New Birth: Why Baptism Matters
Scanning television, a prominent theme has emerged of late: our desire for transformation, change, a makeover. In these programs a family leaves, and then returns, and its home has been decorated in a new way. Or people travel to a big city and then become a new person: new hair, a new wardrobe. Or five guys come in and they teach you a new way to cook, and they decorate, and they get rid of all the old stuff. Or, more drastically, a team of surgeons, along with a very attractive model/ spokesperson, consult with someone and convinces them that they need a new body and a new face.
It is all about makeover, transformation, change. Of course, the networks continue tapping into something powerful: the impulse to shed our skin, to experience a metamorphosis, from an ugly duckling to a swan, from a caterpillar to a butterfly. For Christians, this impulse is deep within us as well, and the way we talk about makeover, transformation, change, and new life is baptism. In today’s text, Paul speaks of an old way of life under the custodian, the disciplinarian, the pedagogy of the law, a law that we could not keep or live up to or fulfill. The law held sway over us until Christ came, Paul tells the Galatians. In Christ we become children of God. We are not speaking of natural childbirth, of the mark of circumcision, or any kind of ethnic heritage. We are children of God through faith.
This faith is expressed in baptism; we are baptized into Christ—into the body—and we “put on” Christ. The image is unmistakable—as if we are receiving a new wardrobe. And because we have put on Christ, we are made over, we are transformed, we are changed. The old camp song I learned in the mountains of western North Carolina said it well: “the best thing in my life I ever did do, was take off the old robe and put on the new.”
Baptism is a visual symbol of the power of transformation. It is God’s gift, God’s work, God’s act. Baptism also gives us a different way of perceiving ourselves. In these programs on television, the person leaves, and they return, and maybe they see a room or two in their homes, and everything is different, and the camera records their amazement. Or perhaps someone leaves and returns to see friends and family who cannot believe she is the same person. Or the surgically improved individual simply looks into a mirror and is overwhelmed. It is all about getting used to the change.
In the New Testament church, the converts needed some reassurance that they were worthy of God’s gift, worthy of love. And so, Paul writes to them, and to us, “you are all children of God.” Peter, in his letter, writes, “you are royalty” (1 Peter 2:9, paraphrased). You have a new identity. You belong to God.
A good friend of ours had her first child this spring, a boy. We saw him last week for the first time. As I picked him up, I was amazed first at how light he seemed, our children having grown almost to adulthood. I smiled at him, made some goofy noises and he looked at me as if he were going through some kind of internal biochemical reaction. Maybe he was doing that.
Then his mother took him back and said his name, and a huge smile came across his face. He knew the one to whom he belonged. This is a transforming truth. The primary identifying feature about you is not where you live or how you vote or how much money you have or where you came from or who your father is or even your gender or your race. You are a child of God through faith, in baptism.
In baptism we are marked, claimed, and given access to the grace that God wants to give us. This is our fundamental identity. Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
What we share in common—our identity in Jesus Christ—is more significant than all of our differences. Which is another way of saying we all belong. Baptism is about identity: we belong. Baptism is also about transformation: we can be changed. And baptism is a lifelong process. When we are watching television, transformation happens so quickly, and yet real change, authentic transformation, is different. We are becoming new creatures. We are being changed.
On television, transformation happens in an instant. But in reality, the transformation may take us a lifetime. So stay tuned. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The change, the makeover, the transformation that matters is one that begins on the inside, what John Wesley called the “circumcision of the heart,” what Jesus pointed to in so many of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.
The outward and visible sign is the water washing over us. The inward and spiritual grace is the acceptance, the unconditional love, the fount of every blessing, always a gift, a moment that extends into a lifetime. God is never finished with us . . . God will not give up on us. Our lives, our priorities, are being rearranged. Welcome to the family, God says . . . let’s get you cleaned up!
And so we place ourselves in God’s hands and we allow the waters to cleanse us, and our hearts are tuned to sing God’s grace, and we see ourselves, and each other, for who we really are. We remember that we are baptized. We hear a voice calling our name, and if we are listening, a huge smile comes across our faces. We are children of God!