers of your good news. Amen.
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