June 24, 2012

Looking Back to Look Forward

Well, good morning.  I’ve been really excited about our service this morning.  This morning we are going to take a close look together at the two foundational ordinances of our particular approach to the faith.  What I’m talking about, of course, are the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  In a typical year we’ll celebrate the Lord’s Supper a dozen or so times and we might do three or four baptisms.  But it’s not very often that we spend much time really talking about or thinking about why we do them or what they mean.  Now, presumably, if you have grown up in the Baptist church you’ve endured a Sunday school lesson or twelve on the ordinances, but that may not be the fairest assumption for a number of folks.  Truth be told, I can’t remember sitting through a lesson on either of those.  In fact, most of what I know has come from my own personal study of them.  Now, as a church tradition we encourage baptism to the point where it has kind of become a rite of passage for at least those kids whose parents are heavily involved in our ministry.  But do we ever take time and really explain what it means and why we encourage it so much?  We’ve only recently changed up the regular timing of the Lord’s Supper in our service so that our young people can observe and even take part if they’ve made a faith commitment to Jesus, but how many of them really understand what’s going on.  It is a difficult thing to muster up the courage to inquire as to the place and importance of a tradition from within the context of the tradition’s community.  In other words, when everybody seems to know what’s going on but you, most folks don’t ask for fear of being found out as an imposter when the truth is that there’s a good chance a number of the insiders don’t know either, but haven’t mustered up their own courage.  They’re just going through the motions as it seemed their parents did.  Perhaps there’s an implicit assumption that parents are having these conversations with their kids at home, but even that may not be the fairest assumption.  This becomes especially true if the parents themselves don’t really understand what’s going on.  If they…if you…don’t understand the theology of the ordinances—or even why they’re called ordinances (it’s because we believe they are symbols ordained by Jesus for inclusion in our regular worship patterns)—how will you explain them to someone else like, say, your kids?  How can we participate meaningfully without really grasping the significance of the celebration?

The simple answer is: we can’t.  We can only go through the motions.  In this way, people can learn to go through the motions of the ordinances.  And that’s not a terrible thing.  They’ll do the right things at the right times and fit right in with the larger body.  But when it comes to situations that fall outside of the norm, things can get dicey.  I hope you can see that this is obviously not the place we should desire to be when it comes to our ministry in and to and with the body of Christ.  This morning’s message, then, is going to be the beginning of an answer to all of this.  We are going to spend a few minutes talking about why we do what we do and what exactly we should be thinking when it comes to baptism and the Lord’s Supper as followers of Christ who happen to believe the Baptist church is the best place to live out our faith.

We’ll begin all of this with a baptism.  I’d like to teach more on baptism before we do it, but I’d be a prune before long and it’ll take too long to change clothes later!  So we’ll do this now and then teach on it in a few minutes.  This morning I have the privilege of baptizing Nick Christopher.  Now, nearly all of you know Nick.  You’ve watched him grow up into the fine young man (I can say that because while it’s close, I’m older than he is) he is today.  Nick was raised in this church to hold the Christian faith as His own, but it has been recently through the ministry of his baseball coach among others that he has made the courageous decision (courageous because of his age and place in life) to elevate it to something very much public and real.  He did this in part by coming forward a few months ago.  He continues the journey this morning by being baptized in the presence of the body.  As he enters these waters this morning there’s nothing magical going on.  My dunking him under the water in just a second is not going to result in his now being saved.  He was saved the moment he asked Jesus to come into his heart and have dominion over his life.  What you are seeing here is the public declaration that all of this has happened.  We’ll talk a bit more in a few minutes about why this is the case.  In fact, we’ll talk about the rest of what’s going on here in a few minutes.  For now, know that by submitting himself to the command of our Lord that His disciples be baptized into the kingdom, he is demonstrating to you that he is a partaker of the life that is truly life.  That’s enough talking for now.  Nick, come on down here and let’s do this.

On Communion

So the first ordinance we are going to talk about this morning is the Lord’s Supper.  We observe or celebrate or take, depending on your perspective, the Lord’s Supper about once a month at Central.  But why do we do this?  Because the Bible tells us so.  Yeah, but what exactly does it say?  There are actually a couple of different places we can go in the Bible to help us understand this important observance a bit more fully.  We can look at the Gospels where the event actually took place.  And that’s a pretty helpful search because Jesus lays out a lot of important teaching there.  But this morning I want to look with you at what is perhaps the most important block of teaching on the Lord’s Supper outside of the Gospels.  This passage is found in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.  Flip there with me in your Bibles and we’ll work out way through this text in the next few minutes before we actually celebrate the Lord’s Supper together.

As we have talked about before, the church in Corinth was a mess.  It was full of people dealing with all kinds of different issues and who all decided that the church would be a good place to work through these issues…kind of like the church often becomes today.  In any event, Paul had caught wind that the people were not handling the Lord’s Supper like they should have been.  Here’s what was happening.  In that day, the Lord’s Supper was often celebrated as a whole meal kind of like when we do a covered dish.  The problem was that the church was dividing itself along the sharp social strata of their society and acting out of those strata in the church.  The rich people would go first because they thought themselves the most important and basically clean out the buffet line.  This left nothing for the poor folks in the group who were perhaps genuinely hungry and counting on this to be one of their only meals for the day.  The celebration in this way became little more than a public barbeque and had nothing to do with the Lord’s Supper.  That they called it such only served to throw mud in the face of Christ.  In the first part of Paul’s words here he calls the people out for all of this.

Paul then goes on to remind them of what the supper actually should be starting in v. 23: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’  In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’  For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Now, there’s a lot of theology packed into this little paragraph.  Namely, what exactly is going on in the act of partaking the Lord’s Supper?  Most of this debate centers on what Jesus meant when He said, “This is my body.”  Catholics take Him literally and believe that the elements of the meal literally become the body and blood of Jesus Christ when they are consumed in the right way.  There are a variety of views in the non-Catholic world.  Lutherans tend to believe that Jesus’ body and blood are present in a real way, but that the bread and wine don’t literally become the body and blood.  Presbyterians tend to view things more spiritually in that Jesus is spiritually present with the worshipers and is actively ministering to them in the process of eating.  We Baptists are a much more symbolic people.  Baptists believe the bread and juice (not wine due to Baptists being a traditionally tee-totaling people) function as symbols of Jesus’ body and blood.  Somewhat ironically, believers throughout the centuries have tended to get really hung up on this kind of stuff.  But, while Paul does talk about eating and drinking unworthily in the following verses, given the broader context, he doesn’t have finer points of theology in mind.  His concern is not so much what you believe about the elements, but what you are doing about the commands of the one who introduced them to us.

When Paul says, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the bread and drink of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.  That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died,” what he’s getting at is that the state of our lives matters when we come to the table together.  If you come to the table to take the Lord’s Supper and have issues with another member of the body of Christ or have some unconfessed sin sitting between you and God or maybe you don’t really have a relationship with Him but don’t want to look out of place, you are essentially spitting in the face of Christ.  To come and celebrate Jesus’ sacrificially atoning death on your behalf with sin actively ruling in your life is to essentially say, “I know you did this great thing, but I don’t really believe it worked.  You wasted your time.”  It’s to lie to the body about the state of your faith in such a way that some might possibly be led astray when they observe this disconnect and reason that’s a normal state of affairs.  Ananias and his wife Sapphira were killed by God on the spot for such an offense.  God hasn’t done that often, but that’s no reason to think He won’t.  Let us never complacently forget that our God is a holy God.  No, while what we believe about the elements of the Lord’s Supper is important, what is more important is how that belief translates itself into our doing things like loving our neighbors as we should be.  Perhaps in this sense Matthew 25 is a better text to determine Lord’s Supper readiness than vv. 23-26 are.  But, for those who are right before God, at least in the moment—and v. 31 suggests that the moment is what matters most—all are welcomed to come to the table and celebrate.

Ultimately, the Lord’s Supper should accomplish two things for us.  First, it should have us looking backward in grateful remembrance of what Jesus accomplished for us through His sacrificial death on the cross.  We should be reminded through the symbolism richly present in the bread and in the juice of the cost of the life we now enjoy.  We should stand in humble awe that the God who is perfect in holiness sacrificed His only begotten Son in order to affect a new covenant with an incorrigibly sinful people that we might enter into the life of the kingdom.  Second, it should have us looking forward because our Lord did not stay dead in the tomb.  He rose on the third day and is waiting at the right hand of the Father for the day when He will return to bring judgment to this world.  In that day, we who are called by His name will enjoy a great feast at His table once again.  But instead of being a feast of remembrance, this will be a feast of victory and celebration that the life for which we have been preparing and hoping has now come.

As we eat and drink together this morning, keep all of this in mind.  As the deacons come forward in just a minute, I want you to sit quietly where you are and put yourself before your heavenly Father.  Is there anything sitting between you and Him?  Don’t answer that quickly or glibly.  Don’t worry about whether the people around you are going to take communion or not.  You put yourself before Him and ask the hard questions.  If there is something you can get resolved; resolve it.  If you need to wait and get with a fellow brother or sister this week, do that.  If that’s the case, do not by any means share in this meal.  The risk simply isn’t worth it.  On the other hand, if you can say in the quietness of your heart that you are right with God—whether you came prepared or you have dealt with your issues while sitting there—then you are welcomed to join with us.  The deacons will first serve the bread, I’ll remind you of its import, and then we’ll all eat together.  We’ll then do the same thing with the juice.  Deacons, come on forward as I pray.

On Baptism

I want to close our service this morning by coming back around to where we started by talking for a minute about baptism.  Baptism is, or should be, really important to us as Baptists.  The practice of adult (or at least consciously and knowledgably sought at any age) believer’s baptism is where our faith tradition came from.  With the fires of the Protestant Reformation still burning strong John Smyth and Thomas Helwys launched a shot that shocked the Christian world.  They proclaimed by baptizing one another their disbelief that the infant sprinkling baptism practiced by Catholics and Protestants alike at that time didn’t accomplish anything lasting or even terribly important in the life of the little ones.  As you might be able to imagine, this wasn’t terribly well received by the broader culture.  For many years after this time these Anabaptists, or simply Baptists, could count on being at least excommunicated from whatever church they had previously been a part of and often a good bit more persecution than that all the way up to execution.

There was a great deal of church tradition and teaching and not a small amount of cultural expectation tied up in these debates.  But, serious students of Scripture—which Baptists have always tended to be over against their denominational counterparts—can easily come to the conclusion that Smyth and Helwys were in the right here.  After all, there is no mention of sprinkling or of the baptizing of an infant in the whole of the New Testament.  The only people who were baptized in the New Testament were believing adults.  Furthermore, the only manner of baptism practiced was to immerse the person fully under the water and bring them back up out of it.  Indeed, the Greek word baptidzo literally means “to immerse in water.”  Part of the reason we have the word “baptize” in our Bibles is because when the Bible was translated into English, the translators realized that if they translated in such a way that Jesus told His followers to go and make disciples of all people, immersing them in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, there was going to be an existential crisis on their hands because no one in the church had been immersed in water at that point in history.  So instead of translating the word, they merely transliterated it.

Lost in all of this debate over method and whether or not an alternative method that was personally meaningful should be accepted from one church to another is what the Bible actually teaches about the nature of baptism.  The Bible talks about baptism quite a few times, particularly in the book of Acts, but it only teaches about the nature of baptism once that I’m aware of.  This is fortunate for us.  What is unfortunate is that this passage, found in 1 Peter 3 and which we will look at in a good bit more detail in a few weeks, is one of the more confusing passages in the whole of the New Testament and no scholar in all of church history has dared to conclude that he has found the correct meaning of it.  There have been some good ideas put forth, to be sure, but all of these are held with at least a grain of salt.  This being said, I think it is possible to look past the more confusing details and grasp the heart of the matter.

With this in mind, let me read you this text, brush away the mud, and give you a couple of reasons why baptism is so important for us.  Look with me at 1 Peter 3:18-22: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.  Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the bod but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.”

Quite a mouthful, is it not?  So what’s it mean?  Well, more than we’re going to get into right now; but here’s something we can conclude now: there is a symbolic connection between our practice of baptism and Jesus’ death, resurrection, and glorification.  It’s easy to get distracted investigating to which spirits in prison Jesus preached, how they didn’t obey, in what manner exactly baptism saves us, and miss the more important point of this connection.  Look at the text.  Jesus suffered and died so that we could be made alive.  In the act of baptism we descend into the water.  In the ancient Hebrew mind, the water was a place of death.  You didn’t go into the water unless you had to and then you didn’t stray very far from shore.  With this in mind, there is a sense in which Noah’s ark was like a coffin.  Most of the world was left to die out in the open in the flood, but Noah and his family were put into a coffin.  They went through the water.  And guess what happened?  Because of Noah’s righteousness before God, they were saved.  In a similar manner, when we descend into the water, we are placed in a tomb different only in composition and location from that in which our crucified Lord was placed.  We are being rightly put to death for our sins.  And yet death is not the final answer.  Just as Noah and his family were saved, just as Jesus was raised from the dead, we to are brought back up out of the water proclaiming the new life made available when Jesus rose and ascended to the right hand of the Father where in His position of highest authority He intercedes on our behalf before the Father who in turn accepts His actual death for sins in place of our symbolic one.  Now does this mean that baptism is somehow necessary for salvation?  No, but neither could the writers of the New Testament have conceived of a follower of Jesus who had not be baptized by full immersion.  The symbol doesn’t have salvific power, but nonetheless, the symbol is powerful and important.  It declares in a real and public way that we have died to our past and forsaken entirely all of the powers of this world; that we have taken into ourselves Christ’s crucifixion so that our former self is no more; and that we have crossed the threshold on the new and permanent life of the kingdom.  In this way, it is a symbol worth encouraging those who have professed to follow Jesus to experience themselves.  In this way, it is a symbol worth holding as necessary for those who desire to be a part of our fellowship to experience.  This is not a cruel thing, either.  Instead, if we really believe all of these things about the act of baptism, it is a loving one as we are calling people to take up fully the example of Jesus, to experience in as real a way as possible His death and resurrection, in order that they might become fully who God designed them to be.

Like with the Lord’s Supper, then, baptism looks both backward and forward.  It looks backward to the death of our Lord.  It looks backward to His unjust suffering in order to gain us the prize of life.  And yet it also looks forward.  It looks forward to the time when we will enjoy that life with all the fullness for which God designed it.  In this way we can say with assurance that these two great ordinances are rooted in the death and resurrection power of Jesus.  This power is the power on which our entire faith rests.  Remove it and the whole thing falls apart.  The cross and the empty tomb are everything for us.  Because of this, these two ordinances, rooted as they are in this power, ought to play a huge part of our journeys of faith.  In the one we declare that we are a part of the body of the kingdom, and in the other we are regularly nourished with the spiritual food we need to keep looking forward until that kingdom is made fully present.  Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are rooted in the death and resurrection power of Jesus.  May you know this power.