Today is the last day of Lent, tomorrow is Easter. The 40 days is up and this is the last in my series of posts that have offered an account of baptism. For this last day, I turn to the 'baptist' theologian James McClendon. Probably the most important Baptist voice of the 20th century. Author of a 3-volume Systematic Theology and now (posthumously) The Collected Works of James McClendon (also 3-volumes). The third volume was published during this 40-days and I offer an extract from it, in a sermon where McClendon speaks of baptism.
One was baptised in the River Jordan, another in the River Tiber. One was baptised at the seashore, another in a mountain stream, another in a city fountain - Rome was full of fountains. Yet there was something alike in all cases. "When we were baptised," Paul writes, "it was a burial ceremony" (see Rom 6.3-4). "we were buried with him by baptism into death." Not, of course, literal death, but a ceremonial death, a ritual death - to sin. Yet a death so effective that the baptised are now identified with Jesus who died and rose again.
In other words, baptism is a sign, an acted show, reclaiming for the believer the great central event of human history, the death and rising of Christ. Christ died; was buried; that death and burial were the proleptic funeral for sin in the human race. Christ rose, and it was resurrection day for authentic humanity. The question is how to identify with that authentic life, that secret of Christian living - Christ in you, Christ alive. When the trusting candidate goes under water, he or she reclaims Christ dead and buried. Never again can sin say of this buried one, "I am in charge here," for the death of Christ has intervened. What comes up out of the water is a new identity with the risen Christ. The church is the fellowship of the once buried; the church is the fellowship of the resurrection. Here your old life is buried the watery waste that preceded creation, tohu wabohu; here your life in faith rises up to last forever; here in dramatic sign is the secret of the Christian life. So far, the teaching of Paul the apostle.
For long ages these great truths were lost to sight, and the churches suffered the loss. Partly, churches neglected baptism itself. Baptism was shrivelled, diminished, cut loose from faith and from the great story of God's action in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, cut loose from the repetition of that story in redeemed lives. Baptism then became only a birthday shower, a kind of cradle party or a high school graduation affair - pleasant, sentimental, but remote from the risky business of following Jesus in the present age. Yet what God had done remained true, and from time to time Christian churches recovered these facts, written in Scripture, ringing true to the reality of Christian life. A lost secret can be reclaimed. Maybe we have lost the secret here? Maybe we need to reclaim it? Baptism - New Testament baptism - is God's signpost, announcing what life is all about.
James Wm. McClendon, Jr., 'The Inner Secret of Membership' in Ryan Andrew Newson and Andrew C. Wright (eds.), The Collected Works of James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Volume Three (Baylor, 2016), p.243-244. (Also printed in James McClendon, Making Gospel Sense: To a Troubled Church (Wipf & Stock, 2004 ), pp.56-58.