Staunton Mennonite Church
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
July 19, 2003 was an important day for me. It was on that day that I made a commitment to love, honor, and obey the woman who is now my wife. That was my wedding day.
Sonya and I had a pretty large wedding, probably around 350 people were present. The people gathered in the sanctuary of a large church to witness us exchange our vows with one another, promising that we would be true to one another, love one another, and so on “as long as we both shall live.”
350 people heard us make those vows. 350 people could verify it if we needed them to. They heard me say that I would never love another woman; they heard Sonya say that she would never love another man. And as a symbol of our love for one another, we exchanged wedding rings to be worn on our left ring finger. And that wedding ring (when I actually wear it) serves as a sign to all those that we meet that we are no longer interested in dating other people. I am Sonya’s husband and she is my wife.
I also remember the day of my baptism. There were less people there, but it was just as meaningful. I would say there were probably about 125 people present. Those people present heard me say that I believed that Jesus Christ was my savior, that I desired to be a part of that congregation, and that I wanted to live my life according to the ways of Jesus Christ while trying to avoid the sinful nature that exists within the world. As a symbol of my commitment to following Christ and as a symbol of the cleansing of sin that comes with one’s decision to follow Christ, water was poured over my head.
I keep these two events very close together in my heart. Both events included public statements about my intentions for the rest of my life. My wedding vows included my intentions to be with Sonya the rest of my life. My baptismal vows included my intentions to serve Jesus Christ the rest of my life.
I really don’t think it is an accident that Jesus often describes his relationship with the church as a wedding. When we become a part of the church and are baptized into the faith, we are marrying Jesus for the rest of our lives, committing to love him, honor him, and obey him with our every breath. So for us to have vows at the time of our baptism makes perfect sense to me. But where do we get this strange ritual of water baptism?
In the third chapter of John, a man by the name of Nicodemus approached Jesus and Jesus gave him a pretty important bit of information. Jesus told Nicodemus that if he wanted to see the kingdom of God, he needed to experience a new birth.
Well Nicodemus was a little confused by all of this. “How can a grown person enter into their mother’s womb and be born again?” Nicodemus wonders out loud. If women think that giving birth to a 9 lb. baby is painful, try delivering a 200 pounder!
But Jesus explains to Nicodemus that this birth is not a birth of the flesh like all humans experience the first time around. This is a birth of water and the Spirit. What he is referring to here is a water baptism that symbolizes a new birth in the Spirit of God.
The Jews were familiar with ritualistic washing and the symbolism of it. When they became ceremonially unclean, whether by touching a dead animal, a non-kosher animal, or something of that nature, they were required to wash before they could join the rest of the Jews in their service to God. The Jewish people practiced several forms of ceremonial washings, in part because it was good hygiene, but also because it was a way of making something symbolically clean and worthy of being in the presence of a Holy God.
Then Jesus comes along and he builds upon this ritual of washing. Jesus says that we must experience this ritualistic cleansing called baptism to show the world that we are now clean and worthy of being in the presence of God. At the time of our baptism, we profess before the witnesses of the church that we have accepted the free gift of God’s grace and mercy which has made us clean in his eyes. It is not the water of baptism that actually cleanses us of our sin, but it is an outward sign of an inward change. We have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, and to show this to the world, we are washed in the waters of baptism.
But baptism is more than just a ritual of a new birth. It is also a funeral for our old way of life. Paul writes in our scripture from Romans 6, beginning in verse 6, “We know that our old self was crucified with him (Jesus) so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin.” Baptism marks our death; our death to the ways of the world, our death to enslavement to sin.
The world in which we live is often compared to two different kingdoms: the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God. These two kingdoms exist side by side, often intersecting with one another, but often quite distinct from one another. The kingdom of this world is a kingdom that does not recognize the one true God. Instead the kingdom of this world has many gods that the citizens of this world serve; money, greed, power, lust. But these things are sinful (or the love of these things is sinful), they are outside of the perfection of Christ. And as Paul told us, we died to the kingdom of this world when we made the decision to follow Christ, when we made the decision to name him as our Lord and Savior. And we mark that death with baptism.
But the story doesn’t end there. Paul goes on, beginning in verse 8, “8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
When we die to the ways of the kingdom of this world, we are given a new birth in Jesus Christ. We are born into the kingdom of God, where, like the resurrected Christ, we are called to live to God and for God. As citizens of the kingdom of God, we are called to live a different kind of life. A life where we are to love God and love our neighbors. A life where we are to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. We are called to live a life set apart from the kingdom of this world and live as a part of the kingdom of God. And our baptism is a statement of faith to all those who witness it that we have died to the ways of the world and have been born again into the kingdom of God.
As I said earlier, the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God will often interact with one another. We are still in the world, even if we are not of the world. When we commit our lives to following Christ, we are not plucked out of this world and into the eternal kingdom. We are left here to be a part of God’s temporary kingdom here on earth until Jesus comes back to reign forever or until our natural lives are complete, whichever comes first. And as citizens of God’s kingdom here on earth, we are called to be his ambassadors, witnessing to God’s kingdom with our lives. And as the song tells us, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
Love is the defining characteristic of those who are a part of the kingdom of God. Just as we love a spouse or love a child, we are called to love all people; friends, enemies, neighbors, and strangers. Our commitment to love, honor, and serve God is a commitment to love honor, and serve others as well.
Baptism is an outward sign of an inward change. It is a public statement saying, “I am no longer a part of the kingdom of this world, but I am a citizen of the kingdom of God.” Through our baptism we die to the ways of the world only to be born again in the Spirit of God; into the kingdom of God.
Baptism is similar to a wedding ring. When I said “I do” in front of the witnesses in the church on that sunny July day, we marked that occasion with a visible sign: a wedding ring. When we say “I do” to Christ, we mark that occasion with water baptism. We are no longer “on the market.” We will love, honor, and obey Jesus Christ and serve his kingdom.