Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Baptism and new identity

In a previous post, I wrote about the nature of baptism as union with Christ, drawing from Paul's discussion in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans. There I described the transformational character of baptism -- how it changes our state of being, so that we are not under the power of sin any longer but dead to sin and alive to God, just as Christ is dead to sin and alive to God forevermore.

Now it should be obvious that a change of being, a change of status, implies also a change of identity. This is what Paul talks about in another (admittedly very brief) reference to baptism in his letter to the Galatians. Consider what he says:

. . . in Christ you are all children of God through faith. As many as you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise (Gal 3.26-29).

In this passage we find a lot of the same language of union with Christ that we saw in his letter to the Romans. Here speaks, as usual, of being in Christ, of being baptized into Christ, and of clothing oneself with Christ. Imagine that: just as you put on a uniform and become in some sense a police officer, or a priest, or a judge, or a worker, or whatever, in the same way you put on Christ through baptism. And what does that make you? It makes you children of God, and Abraham's offspring.

We will return to these things in a moment, but I want also to bring your attention what Paul says in the middle of this passage. He says: all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Here is speaking to the Galatian church which consisted of all the baptized believers; he tells them that by virtue of their baptism, they are united with Christ, and therefore they are united with one another. They are all one in Christ Jesus! (In his letter to the Corinthians Paul will speak more specifically of them as members of Christ's body, which further enforces the same point.) Would you imagine that this ought to inform the way we treat and think about one another? If I am one with you in Christ Jesus, then how can I hate you, refuse to forgive you, spread lies and slander about you, or in a word, fail to love you? Can I split the body of Christ in two? Do I dare to break it once more? Or consider it a different way: Paul says that no one ever hated his own body (Eph 5.29); can I hate my own body by hating you, knowing that you and I are members of the same body of Christ? Clearly not!

We cannot divide Christ's body; we cannot break it, once it has already been broken once for us. Consequently, Paul infers from this that previous differences of identity that might have once separated us from one another are invalidated by our union with Christ. He says: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female (v. 28). There is no longer Jew or Greek, because the ethnic and national dividing lines have been destroyed by Christ, who has made a new humanity in his one body (cf. Eph 2.14-5). There is no longer slave or free, because we are all God's slaves and we are all free from the demands of other men because of our belonging to Christ. There is no longer male and female, because both alike have access to union with the one Christ. If they are both a part of the same body of Christ, then neither is superior or inferior to the other!

Now importantly, if these distinctions and dividing lines are invalidated by our union with Christ, then neither can they become the principal sources of our own identities. If in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, then I cannot think of myself fundamentally as a Jew or as a Greek, as an American or Romanian or Serbian, or whatever. If there is no more master and slave, then my identity is no longer my job or any relation that I hold to any other human person; I am not fundamentally a CEO or a theologian or philosopher or bus driver or whatever. If there is no more male and female, then my fundamental identity is no longer a man or a woman, a husband or a wife, a brother or a sister. Above everything, I am a child of God in Jesus Christ and an offspring of Abraham!

So we have seen that baptism involves a fundamental change of identity. But what does it mean to be a child of God and an offspring of Abraham? Here I will give my opinion.

Adam, says Luke, was the son of God (Luke 3.38). He had received a calling, one appropriate to every son and one which comes naturally to us: to be like his Father, to be God's image and likeness (Gen 1.26-7). We know that Adam had failed in this calling because of his sin, and his sin had disastrous results for the rest of the world (cf. Rom 5.12ff.). But Abraham (when he was still Abram) was given a promise by God that I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12.2-3).  He will be made into a great nation, and his offspring will inherit a land blessed by God (v. 7).

God was in the process of repairing a world broken by Adam's sin, and he was determined to do it through the offspring of this man Abram, whom he had chosen. Long story short, Paul says that Christ is that offspring of Abraham (Gal 3.16). Now if we are united to Christ by baptism, then we become Abraham's offspring and we inherit the promise! We become sons of God, which is to say, we begin to embody that image and likeness of God; we participate in the restoration of the created world and become the persons God intends all of humanity to be. And we become heirs of God's promise to Abraham: a new and restored land, in which we will live and worship God and prosper!