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With the diversity of backgrounds in our community at Rivertree, the topic of baptism periodically comes up during our Discover Lunch, baptism services or as new families connect with our church. Having experienced a "believer's baptism" is also part of our membership process. So, what is baptism? What does it mean, and why do we practice it?
What is baptism?
Baptism is a beautiful and important aspect of Christian devotion and outward display of a commitment to Christ. The practice of baptism in the New Testament was administered only to those who made a profession of faith in Jesus. This is what we mean by "believer's baptism", that the person getting baptized believes that "Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead" (Romans 10:9). People in the New Testament were baptized by being immersed or put completely under water and brought back up. The Greek word baptizo means "to plunge, dip or immerse" something in water. So, this is how we practice baptism at Rivertree- by immersion.
What does baptism mean?
There are several different meanings, symbols and things of which we are reminded when we think about baptism. First, it is an act of obedience to Jesus' command and follows his example. Jesus himself was baptized and instructed his disciples to baptize those who would come to faith after his ascension in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Baptism is also a symbol of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Baptism represents death of our old man and our new life in Christ. So, baptism is also a symbol of what God has accomplished in the life of a believer through the cleansing of sin. Baptism is a symbol of the spiritual change that God has worked in our lives, the transition from spiritual and eternal death to spiritual and eternal life. It is moving from hopelessness into hopefulness, from darkness into light, and from slavery to sin to freedom in Christ. In baptism, we symbolically express our acceptance of death with Christ, putting an end to our old way of life and rising with Christ to begin a new kind of life in Him. In doing so, baptism expresses our new identity in Christ.
Why do we still practice baptism?
Baptism is a public declaration of faith in Jesus Christ. In baptism, we express, with our whole body, our heart’s acceptance of Christ’s Lordship. Becoming a Christian involves the body as well as the heart. In conversion, the heart is freed from sin to be enslaved to God. Since the Lordship of Christ lays claim to our whole body, it is fitting for us to express our surrender to His Lordship with our whole body. Baptism gives expression to the fact that we belong to God and that we are part of his body, the church. We still practice baptism because Jesus taught that it is part of discipleship, it gives believers the opportunity to publicly declare faith in Christ, and it edifies the entire church when they hear the story of the one getting baptized and witness his or her faith in Jesus.
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During staff meeting several months ago, we were encouraged to reflect on the question, “What does healthy growth look like at Rivertree?” We paired off during the meeting, and a friend and I had opportunity to dream a little. We ended up discussing a concept more than specific measurables. The idea that a healthy church is made up of healthy disciples stuck with me. So, another question emerged for me. What does a healthy disciple look like?
Over the years of being involved with ministry, I’ve come across several different answers to that question in conversations, books, articles, sermons and conferences. A reoccurring idea is that if we’re supposed to make disciples who can make others disciples, shouldn’t we know what we’re trying to make. We’re encouraged to identify what the end product looks like (a fully mature disciple of Jesus) before we can put the necessary steps in place to make that end product (our discipleship process). If you want to make a cake, you need to know what ingredients to mix together, right? Recipe theology tells us A+B=C. The idea is that if we want a disciple that looks like “C”, then we need to figure out what A and B are so we can mix the right ingredients together. Though we can observe patterns from Jesus' life and ministry in scripture, I’m not sure he approached discipleship as a formula.
Many thoughts of what a disciple of Jesus should look like have informed me, but few of them have compelled me. Dedicated leaders and curriculum developers offer an abundance of helpful resources to equip the church to make disciples. This is definitely an honorable thing, and I’ve personally benefited from many of their insights and ministries. Some of them have even developed successful programs based on observations made from studying the scriptures, surveying the Christian community and implementing new initiatives. All good things, but it has me wondering. What happens when we think we’ve figured out A and B, but it doesn’t produce the C we want (however C is defined)?
I read a book recently by Larry Crabb titled Understanding People. Halfway through the book, he provides a description of a healthy disciple that connects with me in ways unlike previous ideas. It intrigues me, I think, because there are no formulas. It’s a description, but it’s also a mystery. It’s insight with no program. It’s a vision not a product. It’s a humbly submitted thought about what C could be with no recipe for A or B. See what you think.
Here’s the quote-
"Healthy people deeply enjoy God, expressed with occasional bursts of ecstasy followed by long periods of quiet allegiance. Their lives are anchored in him. They know that in their deepest parts they have felt his touch. That touch increasingly liberates them to be more fully involved with others. They are free to enter into other people’s lives, openly and vulnerably, with neither protection nor defensiveness, because they are not threatened by the pain of disappointment and conflict that inevitably occurs in rich involvement among fallen people. This pain does not cause them to back away behind walls of appropriateness or spiritualized retreat. Mature Christians don’t retreat, they increase the level of their involvement.
Healthy people do understand the importance of timing and discretion as they move toward people with whom they experience conflict. And they know, as not-yet-glorified saints, that their efforts at involvement will never be perfectly timed or thoroughly discreet. But still they move toward, not away. Involvement, not retreat, is their lifestyle. And therefore their lives have quiet power. Their very presence is felt by a few people in a way that makes them want to live more nobly.
Another reality is that healthy people experience a marred joy. For them, life is lived in the minor key, but with an eager anticipation of the day when the Master Musician will strike up the eternal anthem in the major key. Healthy people are sad because they know things are not now as they should be, yet their disappointment with the world is not expressed in anger. They long for a better day, confident that it will come but groaning until it does.
Healthy people are not afraid of confusion. They have given up their claim to independence and control and can therefore tolerate, even welcome, uncertainty. They enter warmly into their inherent dependence as finite beings by defining faith as the courage to move on in the absence of clarity. They struggle- and sometimes fail. They feel some temptations more deeply than less healthy people- and occasionally they yield. But they know what it means to repent from the core of their beings, to tear down the idols to which they looked for satisfaction, and to return to the God of life through whom relationship and impact are available.
Healthy people are not free of the common symptoms of emotional trouble, but the symptoms do not control them, at least not for long. Sometimes they feel profound loneliness and unbearable hurt- and at those times it seems as if they are touching reality more honestly than when they are feeling good. But they go on, aware of a reality yet to be grasped that will replace loneliness with satisfying intimacy and hurt with sheer pleasure. Their styles of interaction with God and others are as varied as snowflakes. But one thing they have in common: a growing ability to be touched by God and to touch others."