A number of years ago a South American priest was sued – not for what you might think. At a funeral for a man who had apparently been a drunkard and who’d allegedly abused his family for years, who had rarely attended church and in particular had made no profession of faith in Christ – the priest stated that at best this man had had a lukewarm faith. Now – to my ears that doesn’t even sound close to lukewarm – yet the family sued. Surely you have to wonder what’s the priest is meant to say in those circumstances? Funerals are a tough time for everyone and maybe he might have been a little more diplomatic – but he can hardly say the bloke’s gone to heaven after a life of ignoring God. You can understand the family too – they wanted – like we would – the comfort of knowing that he was safe.
At the other end of life – near the beginning – that’s what baptisms are often about – people want safety for their children. Baptisms are usually a nice event in the life of a child – one of those highlight days for parents. Everyone gathers, there’re lots of cute pressies that never get used – how many egg cups; napkin holders and ‘Bunnykins’ mugs can one kid use? It’s a big day because it’s meant to be important – we pray to God – protect this child.
Things have changed with baptisms – not that many decades ago every child got baptized – it wasn’t a matter of right or wrong – if you were Catholic you got christened (baptized) by day 8 – if you were CofE (Church of England), within 3 months. It was simply ‘the done thing’ – it’s a Christian country so you baptize your kids – it’s traditional.
Why do people do it these days? Security is still a big part – it’s a frightening world and it makes sense, though it sounds a bit superstitious. Maybe there is still that idea of it being ‘the right thing to do’ – maybe a little pressure from grandparents. Maybe it’s like circumcision – yes I know the connection’s not obvious. But for lots of Aussie blokes circumcision is done because; “if it was good enough for me, it’ll be good enough for him” – we don’t want boys being different from the rest of the family.
The Sign of…?
Actually in the Bible there is a real connection between circumcision and baptism.
Genesis 17:10-14 “This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner … Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
For the ancient people of Israel circumcision was the physical sign of their relationship with God – they were dedicated into his service – they belonged to God and to his people. It stops with Jesus – the sign of membership of God’s people is not circumcision though the church taught that for a long time. The sign is baptism – with the Holy Spirit and with water.
In the book of Acts we read about Paul the Apostle in jail – he’d been falsely arrested and during the night there’s an earthquake and the doors of the prison fall open and chains fall off. The jailer arrives, ready to fall on his sword, but finds the prisoners still there – singing – of course. He falls on his knees, recognizing a huge opportunity and asks “what must I do to be saved”. He knows… saved from what? From our sin – from our foolishness, from our rebellion – saved from ignoring and rejecting God. Paul answers the jailer…
Acts 16:31-34 “…Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him, and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family.”
They were baptized as a sign that they had joined God’s people on earth – believers. Not in the sense that many Australians say they believe in god – that a god exists! The jailer and his family repent of their sins – they recognize that Jesus Christ is the Lord and deserves to be known as their Lord and they turn their lives over to him. Water baptism is the sign they have changed – they’ve entered a new life, a new way of seeing the world where Jesus is the king.
1 Peter 3:21-22 “…and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.”
The Results of the Cross
Baptism points to two things – it’s a signpost – to the inner truth of real faith and membership of the church. Over the past few years we have seen Anglican bishops refusing to believe the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection – how they can remain bishops without being hypocrites…? Without the cross and resurrection we Christians have nothing – there is no other faith in Christ. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are foundational to Christianity – take it away and you have nothing to build on. The result of the cross is that…
Ephesians 2:18 “… through Jesus we have access to the Father by one Spirit.”
Remove the crucifixion and baptism means nothing – a sign can only point to a reality – to the fact of faith – I am baptized because I believe that Jesus died for my sins and rose again to conquer both sin and death – and right now he is sitting at God’s right hand awaiting the day of judgement when all people will face his judgement seat and be judged.
The other result of the cross is this!
Ephesians 2:19-22 “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”
The Church is the result of the cross – fellow citizens, God’s people, member’s of God’s household, built on the foundation, Jesus the cornerstone, a holy temple being built together – and home to God’s Spirit. In the Bible the Church holds pride of place in the life of Christians. It has a priority that we may never have realised.
What God offers is offered through Jesus by his church. I don’t mean the institution “The Church” – but the people. We have to get away from the idea that the buildings are the church. The Church is the gathered people of God – gathered around Jesus, around the word of God seeking to live as God’s people.
Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
There was a time, only a few decades ago, when belonging to the church was the done thing – like baptism. We have lost that – and it’s a good thing – because it’s hard to be sincere when you don’t believe. But Christians need to come to terms with the priority of the church in the life of this world – and in particular as Christians participating in the life of the church. I don’t mean working bees and church fetes – whatever value they may have. What we’re talking about is Christians making gathering around God’s word a priority.
The Winner’s Circle
The passage from Hebrews shows us God view of his church – the priority he places on it.
Hebrews 10:19-25 “Therefore, … since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
When we come to Jesus as Lord and Saviour – as living members of his body – we’ve gone through the door Jesus has opened to us – and we find ourselves unexpectedly in the winner’s circle with the cup in our hands. Christ has won the trophy for us and God says draw near with confidence. Confidence – first time I went to Homebush stadium– big place with 85,000 seats. But there’s lots of blokes so you have to look like you’ve been there a 100 times and know where you’re going – confidence? God says come with real confidence. Come with a sincere heart, being fully assured that the promise of faith and salvation is 100% guaranteed – as Christ’s people our hearts are clean, we’ve been washed clean permanently.
We are to come holding on – unswerving – to the hope. God listens. We are to hold to that hope because it’s based not on our faithlessness but on God’s proven faithfulness. We are to spur each other on – focus not on ourselves but on each other. It doesn’t mean pick up their faults – that we’re good at – but guide and encourage each other to live as Christ’s people.
The Priority of the Church
And we are to meet together – more and more the closer we get to the return of Christ. There is a priority of church that modern Christians fail to see. As Christians none of us would probably disagree with the first few statements – approaching God, holding unswervingly, spurring each other on – but when it comes to gathering together we seem reluctant at times. Some Christians will fit anything else in but not church or Christian activities. Regularity at church and Bible Study has come to mean for some Christians fortnightly or monthly or less often. We are seeing some Christians making idols of sport, family, work, entertainment, relaxation, shopping – whatever – things that take priority over all other things – including church and Christian service.
Is it a crime for Christians to play sport on Sundays?
If it’s putting something before Christ in priority – then yes! If it’s putting something before relationships – yes! If we miss church we’re missing not just singing and the sermon – why would you want to miss those – we’re missing the opportunity to grow in faith, to spur others on, to minister to and be ministered to, to encourage and build. And surely we’re disobeying, where something else regularly takes the place of meeting together.
See the command is there – “don’t stop meeting as some have already begun to”. There was in the OT a priority for Israel of the Sabbath day – a day set aside for God and for family devotion, for praise and teaching. In Christ we are not subject to the Sabbath – if you shop on Sunday God will not strike you down – but we’ve taken that freedom and abused it – putting other things before Christ and his people. We have to work out how we make church a priority – and not just for our own sake – our kids are watching and in many cases our lowest standard will become their highest.
If meeting and serving together was such a high priority for God’s people that God set aside a whole day for it – in what way has that priority changed? Whether it’s Sunday church or Tuesday Bible Study – wherever Christians gather around God’s word – we must make it a priority once more. Paul’s words…
1 Corinthians 2:1-2 “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
With the cross of Jesus as the priority of life, where does the priority of the church fit in? The great result of the cross is membership of the eternal church – as the cross informs and directs everything about us – what will that look like – in my life – in the church?