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Preached by Robert B. Setzer, Jr.

Pastor, First Baptist Church of Christ

Macon, Georgia 31201

July 26, 2003

John 3:1-10


        When Dr. Tift and his beloved wife, Tinky, were still living at home, I dropped by for a visit. Tinky was bedfast, so Dr. Tift and I lingered by her bed as we talked. At some point, a perky nurse popped in to tend her patient. Dr. Tift promptly introduced me as his pastor from the First Baptist Church. The nurse glanced up, looked me over, then dismissed me with a perfunctory nod.

        With just a hint of haughtiness, she proceeded to tell us she belonged to a non-denominational church. "We donít go in for those denominational labels," she continued. "At our church, we just believe the Bible and love Jesus."

        Without missing a beat, Dr. Tift answered, "Well, thatís the next best thing to being a Baptist!".

Non-denominational churches are the rage these days. Church growth gurus tells us denominational labels are unimportant at best and a liability at worst. Some of the largest Baptist churches in America, as well as a host of wannabees, have dropped the Baptist name altogether.

        Well, I stand with as fine a Christian as this church ever produced, Dr. Henry Tift: I am not impressed. The root meaning of the word "denomination" is "name." Being "non-denominational" simply means being a "no-name" church. It doesnít mean one loves the Bible or Jesus more than everybody else.

Personally, Iím partial to truth-in-advertizing. I want to know something of what a church stands for before I venture inside.

        Of course, in fairness, prominently displaying the Baptist name doesnít resolve all the issues either. There are all kinds of Baptists, just like there are all kinds of Republicans, Democrats, and Georgia Bull Dogs. Jesse Helms and Jesse Jackson are both Baptists. Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Carter are both Baptists. If such political and theological extremes define the playing field, is there anything Baptists hold in common? Are there any core convictions that define the uniquely Baptist way of being Christian? And frankly, does being Baptist even matter?

I         believe it does matter. And not because being a Baptist is important, in and of itself, but because being a vital, committed Christian is important. And thatís how the early Baptists got their start: by recovering neglected biblical truths that are crucial to growing vital, committed Christians.

        Now if you asked the typical Maconite, "What makes a Baptist, a Baptist?", what would they say? Granted, youíd get a lot of different answers. But I suspect most people would describe Baptist stylistically rather than theologically. They would tell you something about the Baptist way of doing and being church.

In his novel, A Painted House, John Grisham tells the story of a seven-year-old named Luke growing up on an Arkansas cotton farm. Little Luke is a Baptist, and from time-to-time, he offers observations about his faith family. Hereís one.

The line between Baptists and Methodists was never straight and true. Their worship was slightly different with the ritual of sprinkling little babies being the most flagrant deviation from the scriptures. . . . And they didnít meet as often, which of course, meant they were not as serious about their faith. Nobody met as much as us Baptists. We took great pride in constant worship. Pearl Watson, my favorite Methodist, said sheíd like to be a Baptist, but she just wasnít physically able.

        Young Luke identifies two traits about the Baptists. One is that they tend toward hyperactivity in the life of faith! The second is that they baptize in a distinctive way. With the latter, he hit upon one of those bedrock principles all Baptists share: we donít baptize babies. We only baptize believers.

        Back to our question then, "How would the typical Maconite describe a Baptist?". Many would mention that Baptist dunk folk, instead of sweetly dabbing water on babies. Yet for the earliest Baptists, the how of baptism was not nearly so important as the when. In fact, in the early 1600s, John Smyth, the first English Baptist, baptized first himself and then his little flock. And he did it by pouring water over the head, rather than by immersion!

        Now granted, within a couple of generations, believersí baptism by immersion became the norm. That is as it should be because believersí baptism by immersion is the New Testament pattern. But English-speaking Baptists got started, not by fretting over whether to install a state-of-the-art Baptistry. They got started by insisting one becomes a Christian through by a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. One cannot inherit a living faith from the folks, along with the silver and china.

        What was it Jesus said to Nicodemus? "You must be born again," or as the verse can also be translated, "You must be born from above." Jesus said this not to a card carrying secularist. He said it to the most religious of men, indeed, an esteemed member of the religious establishment. But Nicodemus knew something was missing in his life, namely, that zeal and zest for God he saw radiating from every pore of Jesusí being. So he came to Jesus, under the cover of darkness, to seek spiritual counsel.

        Jesus, in characteristic fashion, didnít mince words. Instead, he threw a verbal body tackle that took old Nicodemus out at the knees: "Nicodemus," said Jesus. "Youíve got to stop dabbling with religion. You need to be born again."

        Have you been "born again"? Donít dismiss the terminology as the stock-in-trade of religious hucksters. Those precious words came from Jesus. They are an attempt to put the indescribable into words, namely, moving beyond mere religion to having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

        Warren Jones has a buddy who served in Vietnam. When this vet got home, everyone noticed he was different, though he didnít see it himself. Still, in his dreams and sometimes in his waking moments, he was haunted by the terror and violence of war. Upon returning to the states, he went to visit a girl he had written while in ĎNam. She also noticed he was different and suggested they go to church the next day. Reluctantly, he agreed.

During the service, the young man was preoccupied with his thoughts, trying to shake the demons from his soul. He didnít hear a word the preacher said. But despite that, the spirit of God was at work, beckoning new life. At the end of the message, the preacher said, "If you have something you need to leave with Jesus, then this is the time to do it."

        Suddenly, trembling and fighting tears, the young man knew he had some terrible stuff he needed to leave with Jesus. He couldnít pry himself from his pew, his shaky fingers pressing hard into the wood. But that day he decided: he would leave his troubles with Jesus, because he was tired of bearing them himself. After that, everybody said he was his old self again, or maybe his new self, for he was a man reborn.

        I was nine when Jesus, as with Nicodemus, first called my name. I donít remember the particulars. I just remember one night after a revival service, I felt like an unseen friend was tailing me. It wasnít a frightening feeling but an inviting one. I talked to my mom about it. Like Eli instructing young Samuel, she said if Jesus came calling again, I should answer. So the next time he nudged me, playfully, like a friend playing tag who says, "Youíre it!", I started chasing after him. And Iíve been following Jesus ever since, sometimes close, sometimes far, but always following.

        Different people come to faith in different ways. Faith is not a one-size-fits-all affair. The spirit is like the wind, says Jesus, very real and yet, a mystery. But for true Baptists, as for all true believers, the heart of an authentic Christian faith is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ: "For God so loved the world that he gave he only son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life."

        Now certainly Baptists are not unique in insisting a personal relationship with Christ is at the heart of authentic Christianity. God forbid that ever be true! Whatever their denominational or non-denominational label, all Godís twice born sons and daughters recognize Christianity is more a relationship than a religion. But in two important ways, Baptists put the personal nature of faith front and center.

        One is in making the Lordship of Christ, rather than creeds, the epicenter of our movement. At their best, Baptists have said that the churchís earliest confession, "Jesus is Lord!", is sufficient. Everything that follows in our theological posturing is so much fine print. The fine print is negotiable and changes with the ages, but the personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior remains the nerve center of a vital faith.

Years ago, a minister was seeking to determine a woman's fitness for membership in the Church of Scotland. Exasperated at the theological grilling, she cried out, "Sir, I cannot answer all your hard questions. I only know I would gladly die for him!"

        That is a proper Christian instinct: to cling to Christ in love and devotion, though our grasp of his mystery and grace is always a work in process. As Herbert Butterfield said it, "Hold to Christ and as for all the rest, be totally uncommitted."

        Yes, Baptists insist on a relational rather than a creedal faith. And they further emphasize the personal nature of faith in their practice of baptism. That, after all, is how we got our name. "Baptist" or "AnaBaptist" was at first a term of derision for those who had the comeuppance to rebaptize folks who had been baptized as infants. But those early Baptists did this because they took Jesus at his word: "You must be born again!".

        Now Iíll be the first to admit we Baptists get a lot of things wrong. Sadly, in the public eye, we are often viewed as a negative, narrow, cantankerous lot, but on this matter of baptism, we got it right. Babies canít go waltzing into the baptismal waters. Only believers can do that. Because only believers can give their hearts to Jesus.

        In Traveling Mercies, Ann Lamont has a moving meditation on the power of baptism. As Lamont fans will know, she is terribly self-conscious about her hair, a frizzy, untamable mess of wiry fibers. Since her hair is even more unmanageable when wet, Ann avoids rain for fear her bangs will shrink into "dangling fern fronds," making her head look like a hanging plant. Imagine then her terror of being baptized, of getting all wet and ugly, right in front of God and everybody. And yet, is that not also in part, the power of the ritual? This willingness to be loved and accepted of God, even when you feel youíre at your absolute worst? Lamont writes,

Thereís something so tender about this to me about being willing to have your makeup wash off, your eyes tear up, your nose start to run. Itís tender partly because it harkens back to infancy, to your mother washing your face with love and lots of water, tending to you, making you clean all over again. And in the Christian experience of baptism, the hope is that when you go under and you come out, maybe a little disoriented, you havenít dragged the old day along behind you. The hope, the belief, is that a new day is upon you now. A day when you are emboldened to take God at Godís word . . .: "When thou passeth through the water, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee."

        As others can attest, thereís a strange, healing power in having the baptismal waters drench your hair, swirl about your waist, and fill the crevices between your toes. For that means all of you, absolutely all of you, has been known and loved by God so that when you leave the waters, the secret is out. You are a new creation, a person reborn, because in your heart of hearts, Jesus lives.

        A Christ First Baptist is someone who has made a personal response of love and trust to Jesus Christ, and has made that commitment concrete and real in the waters of baptism. Maybe you want to be one of those. Maybe this morning, like that Vietnam Vet, "You have something you need to leave with Jesus." Well, as the preacher said, "This is the time to do it." For Jesus says to you, as he said to Nicodemus, "You must be born again."

        And as any true Baptist can tell you, the next move is yours, and yours alone.