Monday, January 14, 2013

That'll Leave A Mark

A photo I shot of the Jordan River just south of the Sea of Galilee.

4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 5 If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin-- 7 because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
--Mark 1:4-11

Yesterday, we had the great privilege of baptizing four people and, after taking a long hard look at what Scripture and The United Methodist Church teaches about baptism, we all had an opportunity to remember our baptisms and renew our baptismal vows.  
This week, by way of this blog (or e-mail...however you are receiving this) I plan on sharing with you some teaching material on baptism that I had to cut from yesterday’s sermon, but for today a quick recap.
In The United Methodist Church--along with our Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, we refer to baptism as one of two sacraments (the other being Holy Communion).  While other denominations might call baptism an ordinance, we insist that it is a sacrament.  This is more than just semantics.  At stake is what we believe happens in baptism.  
For those who use the language of ordinance, baptism is merely a symbol of something that has already taken place.  The person has already given his or her life over to the Lordship of Christ and baptism is the symbolic action publicly declaring that.  Nothing really happens at baptism that hasn’t already happened in the person’s life.  The primary actor is the person who is coming by faith to be baptized.
For those who use the language of sacrament, however, baptism is more than simply a symbol of something that has already taken place.  We believe that God is really doing something through water and the Holy Spirit, that God is marking us, claiming us as God’s own.  Baptism is a sign and seal of a covenant between us and God whereby God washes, cleanses, and marks us as we, in turn, pledge our lives to God.  The primary actor is God.  The action is what God does for us.
The Greek word used by the earliest Christians for baptism and Holy Communion was mysterium, which means mystery.  They believed that God was busy in baptism and Communion, conveying grace, and transforming lives, but exactly how and what God was doing remained a mystery.  
When it came time to translate the Greek into Latin, though, the earliest Christians had a very difficult time with the word mysterium.  There was no Latin word that corresponded to it.  Eventually, they started using the Latin word sacramentum, to translate mysterium, but where did they get that word and why did they choose it?  The answer is: In a general sense, sacramentum in the Roman world was an oath that rendered the person making it “belonging to the gods.”  In a more specific context, sacramentum was the Roman Army’s process for transforming a civilian recruit for the Roman army into a soldier.  That process of transformation that had two parts: 1) the soldier took an oath of office, and 2) the Army branded him behind the ear with the number of his legion.
Branding, obviously, leaves a mark.  The sacramentum for Roman soldiers involved their promises and oaths to the army and involved them being marked.  A Roman soldier was different than a civilian recruit.  Once they went through the sacramentum, transformation happened.  They were branded.  Marked.  They were no longer free to do whatever they wanted.  Their lives didn’t belong to them any more.  They belonged to the Army.   They had new responsibilities and duties.  They a whole new life.
It is easy to see why the early Christians would have latched onto that word to describe what happens to us in baptism.  In baptism we are branded, we are marked by God as children.  We are no longer free to do whatever we want.  Our lives don’t belong to us anymore.  We belong to God.  We have new responsibilities and duties.  We have a whole new life!  We have been marked! 

Branded By Grace,
Pastor Michael

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