“Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:11-12)
“The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you, Lord my God,
brought my life up from the pit.
“When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.
“Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.” (Jonah 2:5-8)
Even with just two ordinances—the Lord’s supper and baptism—there is controversy. During the Reformation, it turned deadly.
Anabaptists—the name means “one who baptizes again” since infant baptism was the norm at the time—had rocks tied to their bodies before being pitched into rivers to drown, with their tormentors taunting them about their “second baptism.”
The word translated baptism comes from the Greek word meaning dipping or immersion. But the buried in Colossians 2, above, is what it’s all about, despite what appears to be a mixed metaphor.
Strangely enough, given who made the movie (the Coen brothers, not exactly known for piety), O, Brother, Where Art Thou? has a scene that helps to understand what baptism represents.
The three fugitives from a chain gang are sharing an open-air meal of game (“Gopher, Everett?”) when an army of white-robed devotees gliding through the woods, singing a cappella beautifully, descend on the river to be baptized individually.
One of the convicts is mesmerized and runs into the river to take his turn. For a few seconds there is an overhead shot, looking straight down on the convict immersed in the river. There’s no casket bracketed by the dirt walls of the grave, obviously, but it looks for a moment like the dead in repose.
Which is half of it. We are “buried,” then “raised” to life. That event is generally also meant as the individual’s identification with the larger body of Christ. In medieval times, “there is no salvation outside the church” was taken so seriously that the unbaptized were, ipso facto, lost, damned.
Baptism also means cleansing or purifying, foreshadowed by the priests’ ablutions at the laver before ministering in the tabernacle or temple. Nowadays, the word is occasionally used figuratively or ironically, as in, she decided to baptize her accounting degree by becoming the church treasurer.
All right, but it’s too long for a business card. Nevertheless, I would say a baptized imagination enables me to post here every day.
But even in that we have to respect the word’s full meaning. Paul wrote “your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off” in baptism. It’s kind of a pedestrian play on words, but when I think of holy, I automatically think of whole, because that’s how much is meant to be devoted to the Lord. There are no options like the streaming services choices of 30, 60 or 110 channels and you pick the price you want to pay. You’re all in or you’re not in at all.
There’s an interesting detail in the design of the ark of the covenant that says even more. The ark was a box overlaid with gold, and it had a cover on which two cherubim sat. “Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends” (Ex 25:19).
My shorthand label for this is seamless ministry. Another way to put it is, The message and the messenger must be the same. “Of one piece.” No discontinuity. No glaring contradictions.
As a concept, I imagine—that’s with a baptized imagination, by the way, and here’s my certificate—that most of you have no problem with that. Depending on your experiences in the church, you may even insist on it now in a way that you really didn’t give much thought to, say, five or ten or twenty years ago. Fool me once . . .
We want integrity. We may expect it. We may even demand it from our ministers (but not with a log in your eye, right?).
But then again, we may not. Like it or not, every denomination (and their affiliated local assemblies) has blind spots, compromises, layers of tradition encrusting the word of God to a degree that obscures its original meaning. Sorry, but I’ve been around the block a few times. (And while I think of it, you need a bigger church parking lot. By the time I find a space, the service will be over.)
But who’s looking? I hope you realize that’s not a trick question. Who’s looking that really matters? Ananias and Sapphira probably thought they’d covered all their tracks, but the Holy Spirit was looking into their hearts as well as seeing their contribution to the apostles’ purse. They lied to the Holy Spirit, Peter said.
You can’t send the message that you’re generously giving to the apostles to help others, then cc: God with a wink and a nod emoji and say, “This is just between us, OK? Nobody else has to know.” That’s not “of one piece.” That’s just a piece of your hypocritical heart and, frankly, God hates it. That’s not the kind of “living sacrifice” Paul had in view in Romans 12:1-2.
As David wrote in the wake of a clever deception that unraveled (“You are the man!”), “You desire truth in the innermost being” (or inward parts, Ps 51:6). I’m not trying to show off, but when you read about how the OT sacrifices were prepared by the priests, the animals didn’t get a quick hose-down. They washed “its entrails” (Ex 29:17), which were included in the offering. The “inward parts.”
Jonah knew about God’s mercy—he even admitted that was why he had taken the ship to Tarshish rather than go to Nineveh as commanded. So God “baptized” him. He was thrown into the sea in a raging storm which he almost slept through. And, no, “the peace of God which passes all understanding” does not apply here.
Then he was swallowed by a fish, so Walt Disney could create a dramatic scene in Pinocchio that would remind his mostly churchgoing audience of Jonah. Uh, no. He was swallowed and ended up in the fish’s “inward parts” to work on Jonah’s “inward parts.”
Jonah’s heart was not “of one piece” with the actual knowledge–including fresh personal experience–he had of God’s mercy. In his heart, he had an essentially superficial knowledge of God: He is merciful to me, one of his chosen people, his “treasured possession.” (“I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord” he boasted to the ship’s crew.)
Jonah was inspired to record a clever aphorism: “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.” Sounds promising until you see Jonah grousing about a withered vine and still close to “turning away God’s love for” the Ninevites. Didn’t you learn anything from your “time inside”?
There’s a reason for Jonah’s stubbornness. If you’re going to cleanse “the innermost being,” you’re talking about the heart, the core of your life. And we know what Jesus said about “your life” and the “save” or “lose” options. “Your life” does not always go gently into that good night. More on that in the next post.
Illustration is a rare example from the author’s early Blue Period. Last chance to see it before it goes to Sotheby’s.