June 23, 1996 message
Jeremy was a new Christian. If there was one word I would choose to describe him, it would be: "earnest". Jeremy was earnest about his newfound faith. It bothered him when other Christians in his church did not seem to him to be very earnest, themselves, about their faith. He knew Jesus Christ. He knew the transforming power of Christ in his life. He also knew his struggles with sin. Perhaps that's why he was so earnest. His life was in the process of being transformed by Christ. Such change does not come easily. Nor does it happen overnight. In reality, it takes a lifetime.
I remember being called by Martha, his wife, late one evening. Jeremy had fallen back into his sin and had not come home. When finally he did arrive, the three of us had a long talk. We also prayed together. Confession. Forgiveness. New strength. I really don't recall much of what we talked or prayed about. I do remember, though, his pain over folks in the church; about how they didn't seem to struggle with their faith, as well as their sinfulness. It appeared to him as if they had already arrived, and he was still trying to take off.
As I've said many times before, our life in Christ has its ups & downs. In many ways it is like a roller coaster. It was that way with my friend Jeremy. He had his peaks. He also had his valleys. He longed to hear from other Christians about their valleys as well as their peaks. Since they weren't people to share such things, at least not with him, he could assume one of two things: either he was wierd, or they were not true to Christ or themselves. When he saw himself as wierd, different, he lapsed back into his sin. After all, what can you expect from a wierdo? When he could accept God's grace, he was able to grow beyond his sin. But then he had to wonder about everyone else. Were they not growing?
* * * * * * * * *
When we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we are baptized into his death. We Brethren symbolize this by being immersed forward, since when Jesus died on the cross, his head bowed forward, as if in prayer. We do this three times, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This trine immersion sets us apart, as Brethren, from other Christian groups.
For instance, when I was first joined to Christ and his church, I was a Baptist. My baptism was 1 time backward, signifying rising with Christ from death. I joke that if I were to be fully Brethren, I would need to be baptized four times forward, once to erase the Baptist baptism, and three times forward - as is Brethren practice. This difference between Brethren and Baptist practice, instead of being something which separates us, can instead be two aspects of baptism which go hand in hand.
When we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we are baptized into his death. But that's not the whole story. As the apostle Paul wrote, "We were buried therefore with him by baptism unto death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." (Romans 6:4)
Our baptism is a baptism into Christ's death. It is also a step into new life through our resurrected Lord. Another way of putting it is that we die with Christ, and we rise with Christ. An early Christian hymn quoted in 2 Timothy 2:11 sings: "If we have died with him, we shall also live with him..." We die with Christ, & we rise with Christ. Baptism really encompasses both dying and rising. We die to our sin. We die to the worst of who we are. Our tendency to place ourselves, our needs, our wants, our way, in front of everything else - this is the part of us that needs to die.
We can talk about sin in any number of ways. We can speak of it as disobedience to the will of God. We can describe it as a character flaw - an imperfection in the pattern of God's creation. We can say it is self-centeredness, focusing upon "me first", and God & everyone else be damned. Sin, in a manner of speaking, can be all that separates us from God, and from what God created, human and otherwise. We can even point out that sin is human nature, we are prone to wander.
It should also be pointed out that sin was not what God originally created for human nature. We were made to be a blessing, not a curse, not for sin. Yes, we can talk about sin in any number of ways. Whatever definition we give it, it needs to die in us if we are to live. For sin is like a cancer. If left to its course it will eat us up. The result is death. Therefore, if we are to live, sin needs to die. Otherwise we die. Baptism is a dying to sin.
But, and this is very important, it is not just dying to sin. It is dying with Christ. We are baptized into his death. That makes all the difference. Death is not on our top 10 list of favorite things to do. Are any of us really capable through our own strength, of putting sin to death? The strangest aspect of sin is that it ultimately is powered by a fear of death, a fear of nothingness, a fear of emptiness. Sin, deep down, is fear.
When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, what was their first reaction? Fear. They were afraid of being naked, so they covered themselves from each other. They were afraid of God, so they hid themselves from God's presence. Sin is fear of nakedness, emptiness. It is fear of the unknown. It is fear of death, and thus, fear of the One who is author of both life and death.
The strangest aspect of sin is that, while it is powered by a fear of death, it moves only in the direction of death. You'd think fear would lead it toward life. But it doesn't. What all this means is that since we are all sinners, caught up in our many fears, we are really incapable of choosing to die to our sin.
For example, in Alcoholics Anonymous, it is recognized that the first few steps of
1. That I own up to being an alcoholic, In effect, I confess my "sin"
- even as I know it is a disease.
2. That I admit that I am powerless to stop of my own free will.
3. That I then recognize my need for a power greater than my own.
Those steps were derived, by the way, from our Christian faith. You could say, those are the steps of dying to sin. The crucial factor is recognizing a power greater than myself. We are baptized into Christ's death. He is the one who defeated death itself on the cross. We are powerless alone. He died for us. We die with him.
Dietrich Bonnhoeffer once wrote, "When Jesus Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." As we are baptizing three young women this day, left me rephrase those words to fit: "When Jesus Christ calls a woman, he bids her come and die." When we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we are baptized into his death. We die with Christ, and we rise with Christ. Baptism really encompasses both dying and rising. We die to our sin, with Christ. And we rise out of our sin.
Another early Christian hymn, quoted in Ephesians 5:14, sings: "Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead and Christ shall give you light." Many believe this was from a hymn sung at baptism. No doubt folks back then struggled to stay awake during long services, but I don't think that is what the word sleeper meant. Most of us don't go thru our lives caught up in great sins. We are basically good, law-abiding citizens who turn on our evening news to discover all sorts of bad stuff going on out there.
Our temptation is to think that sin only resides out there with all the truly bad people. In so doing, we fall asleep to our own sin. We don't really seek to die to our sin, neither do we, then, become fully awake to what God can do in our lives. We go through life as if on a merry-go-round. We never get anywhere. We might as well be asleep. In fact, a good number of us are. We went through the motions, got dunked in the water, three times, even. Forward, not backward. But still we are asleep.
I suppose it's better to be asleep than to be dead, but I wonder sometimes: what is the difference? Apparently the early Christians didn't see much difference, either. Why else would they sing: "Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead?" Now, the words could be referring to that day when God will raise all those who have died in Christ from death to eternal life. But I believe, rather, the words "Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead," have to do with a resurrection day much sooner. That resurrection day is whenever sleepy folks finally wake up to the fact that sin isn't just out there - that we all are sinners, whether our sins are great or small. That resurrection day is whenever sinners like us die with Christ to our sin, and with Christ rise up with newness of life.
My friend Jeremy was very awake to his sin. Perhaps he was blessed by the fact that his sins were easier to see than some other sins. But that didn't make him any more of a sinner than anyone else. He was awake to his sin, and through his baptism he was dying with Christ to it, and with Christ rising, even though gradually. But he longed for a fellowship of believers who weren't asleep themselves. He desired other Christians to talk and pray with about this new life that was taking hold of him, people who wouldn't make him feel wierd or different, but rather loved, as he knew, deep down, that God loved him.
Jeremy wasn't searching for perfect people, or for the perfect church. He was rather seeking out a place and a people where he didn't need to pretend to be perfect and sinless, a place and a people where dying with Christ and rising with Christ, was something done on a daily basis.
That really is the whole point of this sermon. Yes, we are baptized on a particular day, but our baptism, our dying and rising with Christ, is a daily occurance. We Brethren need to listen to the words of Martin Luther, the great reformer, who once wrote: "our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned thru daily repentance; and that day after day a new self should arise to live with God in righteousness & purity." (A Short Catechism, IV:4)
In other words, on a daily basis, we need to die with Christ to sin, and each and every day rise with him, to walk in newness of life. In this way we continue to live out our baptismal vows. In this way, what we begin in the waters of baptism is completed, is matured, is perfected daily.For baptism is not an end, it is a beginning.
Today, as we celebrate the baptism of Melissa, Cori, and Megan, consider your own growth in Christ. What needs to die in you with Christ today, that you may this day rise with him. A baptismal service offers each of us a fresh opportunity to renew old vows, and make new ones to God, who alone makes all things new.
©1996Peter L. Haynes
return to "Messages" page
return to Long Green Valley Church page