Displaying Death and Life: Baptism and Communion
1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. – Romans 6:1-5
The title of my sermon today is near Puritanical length: Remembering and Displaying Death and Life: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It hinges on the idea that the Christian practices of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper function as a means of remembering and displaying both death and life. Let’s think for a moment on remembering and displaying in the way I will refer to them in the sermon.
How do you remember important moments in your life? Maybe you keep a photo album (do you remember photo albums?), mementoes, or maybe you have a special celebration each year to remember some significant event, like an anniversary or birthday. My wife and I keep a shoebox under our bed filled with letters we have written to each other from the time we have been dating till now. Every now and then we will pull that shoebox out and read through some of them. It’s a sweet (and sometimes embarrassing) ritual. The further back into our letters you go, the more obvious it becomes that I am trying really hard to sound interesting and deep: I saw the sunset this evening and begun to meditate on the brevity of existence... yikes. (But, somehow it worked because now we’re married!). A more helpful analogy for the sake of the sermon would be our wedding rings. Hillary and I wear wedding rings as a way of both remembering the covenant that we made with one another and also as a way of displaying that covenant to the watching world. Our rings are a memento of sorts that broadcasts to others that we are united to each other, that our status has been permanently altered. This is similar to what Baptism and the Lord’s Supper does for the church. It is a means by which we remember and display the gospel, our response to that gospel, and who God’s people are.
Displays the gospel
How do baptism and the Lord’s Supper display the gospel itself? Well, before we can answer that we need to know specifically what the gospel is. We could helpfully summarize the gospel into four major movements: God, man, Christ, response.
God: In the beginning, there was God. Before there was anything created, God eternally existed within the community of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, infinite in power, love, and holiness. And out of the overflow of that holiness, love, and power, God created the heavens and the earth the share and display His goodness with His creation, namely with the crown jewel of His creation: man.
Man: Mankind was made in the image of God, made to be in a loving and obedient relationship with their maker. When the Bible says we are made “in the image of God,” that means that we intended to reflect that character and nature of God in our lives the way a mirror reflects your image back to you. Human beings were designed to live moral, pure, selfless lives and so reflect God. But, in the beginning, shortly after God made the first human beings, they were quickly deceived by God’s enemy to rebel against God. And now all of their descendants are born with a nature that is spring-loaded towards rebelling against God’s design.
Thus, while we still bear God’s image and are thus called to reflect God, instead we live selfish, immoral, impure lives. And while we may always be able to find someone else who is failing much worse than we are, if we are honest with ourselves we know, in our heart of hearts, that we too have failed to measure up. We do not live as we ought to, but often are motivated out self-interest, are hypocritical, quick to anger, cowardly, controlled by lusts, lazy, addicted to the praise of others, arrogant, unwilling to admit fault, and always seeing the problems in others more than we see the problems in ourselves. This heart does not reflect the purity, excellence, holiness, and righteousness of God. This is what the Bible calls “sin” and it is what every human being has been actively participating in since the creation of this world, as Romans 3:23 tells us: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
And this sin, not only brings the consequence of a frustrating, painful life here, but it brings about eternal consequences. Sin brings about an eternal separation from us and God—Romans 6:23 tells us, “For the wages of sin is death.” And, of course, “death” entails physical death, it also entails a far more severe and far more perilous death—a spiritual death, that is an eternal death. Sin is a rebellion against God, a rejection of God, a desire to be at war with God. And if we persist in sin, God will give us what we want—war with Him, separation from Him, and finally, judgment from Him.
So mankind has been called to a high and glorious calling, but the story of the Bible is a story of man repeatedly failing to measure up to that calling, and choosing instead to plunge himself into sin. Which leads us to wonder: what will God do in response to this? Will He simply consign all of mankind to destroy themselves? The rest of Romans 6:23 tells us, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.”
Christ: Who is Jesus Christ? Many people today imagine Jesus was a fantastic teacher of love and altruism, pointing people to God—which is true. Others imagine that He was some sort of healer, miracle-worker of sorts who helped out the disadvantaged and the poor—which is true. Others think of Him as a renegade of sorts, courageously challenging the religious hypocrites in power and exposing their dead faith—which is also true. But is that all He is? Was Jesus someone like a prophet Mohammed or Joseph Smith, who taught people a new pathway to please God and earn a place in Heaven? Was He like the Buddha, who taught how an individual could achieve nirvana? Was He just another Mahatma Ghandi or a Martin Luther King Jr., who fought for the disadvantaged and oppressed?
No, Jesus was something else entirely. According to Jesus’ own teaching, He understood that He was actually God in the flesh. The same God who made the heavens and the earth, who had made man in the beginning. This God had now condescended to His creation, and took on a human body, becoming a real person in human history. Why? Two reasons: (1) so He could live the life we were supposed to live. The Bible describes Jesus as the image of God (Col 1:15)—meaning, Jesus, because He was God, was without sin. He always did what was right, just, holy, loving, and selfless. He perfectly obeyed and fulfilled the Law of God. (2) So He could die the death we all deserve to die. God took on flesh so He could die. When Jesus was put to death on the cross, He was not merely lynched by the religious authorities of His time, but He taught that His death was going to be a “ransom” or a “substitute” for His followers (Matt 20:28). This means that on the cross, Jesus was not only accepting the physical punishment for our sins, but also the spiritual punishment as well, and absorbed the eternal death, the eternal separation into Himself for all of the sins of His people. But, three days later He rose from the dead, He resurrected. Jesus, being God Himself and infinitely holy and infinitely powerful, could not remain dead, since death had no power over Him. So He resurrected, and then ascended up to heaven and now dwells in heaven to intercede on His children’s behalf.
Response: This gospel message, this news demands a response. We either laugh at this Jesus as a crazy person, an imposter, or we fall down at His feet as our Lord and God. The Bible describes the right response to Jesus as “repentance and faith.” Repentance means to turn away from our life of rejecting God and living for ourselves. Faith means to turn towards God in allegiance and trust; trusting that Jesus’ death on the cross has secured the forgiveness of your sins, and committing yourself in allegiance to Jesus as the Lord and King of your life. We now follow Him.
God, Man, Christ, Response. God is holy, man is sinful, Christ is an all-sufficient savior, and a response is required. This is a synopsis of grand and majestic story of the gospel.
Now, what does all of this have to do with baptism and the Lord’s Supper? Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two ordinances that Jesus commands His church to regularly practice. Baptism is the entry sign and symbol of someone who has believed the gospel, repented of their sins, and turned in faith towards Christ. The Lord’s Supper is the covenant renewal sign of that same truth. These display the gospel in their dramatic reenactments of the gospel itself. Romans 6 tells us that when we go under the waters of baptism, we are being baptized, (submerged) into Jesus’ death. The book of 1 Peter compares the waters of baptism to the flood waters of Noah, the waters of chaos and destruction. So when we see the water in the baptismal, we should think of death, destruction. This is what our sins have earned. But we not only go under the waters of baptism, we come up out of them (praise God!). Just as Jesus did not remain in the grave, but resurrected with a new life, so too do Christians emerge from the baptismal waters to newness of life! Though they have gone under the waters of death, because they have put their faith in Jesus, they follow Christ their captain up out of the grave! Their destiny is no longer to be consigned to death, to absorb the penalty of their sin, but to inherit the gift of eternal life. So, there is nothing mystical or magical about the waters in of themselves. Rather, the act of baptism is a dramatic reenactment of what has spiritually already taken place within the souls of those who are participating in it.
But what about the Lord’s Supper? Well, on the night that Jesus was betrayed, He met with His disciples one last time and celebrated a special, Jewish feast called the Passover. But, that night Jesus inaugurated a new feast to be celebrated in its place. He took the bread of that meal and told His disciples: “This is my body, broken for you,” and He broke it and handed it out to His disciples and commanded them to eat of it. Then He took a cup of wine and said: “This is my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins, take and drink.” He then taught everyone that they should regularly eat this special meal of bread and the fruit of the vine, and when they do they should remember the broken body and shed blood of Jesus for our sins and to look forward to His second coming. So, when we take this meal, as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we perform a mini-drama of the crucifixion itself. As our teeth crush the bread, and we drain the cup, we are reminded: my sins destroyed Jesus, it was my sins that shed His blood.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are tactile, visual tokens by which we remember the glorious, old, old story of the gospel. But they don’t only help us remember, they also display something.
Displays God’s People
Just as my wedding ring not only reminds me of the covenant vows I have made to my wife, it also displays for all to see that my status has been permanently altered—I am no longer a single man, but a married man. So too do Baptism and the Lord’s Supper display a permanent alteration of all who participate in it. Baptism, as the entry sign into this new life, and the Lord’s Supper as the covenant renewal ceremony, display those who have responded truly and fully to the gospel message. But this isn’t exclusively an individualistic encounter. Rather, these signs, these dramatic displays display a people, not just an individual. 1 Cor 12:13 shows us that when we are baptized, we are actually baptized into the body of Christ, the church, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” So baptism isn’t just a way of displaying our personal response to the world, but is also a way of publicly associating ourselves with God’s church, with His people. So too with the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Cor 10:17 we see that when we partake of the Lord’s Supper we are binding ourselves together as the body of Christ, as the church, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” And then later in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul sternly reprimands the Corinthians for misusing the Lord’s Supper because they are failing to wait for one another, and not taking it together collectively as a church.
So, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper mark off who God’s people are. They are the objective, concrete markers that say: this person has believed in the gospel and submitted Himself to Christ as King. But these markers are administered through God’s church so we do not participate in them apart from the church.