In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is wrongfully accused of murdering his wife. He winds up in prison with a lengthy life sentence of hard time. While in this prison, he acquires a friend named “Red.” Red and Andy are sitting in the yard one day when Andy begins to dream about being on the outside of the penitentiary. Red doesn’t think it’s a good idea to dream when Mexico is “…all the way down there and you’re in here. That’s the way it is.” Andy thinks for a moment, his hopes of escape being slowly crushed. He gazes at Red and says, “Yeah, right. That’s the way it is. I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Andy’s words ring true in our modern ears. “Get busy living or get busy dying.” In his mind, it’s a simple choice and one that we all must make. If you are trapped and imprisoned by life’s circumstances, you have the power to move yourself out of that situation. Put in the work and the effort or give up and give in. If you’re not willing to change your life, then you’re as good as dead already. You are the captain of your own destiny, over your own life, even over your own death. “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Of course, this message is not a new message. It is one that we constantly hear in our culture. The mantra of self-help books and television shows constantly revolve around the idea of the power of positive thinking. If we are imprisoned by our situation, then we need only change our thinking or actions. Whatever it might be, we are the commanders of our destiny. This is the gospel according to the world whose prophets are Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Joel Osteen. It is a world where “I” am ultimately god.
The problem with this message of self-help and positive thinking is that we are broken, sinful creatures. We are creatures that have become blind to that which is Good, deaf to that which is holy, and lame in our efforts to put these things into practice. Even with our best intentions, we often create more havoc, chaos, brokenness, and destruction – for ourselves and for others.
Have you ever asked a small child to clean up their mess? Ask a two-year-old child to clean chocolate pudding off of their face, hands, and eating space. You will typically find that children are unusually adept at creating a bigger mess than when they first began. Their efforts at cleaning appear more akin to the Tasmanian Devil’s skills at creating a disaster zone.
In our own efforts to wash ourselves of sin and to mend our brokenness, we find ourselves like children making a bigger mess than when we began. “Get busy living or get busy dying” seems to leave us with only one possible option. If the wages of sin is death, then that seems to be the only path left open to us. It is the path that leads to destruction.
So, now, here we stand… or, perhaps, here we are huddled under the burden of sin, haunted by Death. Here we sit in the mucky mess we have created, unable to clean ourselves, unable to wash ourselves pure. Sin, like heavy shackles, imprisons us – a confinement from which we cannot escape. Even Christians are found saying, “I’m not perfect; I’m only human.” In other words, sin has mastery over my life and there’s nothing I can do about it – “That’s just the way it is.”
If “that’s just the way it is,” then the Apostle Paul has a lot of explaining to do. He posits a question to the community of believers in Rome: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1). Paul assumes that there is indeed an alternative to sin’s dominion, an alternative route to the death-path we were steadily plodding but unable to exit. Isn’t sin, death, brokenness, and destruction the inevitable outcome of our lives? Paul’s response is simple, yet profound: “By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Rom. 6:2). Now, we have a problem. Sin seems to have mastery over us, yet Paul expects that we are no longer enslaved to that master.
Let’s reflect on the larger story of God, especially focusing in on the work of the Spirit upon water. The watery chaos before Creation is not habitable, not amenable to life. The Spirit of God hovers over the waters and begins to separate the waters, creating space in the midst of those water, where life can be brought forth, sustained, and blessed. The Spirit brought life forth from the waters.
Israel ached under the bondage of Egypt’s cruel slavery. Yet, God delivered them from Pharaoh and his lands. However, no sooner had Pharaoh let them go, he regretted it and pursued them to the sea. The Spirit, the wind of God, opened the waters so that dry ground appeared and Israel walked across. Pharaoh’s army was drowned under the collapsing waters. The passage through the waters were a passage from death to newness of life, from Egyptian tyranny to Exodus freedom. The Spirit made a new people, set apart for God, through the waters of the sea.
The Spirit alighted upon the waters of Mary’s womb, barren because she had known no man, yet filled with life by the Spirit. From these barren waters, God brought forth Jesus the God-Man.
The Spirit also descended upon Jesus as he arose from the waters of John’s baptism of repentance. The Spirit rested upon Jesus as a sign and seal of the Father’s great love for the Son and then drove the Son into the wilderness where he was tested.
God, by the work of the Spirit, works through the ordinary materials of life, like water, to bring about God’s covenant purposes for all of Creation. Water is ordered from chaos; water marks the transition and transformation from enslavement to freedom; water carries and nourishes the life of God in the womb, and the waters of baptism set apart Christ, “the Anointed One,” as the New Israel and the New Adam through whom sin and death would be defeated – all by the gift of the Spirit.
Eugene Rogers, Jr. describes the importance of this reality: “…the Spirit hovers over the waters of the Jordan as she hovered over the waters of creation and the water of the womb; and Jesus receives the love and witness in a way that other human beings can participate in – he comes to the Jordan ‘to perfect baptism,’ i.e., to accomplish its potential for initiating human beings into the triune life. The baptism of Jesus does not make sense without the presence of the Spirit. For what the Spirit adds to the expression and reception of love is this: that she witnesses to the love between the Father and the son among the disciples and among other human beings. At the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit, with her presence, indicates, marks, points out – bears witness to – the love between the Father and the Son in such a way… that it can be shared… What baptism accomplishes is a participation in the life of the God of Israel; what baptism washes away is a lack of participation in the life of the God of Israel” (After the Spirit, 137).
In baptism, we see the Spirit come to rest, not simply in Jesus but on Jesus. The Spirit rests upon the physical, material body of humanity in and through Jesus. Because Jesus is both God and Humanity, Humanity is brought into the life of God by the sign and seal of the Spirit – through the waters of baptism.
Rogers writes: “The Spirit rests on the Son in the waters of the Jordan and therefore on the disciples at the waters of the Galilee and on other human beings in the waters of the [baptismal] Font. The first makes manifest that the Holy Spirit rests on the elect of the Father, and for that reason witnesses and celebrates this election not only in God but also in the baptism of Jesus and finally in others, electing further witnesses to the good pleasure of the Father in the Son. At the Baptism the Spirit continues to befriend the body, allowing the Son to receive as human what he has as God, so that he might count equality with God not a thing to be grasped, and reverse the grasping of the Fall” (After the Spirit, 135).
In other words, baptism is entirely the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The power and efficacy of baptism is not rooted in our decision to be baptized. It is rooted in the life of God which has “perfected baptism” so that we might be brought into and participate with the life of God. If baptism is not God’s work, then it is simply a bath where someone else is potentially attempting to drown you – not a particularly comforting thought.
And the call of the Spirit, embodied in the life of Jesus, and signified in the waters of baptism does not call us to “Get busy living,” rather it’s the call of the cross – “Get busy dying.” It is dying, as Rogers suggests, to the idea and desire to grasp power and be like God. It is to die to self-interest, self-sufficiency, and self-help. It is to put to death the person in us that lives according to the flesh and not the Spirit. Baptism is the washing away of the “old man” so that we might be robed by the righteousness of Christ and empowered by the gifts of the Spirit to the glory of the Father.
This is not simply, however, a washing from something but a washing for something. Baptism is not merely a cleansing from sin. It is not simply a washing that purifies us from sin’s power and dominion. Rather, it is a washing that prepares us for the Table. “Baptism is the great washing before the meal” (After the Spirit, 138). Or, to put it another way, baptism sets us apart to be inhabited by the Spirit and brought into the life of God by which we might glorify God in this world, not simply by our spirit, through our bodies. Baptism of water and the Spirit cleanses both the inside and the outside of the person so that no part is left untouched. In this, we are prepared for holy service in the name of the Lord for the sake of the world – blown out by the Spirit to proclaim the Kingdom’s coming.
Now, I want to be very careful and diligent at this point because some might begin to think that it is the act of baptism that saves us. Or, at the very least, they might hear me saying something like that. But, that is simply to confuse the nature of baptism. Baptism is not the end nor the point or the purpose. Instead, baptism is a “means of grace.”
John Wesley is helpful to describe what is meant by this term: “By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions ordained of God, and appointed for this end – to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to [people] preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology: The Means of Grace, 160). A simple way of saying this is that God has given us baptism to be a way by which God works in our lives for our good when we could not.
“…for Wesley baptism does not grant a permanent status, a ticket to heaven, but provides the grace that starts us on a continuing journey… God’s faithfulness and the work of the Holy Spirit call from us a response of faith and growth in the Christian life. Wesley says this growth is necessary for sanctification that can transform every corner of our existence.” (Global Wesleyan Dictionary of Theology, 477-78).
The waters of baptism are effective for this reason: It is the work of God in the life of God that then overflows into our lives as we receive it in thankfulness, praise, and obedience. It is possible to deny the power of baptism and the work of the Spirit. It is possible for it to be merely water that wets us down on the outside but lacks power to set us free from the bondage of sin inside and out. It is possible to take the Lord’s name in vain by calling ourselves Christ’s disciples yet refusing to let him be our master, living in sin and disobedience. It is possible to go under the waters but hold fast to the old way of life, justifying our actions because we live in a still fallen world. It is within our power to participate in acts of worship, such as baptism, while denying their power. In doing so, we reject God’s invitation into a covenantal relationship.
But, Paul reminds those of us that have been plunged in the waters of baptism, that God has covenanted with us and we with God. We have been buried in the death of Christ. We have been washed with the newness of the Spirit. We have been given the favor of the Father. And, because God has conquered sin, death, and the grave, we, too, are invited to participate, to live into that resurrection life – here and now. Sin and death have lost their dominion – Christ is Lord of all. Baptism plunged us into a new way of life, life through the gift of the Spirit. “Early [Christian] thinkers used to say that as God used dust at the first creation; he uses water at the second” (Leadership Handbook of Preaching and Worship, 376). We are called to live into that new creation.
This is not something that is merely interior and inside us, but it catches up our bodies as well. Paul writes, “Therefore 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. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We 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. For whoever died is freed from sin… The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No 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. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:4-7, 10-14).
In other words, Paul is calling the community of faith to remember their baptism. Remembering is not something that is only recalling information to the brain. Remembering is something that is faithfully embodied and lived out in community. Remember the work of God made available to us and live faithfully into the death and resurrection of Jesus by “walking in newness of life.”
Today, I want to recall together our baptismal vows. Like a marriage, we are only baptized once. In marriage, you are as married in your fiftieth year as you were on your first day. Baptism is the same. But, like marriage, it is good to remember your marriage vows, to recall and recommit yourself to those promises made before God and the Church. As Paul exhorted the church in Rome, we too are called to remember that we have been buried with Christ and risen to newness of life through his resurrection. As such, we are also called to live into that newness of life by not misusing our bodies as instruments of wickedness but submitting them to the Spirit to be used as instruments of righteousness. Baptism is the initiation of followers of Jesus into this new way of living as adopted children of God – no longer under the dominion of sin.