Topical Scripture: Matthew 28:18-20 / 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
According to tradition, Queen Victoria of England looked out her castle window one morning and saw a beautiful flower blooming. It was early spring and the flower was unusual. Delighting in its beauty, she stationed a palace guard by the flower to keep people from trampling it, then soon forgot about it. Centuries later, a guard still stood at that plot of grass.
Sometimes we do things and never know why.
Today we have baptized, and soon we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Let’s be sure we know why. And let’s make these ordinances symbols of the larger Christian faith we should celebrate every week in worship and every day of the week. For Christianity should be a continued celebration, a party of faith. Unfortunately, often it’s not.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his diary, as though recording an unusual event: “I have been to church today, and am not depressed.” Oliver Wendell Holmes said he would have become a clergyman except that so many clergymen looked and acted like undertakers. You’ve perhaps heard about the man who went to the airport to pick up the visiting preacher, whom he’d never met. He walked up to a man getting off the plane and said, “You must be our minister.” The man said, “No, it’s my ulcer that makes me look that way.”
The routine and ritual which sometimes characterizes our faith stands in sharp contrast with the kind of joyous faith I witnessed last week in Cuba. Their Sunday morning worship service began at 9:00 and ended at 12:50. The exuberance of their worship and their faith was thrilling. In the midst of oppressive poverty and governmental control, their joy in Jesus was contagious.
Mother Teresa said, “You’ll never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.” They have only Jesus. And he’s enough.
Today let’s learn from them, and from the ordinances Jesus has given to us. Let’s learn to celebrate our Christian faith with exuberance and joy.
Why baptism matters
Years ago, a machinist at Ford Motor Company in Detroit became a Christian and was baptized. He took his baptism seriously. He had been stealing parts and tools from Ford for years. The morning after his baptism he took all the stolen parts and tools back to his boss. He explained his situation and his recent conversion and baptism, and asked for forgiveness.
This response by an employee was without precedent. Mr. Ford was visiting a European plant at the time, but he was cabled concerning the details of this matter. His response was requested. Mr. Ford immediately returned a cable with his decision: “Dam up the Detroit River, and baptize the entire city.”
Jesus went even further. In his Great Commission he ordered his church to baptize all nations (Matthew 28:19). Why?
The word “baptize” comes from a Greek word which means to “dip” or “immerse.” The word was often used in the ancient world to describe the act of dipping a cup in a stream or washing clothing. To “baptize” something is literally to immerse it in water.
John the Baptist was the first person in the New Testament to baptize people. He did this in the Jordan River when they repented publicly for their sins and chose to follow God in faith. This was their witness to their community.
When Jesus began his public ministry, he started by being baptized by John. He was not repenting of his sins, of course, since he is the sinless Son of God. Rather, he was giving witness to his faith in his Father and supporting John’s ministry.
Later, Jesus commanded all his disciples to continue this work of baptizing: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Baptism thus began with John and is commanded by Jesus Christ for us today.
The symbolism is simple. Jesus has washed away our sins, purging the person we were before faith in him and raising us to new life. Baptism pictures this event: washing away the “old man” and raising the “new man” in Christ.
Who should be baptized?In the New Testament, the only people who are baptized are those who have come to personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Because baptism “pictures” your faith commitment, it makes sense that it should follow it.
As you know, many other traditions baptize infants upon their parents’ faith. This is a beautiful dedication of a child to God, but it has no New Testament precedent. We believe in dedicating children to God as well, and do so often in worship, but we don’t use baptism to do so.
This is not a denominational issue. If your baptism followed your personal salvation and was done by immersion as in the New Testament, we would certainly add no other requirements. Typically one of our staff members or counselors would talk with you regarding your faith and baptism experience, and prepare you to join our church family.
If you have not been baptized by immersion, why should you be? Not merely to join a church, as though this were “hazing” to join a fraternity. Biblically there are two reasons: to be obedient to the will of God, and to show others your faith in Christ.
First, consider the obedience of baptism. Jesus commanded us to do this. The early Christians followed that commandment very carefully, baptizing those who became Christians at Pentecost (Acts 2:41) and those who trusted Jesus as a result of personal witnessing (Acts 8:38). Baptism does not make you a Christian, but it is an important act of obedience to Christ.
Second, consider the witness of baptism. The water does not wash away your sins—it symbolizes the fact that Jesus has already done this. But it makes this symbol public. You say, “Jesus is my Lord,” repeating the statement of faith used for twenty centuries. You tell the world that you love Jesus, then you show them by submitting to baptism and picturing the forgiveness and salvation Jesus has given to you.
Here’s what it comes to: baptism is a celebration of all that Jesus has done for us. We do it, not in legalistic requirement but in joyful gratitude.
In Cuba, the average monthly salary is $7.00. $30.00 is an excellent salary. Yet things cost as much there as here—a bottle of water was $1.30, and I saw shoes for sale for $140.00. So they depend on the rice and beans given by the government, work two or three jobs, and barter with each other. They eat chicken once a month, and beef once a year.
Imagine our surprise at the meals they served us: fried chicken, ham, beef, even lobster. Wonderful banquets, each one. What if we sat down to such sacrificial meals with boredom, ate little or nothing, took for granted such gifts? Trust me, we did not. We ate each such meal with enormous gratitude for their sacrifice and love.
At baptism we celebrate Jesus’ love for us. Once we are baptized, we are to continue to do so, every day. To live every day as though it were our baptism day, in joy.
Why the Supper matters
Now let’s think about the second Baptist ordinance, the Lord’s Supper. Why does it matter? For three reasons.
First, the Supper unites us. The Corinthians were a divided church, but Paul knew that the Lord’s supper could unite them. As it does us.
When you visualize Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, da Vinci’s The Last Supper probably comes to mind. It’s a magnificent work of art. And completely wrong.
First-century Jews took their meals while lying around a slightly elevated U-shaped table, leaning on one elbow and eating with the other. Jesus was in the center, the disciples to each side. They each ate from a common loaf and drank from a common cup. They were united in the meal of their Lord.
Note the power of this unifying symbol. John the beloved disciple was on Jesus’ right. Do you know who was on his left, the other disciple to whom Jesus directly gave the bread and the cup? Judas. In the presence even of sin and betrayal, there was the unity of the meal of Jesus. And there should be for us.
Next, the Supper remembers Jesus. He told his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me” (v. 24, 25). When you take these very real elements, you remember the very real death of Jesus. His broken body, like this bread; his poured-out blood, like this cup. These elements cause us to remember that we are loved, that Jesus has died for us. The Supper remembers Christ. As we should, every day.
Last, the Supper witnesses to the world. He told us, “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26). Jesus is alive today. One day he’ll return for you and for me. The Supper shows the reality of our Lord and our faith to the world. As we should, every day.
Here we can learn from our Cuban sisters and brothers as well.
They are united in Jesus. We saw no racism at all, no gender disqualification; every man and every woman serving Jesus together.
They are totally focused on Jesus, and on sharing him. First Baptist Church in Camaguey has more than forty house churches and home Bible studies scattered around the city. First Baptist Church in Cespedes meets in a room the size of one of our Sunday school departments, but sponsors twenty-five mission churches around the country. They love Jesus, and they love remembering him and witnessing to him.
And their witness is courageous and sacrificial. The church in Camaguey is located four feet from the Communist headquarters in the city. In spite of governmental surveillance and oppression, they lift high their faith every day.
So should we.
So we close our series on Baptist beliefs with the most powerful symbols of our faith: our baptism and our Lord’s Supper. If you have not experienced them, I urge you to. Every time you watch and participate, do so with gratitude.
And live every day this week as though it were your baptism day, as though you were standing at the table of our Lord. With joyous faith, gratitude, and celebration.
Tony Campolo is a Baptist minister and professor of sociology, and one of the most thoughtful Christians I know. I once heard him tell about a trip he made to Hawaii for a speaking engagement.
Jet lag had him up at 3:00 in the morning. He walked to a tiny coffee shop near his hotel, a greasy spoon as he describes it. A man stood behind the counter, wearing a tight, sweaty t-shirt with cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve. Tony asked for coffee.
Just then some “women of the night” came in. Tony overheard one tell the others that tomorrow was her birthday. “Will you have a party?” someone asked. “No one ever gave me a birthday party,” she replied.
When they left, Tony told the cook, “Let’s give her a birthday party tomorrow night. I’ll get a present and the decorations if you’ll make a cake.” The man called his wife out from the back. They were surprised at the idea, but agreed to do it.
So the next night, 3:00 in the morning, when the women came back in, there were streamers everywhere. A present wrapped on the bar. A birthday cake. The “birthday girl” was overwhelmed. Tony took Polaroid pictures to give her. She wouldn’t let anyone touch the cake until she showed it to her mother.
In the midst of the party, the man who ran the counter asked Tony what he did for a living. “I’m a preacher,” he said. The man said, “You’re not a preacher. No preacher would do this. What church do you belong to?” Tony said, “I belong to a church which gives birthday parties to prostitutes.” And he does.
Jesus has paid for all our sins and failures, purchased our salvation, guaranteed us eternity in the glories of heaven together. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper picture his invitation to his party.
Will you come?