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N. T. Wright on Word and Sacraments: Baptism

(Part 2 of 3)

The following is the second of a three-part series based on a transcript of a lecture given by Dr. N. T. Wright at Calvin College on January 6, 2007. (See RW 89 for the first of this series.) Much of this lecture is based on Wright’s previous writings, particularly Simply Christian (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2006). We are grateful to Dr. Wright for allowing us to share this lecture with our readers. In this issue the focus will be on baptism, in RW 91 on the Eucharist. An audio recording of this and other lectures can be found at the following link:

One way of appropriating the meaning of baptism is to go back through the Scripture narrative. The Jews, ancient and modern, tell the Passover story each year with graphic detail and with great celebration. It’s all about coming through the water to freedom. But they know perfectly well that the water also looks back to creation in Genesis 1, when the primal waters are parted as God brings creation into being. Through the waters to life, to new life—that’s what we’re saying in baptism.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when we find John the Baptist down by the Jordan River bringing people through the Jordan, symbolically reenacting the Exodus. In baptism, we go through the water and enter into God’s new covenant. God has promised that he would do a new thing—and this is how he’s doing it.

Baptized into New Life

The New Testament affirms the importance of John’s baptism as the beginning of Jesus’ own ministry, of Jesus himself submitting to John’s baptism. But then Jesus picks up the language of baptism, and in that famous passage in Mark 10:39 and elsewhere he speaks about the disciples being baptized with the baptism he is baptized with—meaning something more than water; meaning his own death. And as we saw earlier, he chose the Passover, the great Jewish exodus festival, as the moment to act symbolically, to challenge the authorities by saying what would come next.

In Jesus’ own baptism, death and resurrection were already present. And all the multiple layers of meaning that were already present in baptism were to be recentered on the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Through the water into God’s new world.

I once heard a funeral sermon in which the preacher said, “As we trust that Jesus died and was raised to heaven, so we trust that our beloved friend has now died and has been raised to heaven.” That’s not the point. Easter is not Jesus getting to heaven when he died. Easter is Jesus’ newly embodied life launching God’s new creation through the water of death. And that’s why, from the very earliest Christian sources that we possess, Christian baptism is linked not just to Jesus’ own baptism, not just to the Exodus and to the first creation, but to Jesus’ own death and resurrection.

Paul’s Theology of Baptism

Romans 6 is quite remarkable, when you think about it. Within twenty-five years of the crucifixion, Paul had already worked out this astonishingly deep and detailed theology of what it means to go through the waters of baptism, linking it to the Exodus, to creation, to new creation, and in particular to Jesus’ own death and resurrection.

Therefore, says Paul, the spectacular Good Friday and Easter at the heart of the Christian story—Jesus’ dying and rising—happened to us in baptism. Paul doesn’t hold back here: he doesn’t hedge and say “as if.” He simply says, You died with Christ in baptism and you were raised with him through the waters into the new life of belonging to Jesus.
And here’s the problem we have to face: There are many people walking around out there who have been baptized, whether as infants or as adults, for whom the Christian gospel seems to have no meaning, no power, no relevance to their lives.

I once heard a Roman Catholic cardinal say, “The world is full of baptized non-Christians.” I know what he meant. At the same time, we have the testimony of people like Martin Luther saying that when all else fails and when the world seems dark and black, I have been baptized, and that is the chief anchor. We cannot allow those two ideas to polarize in the wrong way, because it is a pastoral problem, one we meet in most churches and most communities.

I meet people who say to me, “Oh, I’m a Christian; I was baptized when I was a baby, and uh, got married in the church, and . . . I went to church a couple of Christmases ago but haven’t been back since.” In what sense are such persons Christians? They may think they are Christian because they are part of that culture. They are not agnostic or atheistic. Somewhere in there is a belief. Such people are probably a loose kind of deist, if truth be told—certainly not Muslim, nor Buddhist, nor Jewish. So they think they’re Christian.

The interesting thing is that Paul faced exactly the same problem. In 1 Corinthians 10, you’ll find that he is addressing people who’ve been baptized, who are regular attendants of the Eucharist, and who may not have true faith.

That is hugely comforting to me, actually. Because it’s very tempting to imagine that the first generation of Christians got it right, and everyone who got baptized was a fully paid-up, well-educated Christian. And it’s only in our time that we’ve somehow strayed from that. But Paul is quite clear to his audience in that first generation: “[their ancestors] all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink. . . . Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them. . . .” (see 1 Cor. 1:1-5, 11-12).

People had drifted into the church because family or friends had done so. Although they did not have a living faith and were hangers-on, they were taking part in the sacramental rites of the church. Paul says to them, Watch out, you’re playing with fire, because when you take upon yourself the symbols of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, you are saying, “I am part of the people over whom the Lord Jesus Christ is sovereign.” But the Lord Jesus Christ is not mocked, and those who take that upon themselves but actually don’t live it out are courting disaster.

A Pastoral Problem

People who have been baptized can choose to reject the faith, just as the children of Israel could rebel against YHWH after having come through the Red Sea. . . . But they can’t get unbaptized: God will regard them as disobedient family members rather than outsiders. That needs pastoral working out, and I suspect that it can only be worked out in the individual pastoral work that many of you are now engaged in. It’s the kind of work that happens when you have to look people in the eye and pray with them and struggle with them about who they are and where they are.

Because of this problem, many people in the last few hundred years have decided only to baptize people who are absolutely sure of their faith. But even where people are only baptized upon a very serious adult profession of faith, things can—and sometimes do—go horribly wrong. So I don’t think such a policy actually solves the problem.

The point of the Scripture narrative is to say that baptism draws together all those stories about creation and Exodus, about Jesus, but also about the life of the church in the world. When we baptize someone, we are participating in that same narrative. We are saying, We are on this journey, this is our story, and it is now your story as well. And if you stick with us, we will help you live that story with us. That’s what baptism is all about.

There is a danger of ritualism in baptism, but there is an equal danger of anti-ritualism, which says that we must do absolutely nothing in church lest it become a ritual of human work to make us feel good about ourselves. In fact, we are embodied creatures, made new with God’s life. So that’s why we celebrate baptism, which deeply and symbolically and wonderfully says: This is who we are.

Another word here about baptism and faith. Paul says, I want you to work it out, to “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). It is almost as though, I dare say, he’s appealing for faith on the basis of baptism. Isn’t that interesting? If you’ve been baptized, you have in fact died with Christ and risen with him. So what does it mean to consider such a reality?

It certainly doesn’t mean “Now you’ve got all your Christian understanding together, so we can baptize you.” In the New Testament, baptism often happens very early in somebody’s life, like the Ethiopian eunuch who had been a believer for only five minutes before he was baptized by Philip. It takes a lifetime to figure out what your baptism means.

Baptism of course means holiness, dying to sin. Tragically, some people believe that for those who are baptized there’s really no challenge left to living a holy life or making baptism real in their life. They say, “If you’ve been baptized, that’s fine. We accept you as you are. God obviously loves you because of your baptism and says that you’re accepted and included.” Of course God welcomes us as we are, but God’s welcome never leaves us as we are, thank God. God’s inclusiveness is always a transforming inclusiveness. And that is precisely what baptism is all about.

Baptism is about dying and then rising again, not somehow getting into the church by evading the challenge. As C. S. Lewis emphasized again and again, there is nothing in this world which cannot die and be raised into God’s new world in terms of the actual good creation. At the same time, there’s nothing in this world that will make it into the new world if it does not first die and be raised. And so yes, all the baptized are welcome in church. But if you’re baptized, expect to be challenged by God and by your neighbors about your lifestyle and about your dying to sin and your rising again in holiness.

Baptism is the ground on which we stand linked to Jesus. His dying and rising and the power of his victory are ours because we are his. But if you imagine that you can get that power without that identity, well, good luck!

What About Children?

What about baptism of children? I suspect the majority of you are probably in churches where they baptize children, and, like many people in my church, you may have questions—questions we have to ask.

One of the most moving moments of my ministry in recent years was baptizing my own grandson, Joseph. I share the anecdote with you because I never expected to have a four-generational baptism. My father was there, and he read the first reading. My son, the baby’s father, read the second reading. And I, the baby’s grandfather, baptized the baby. It was an extraordinary moment of experiencing the faithfulness of God from generation to generation. Participating in that faithfulness in the physical act of baptism was very powerful. We sang “Now Thank We All Our God,” and when we got to the line, “who from our mothers’ arms, has blessed us on our way,” and I looked across the chapel and saw my mother, and my wife, and my daughter-in-law, I couldn’t sing the next line. It was a very powerful moment, and that’s what the sacraments allow us to experience.

I have a cousin in Vancouver who got married a long time after me, though we’re about the same age. And so by the time he and his wife were having their first child, our children were already nearly teenagers. They sat me down at dinner one evening just before their child was born. They wanted to know how old a child has to be before he or she can actually know anything about God. I think they were expecting me to say about six or eight or ten, but I responded, “After about three minutes.”

If a child is born reasonably healthy, you will be able to establish a very intimate relationship with that child from the very earliest moments. The natural focal point of a newborn’s eyes is the distance between the breast and the mother’s eye, so that the natural thing that the child does is to establish eye contact with Mom while feeding at the breast. I remember establishing eye contact with my children very early on. There’s an extraordinary sense of knowing that passes between parent and child. So I said to my cousin, “If that is so between a human parent and the child, are you really going to tell me that the living God, who created heaven and earth and made whales and waterfalls and little penguins and all the rest of it, cannot establish contact with a lovely little creature who bears his image, but instead has to wait until that lovely little creature becomes five, six, or seven, or ten? Forget it!”

God has ways of making himself known intimately to children from their earliest days. Perhaps one of the—dare I say—sacramental ways by which God does that is precisely by the loving welcome of the Christian community. Of course children can’t articulate their knowledge of God. The five-minute-old baby can’t put a hand up and say, “I believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” But I suspect that some of those little children have a deeper, fuller faith than many adults who say those words every Sunday.

I once was doing a children’s talk at a baptism. I asked two children to each blow up a balloon. I allowed the first child to only put two or three little puffs into the balloon. The second child went on puffing and puffing and puffing and blew up this enormous balloon. Then I held them up and asked the children, Which of these balloons is fuller? Of course they all said “the big one.” And I replied, “Are you sure? Both of these balloons are full. One is bigger because it has more air, but they are both full—all the space in them is used up.”

A very little person can be totally full of the love of God. Even though, of course, when she grows up and becomes a bigger person, she needs to be filled with more and more of the love of God. But that little person is not half full just because she’s a little person. I realize that this is not a great, well-argued theological justification of infant baptism. It’s simply a way of saying that I suspect that some of our Western cultural prejudices are at stake here.

A church I know has a wonderful ministry with people with Down syndrome. It’s really moving to see people with Down syndrome coming to the altar to receive communion. They know about the love God, and they are responding to the love of God in wonderful and moving ways. Giving communion to such individuals is deeply moving; it’s deeply grace-filled.

I’m a theologian; I’m all for people learning and articulating their faith as richly and as fully they can. But part of that faith has to be to welcome all, for none of us are perfect and yet God welcomes us all.