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Polishing the Baptist Family Name: "Symbolic Baptist"

Matthew 3:13-17; 26:26-30

Dr. Craig A. Sherouse

Lakeside Baptist Church, Lakeland, FL

Editorial Introduction: Dr. Craig Sherouse, became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Griffin, GA, in August, 2003. Prior to that he was the pastor of the Lakeside Baptist Church in Lakeland, FL, where he preached this series of sermons. Dr. Sherouse graduated with both the M.Div. and a Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has also served as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Seminole, FL.


        Southern writer, Baptist preacher, civil rights activist and farmer, Will Campbell, wrote a novel, The Glad River, about being a real Baptist. The main character, Doops Momber, refuses to get baptized because he canít find a real Baptist left to do the baptizing. Throughout the book he is looking for a real Baptist.

        In this sermon series we have been looking for what it means to be a real Baptist. We have plunged again into those uterine-like waters of what it means to be baptized as a believer. And we have come up with new birth of identity. We have tried to emerge like that Greek Orthodox boy I mentioned a month ago. He came up from the waters of Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs on Epiphany, grasping the white cross, clinging to the symbol and experience of his particular understanding of Christianity.

And today we lift up another first name: we are "Symbolic" Baptists Ė we believe in the power, mystery and radicalism of two primary Christian symbols, baptism and the Lordís Supper.

        In our particular Baptist clan of the Christian family we believe profoundly in the mysterious power of these two symbols! Baptism is a whole lot more than holding someone "under Ďtil they bubble!" Communion is a whole lot more involved than "just donít kick the table!" They are full of meaning and mystery that defies easy categorizing.

        On the meaning side, there are four basic words I use to explain, as much as I can, these powerful, mysterious symbols. The first word is "modeling." These symbols are ways to be more like Jesus. And to be a "Christian" literally means to be a "little Christ." We want to do what Jesus did! And Jesus went down into the hard, cold Jordan River. He did it because he said it was a right thing to do. And Jesus created the Lordís Supper. He reshaped the symbolism of the Passover, his Last Supper, to apply to his impending death.

        The second word I use is "obedience." In his Great Commission Jesus commanded baptism as a part of making disciples. And at the Last Supper, he commanded that we "do this." Thatís the reason we call these symbols "ordinances" Ė because were ordered or ordained by Jesus.

        "Witnessing" or "story-telling" is the third word I use to try and wrap my mind around the mystery of these symbols. Baptism tells the story of death, burial and resurrection Ė Jesusí and our. It tells of the washing of gracious forgiveness. The Lordís Supper tells about Jesusí broken body and shed blood, given on the cross for our forgiveness.

        The fourth word I use is "initiation." The Christian faith is not a private party! It is a public dunking, an immersion into a whole new life and family. These symbols are something all Christians share in common, even those who use less water and more fermentation! Thatís why these celebrations in our tradition are not intended for you and the pastor in your backyard pool or picnic table! These are community events!

        Most Baptists donít call these mysterious symbols "sacraments," although many Baptists in other countries do use that language. We donít because most people who use sacramental language imbue these ceremonies with supernatural, almost magical power to create salvation. We do not see these as saving acts but as faithful acts. But they do continue to work out Godís salvation in our lives. Baptists have tended to talk about salvation in "three tenses:" past tense, "I have been saved;" present tense, "I am being saved;" and future tense, "I will be saved." Theologically these are called "justification," "sanctification," and "glorification."

        To become a Christian there must come a point or period in time when you come to accept that in Christ you have been justified. You were under a death sentence from the penalty of your sin, but Christ has commuted the sentence and justified you. You have been saved, and Godís justifying grace will never be undone! You will never again have to face that death sentence! Thatís the past tense. And because of that justification, in the future, when you die or if the Lord returns first, you will be saved. You will be given a glorified body like Christís and spend eternity in heaven in the bright and shining presence of God. Future tense -- glorification! But in the present tense, Godís Holy Spirit is working daily in your life, sanctifying you, making you look more and more like Jesus.

        Salvation is more than a starting gate! It is an unfolding drama, an epic in three volumes! And these powerful, mysterious symbols are acts of sanctification. They accompany and continue Godís work of salvation in the present moment. They donít create salvation Ė they do not justify us Ė but they help God to continue His daily work of salvation. As we regularly come to this table and as we regularly go back to the powerful, mysterious meaning of our baptism, God works on completing the good work that He began in us.

        It is the mysterious power of ritual! Is it okay to admit that we Baptists have some ritual? We do, you know! You know that well-worn joke about the little Catholic and Baptist boys who attended each othersí worship services. The Baptist boy was drop-jawed and filled with questions. Every time the priest did or said something he poked his buddy and asked, "What does that mean?" So much unknown ritual! But when the Catholic boy came to the Baptist service, he didnít see anything he couldnít understand. Until the preacher got up to preach, took off his watch and laid it on the pulpit. "At last," thought the Catholic boy, "some ritual!" He poked and asked his buddy, "What does that mean?" "Oh," the Baptist boy whispered, "that donít mean nothing!"

        We think we donít have rituals, but we do. The Baptist church I grew up in sang the "Gloria Patri" or "The Lord is in His Holy Temple" to start every worship service. We sang the Doxology at every offering. We do have rituals! We have offerings and offertory prayers and Preludes and Postludes and sermons and invitations. When we move our offering to the end of the service, some of you have a hard time even giving! Try singing a chorus in a traditional service that has never had choruses, or a hymn from the hymn book in a contemporary service! Try reciting the Lordís Prayer in a gospel service and you will see how ritualistic we are! Someone said that the main ritual we Baptists have is getting in a room and counting each other!

        Jesus was a ritualist! He went to the temple regularly and consistently. He followed the patterns of his faith laid out by those who came before him. He participated in Passovers and other festivals, but freely reinterpreted them. He participated in Johnís ritualistic bathing ceremony. Jesus made the Passover into a Lordís Supper ritual by commanding it. Jesus used ritual Ė not as some old, cold, dead thing, but as a living, shaping force for the work of God!

        Jesus needed rituals, and so do we. We need to have order, repetition, memory and community added to our spiritual lives to enable the Spirit to continue to sanctify us! We donít need privatized, invisible faiths! Another southern author, Flannery OíConnor, once wrote that the defining moment in American religion was the day Ralph Waldo Emerson decided he could no longer take communion. He had moved beyond that, he thought. He only needed thought. And he started his private anti-ritualistic transcendental church of one. And through Emerson something unhealthy has been infused into the American religious landscape that questions the value of symbols and rituals, of the visible and material expressions of faith. But that is wrong! It is unbiblical, and that is why we believe in the mysterious power of these two primary symbolic rituals.

        These are powerful and wonderfully mysterious symbols! Maybe you have heard them described as "only symbols," or "mere symbols." That is bad language! They are symbols, and there is nothing second rate about symbolism! Just because we donít believe these are magical rituals Ė that baptism literally washes away sin, or that this bread and cup are transformed into the literal body and blood of Jesus Ė is not to say anything second rate! That is to say something first rate about the power, mystery and wonder of symbolism Ė to express faith and to help God continue to sanctify our faith. These symbols are not worship appendages. They are central to what it means to be the people of God!

        They are mysterious symbols! Do you remember what Paul says in I Corinthians 10:16, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?" Can you explain that? Does anyone want to give me a three point outline to explain how we share in the body and blood of Christ? I donít have it figured out. These arenít "mere symbols," they are mysterious symbols! They say that what you see is not what you get! What you get is much more!

        You cannot visibly document all spiritual realities. Cannot carefully define, meticulously explain and easily outline all orthodoxy. We are "stewards of Godís mysteries," Paul says (I Cor. 4:1). And these symbols have a lot of mystery in them. In them the ordinary becomes the medium of holiness, the commonplace becomes an avenue of revelation. Water, bread, cup. A bath, a meal. These are the ordinary staples of life, and yet God uses those to do extraordinary things, to grow us to look more like Jesus. Thatís the gospel Ė taking the ordinary and doing the extraordinary to us and through us!

        At First Baptist Church of Aiken, South Carolina, the Childrenís Minister held up a picture of the pastor in a white robe in the baptistery. "Whatís the pastor doing?" she asked. And a sharp little boy shot back: "Heís hypnotizing someone!" A childís mind! Isnít that a great image! There is a mysterious, almost hypnotic power about these symbols. Not magic, but also much more than "mere" nor "only" symbols. They are symbols! Wonderful, powerful, mysterious symbols that God uses to grow us in our salvation!

        These are also radical symbols! We miss much of the radicalism of these rituals because we have so disconnected them from their biblical context. We have sliced and diced them, sterilized and chlorinated them. They are nice, neat, no muss, no fuss ceremonies in the sanctuary. Thereís no cold, swift-running water. No public river. There is no bread to break and tear, no crumbs flying or lips smacking. There arenít any dirty feet close by, or drinking out of the same cup Ė things so earthy and real when Jesus did it. With our heated indoor baptisteries and neat bread and little cups of juice we miss some of the real, radical drama of these rituals.

        Do you realize that you are a radical? Church historians like to talk about the different "wings" of the Protestant Reformation. There was Lutherís wing, Calvinís wing, another group led by a Swiss pastor named Zwingli, and then there was what is called the "radical wing." The Anabaptists and others who felt the other reformers had not gone far enough. And in England Baptists were also a part of the most radical wing of the Reformations. Our spiritual ancestors were so radical they dared to say you shouldnít baptize babies, you should only baptize believers and the church should be separated from the state. Radicals!

        We Baptists are radicals! Our name "baptizers," or "re-baptizers," was a derogatory, put-down nickname. In England some were called "Dippers." Maybe we should take that name back up. To call someone a "Dipper" in the South is not exactly a compliment, so it might give us a feel for what being a Baptist still feels like to some of our international brothers and sisters.

        In 1975 I had my first real experience with the kind of disdain and fear being a radical Baptist can engender in other parts of the world. I was studying in Germany and rented a room from an elderly Catholic German landlady. In my struggling German I asked her where the nearest Baptist church was. When it finally dawned on her what I was asking for she gave me the strangest look of shock and disdain as she asked, "Wiedertaufer?" "Re-baptizer?" I never could figure out why when she would leave for her month-long travels she would fill up the bathtub with all of her plants. But as I have thought back on it I wonder if she really didnít trust a Wiedertaufer with that much water!

        Put us back a few hundred years, and we Baptists were the radicals. And part of our radicality is wrapped up in our belief that these symbols are powerful, wonderful, mysterious and radical expressions of our faith. The Lordís Supper came from the Passover, a celebration of liberation from slavery. Jesus and disciples were hiding out for their lives in the Upper Room to eat a slavesí meal before his arrest. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at that table. He radically flipped all the categories of life upside down at that table.

        Baptism was a radical act in the first century. I washed away all those external distinctions. Thatís why Paul could say in I Corinthians 12:13, "For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body Ė Jews or Greeks, slaves or free Ė and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." The symbolism of baptism dismisses what it means to be a slave or a free person. Thatís why in the 17th century American colonies passed laws that stated the baptism of a slave could not be interpreted as implying emancipation. Why shouldnít baptism mean something as radical as that? The Bible says it does.

        I think Winnie understood that. She was a Kentucky slave woman who was disciplined by the Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church in 1807 because she dared to believe something as radical as that. Winnie said "she once thought it her duty to serve her mistress and master, but [since her baptism] she had never believed any Christian [could keep] Negroes or slaves." Thatís radical, biblical, Baptist stuff!

I recently read about a man being baptized in a baptistery that had a bad leak. There were a lot of people baptized before him, so when it came to his turn, there were only a few inches of water left. The preacher laid him down on the bottom of the tank, then flipped him over like a pancake! Thatís not a bad symbol! The radicality of baptism Ė it tells the story that everything has been flipped over. Slaves and free are baptized into one body!

        Itís a radical thing. Jesus was not baptized in a heated indoor baptistery! Iíve had the privilege of baptizing in the River Jordan and I can tell you, "the River Jordan is chilly and cold!" You have to watch your step there. The water does have a current. It is outside. It is dramatic. These are not just some sweetsy little things we do. These are dramatic, powerful, wonderful, mysterious, radical symbols of our faith!

        Did you know that after the New Testament period many early Christians were baptized in the nude? Now, that might do something for your Sunday morning attendance! They were given a white robe when they came up which they continued to wear as a symbol of their resurrected life in Christ. And they were given milk and honey to drink when they first came up, as symbols that they had entered a new Promised Land. And they didnít take a bath for a week afterward, because they didnít want to wash off the waters of baptism. Maybe thatís part of what Paul meant when he wrote: "For we are the aroma of Christ to God." (II Cor. 2:14-15)! This is radical stuff, isnít it!

        I have been redressed twice after baptisms. Once was when our Minister of Music played a joke on me and switched my dark suit coat for someoneís hot pink coat. The other time when my waders had a blow out and my pants were completely soaked. I came out in the Spanish pastorís black baptismal robe and some white socks Ė a memorable baptism! But those may have been among my most authentic baptisms, because baptism does redress us. It does flip us over. It tells a radical story of passing from death to life!

        So I invite you: if you want to get a little more mystery in your life Ė if you want to gain the power of the things that you cannot explain Ė if you want to move beyond the "mere" and the "ordinary" Ė if you are willing to be radicalized by the power of the gospel Ė I invite you into the water, and I invite you to this table! There still are some real Baptists around. Doops Momber may not have been able to find one, but I think we can find one to baptize you! So I invite you today to something that is more than a "mere symbol." It is a radical, symbolic immersion into the wonderful, mysterious symbols of the Christian faith! Salvation is in three tenses. But in the present tense, God wants to continue to save you. Will you let Him continue the good work He has begun in your life?