Sunday, April 30, 2023
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“Baptizing the Dead”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, April 30, 2023
Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:20-26 & 29


During New Testament class in seminary, we’d just heard a lecture on 1st Corinthians 15 by a renowned scholar. It was brilliant. The moment he finished, a hand shot up. You know that guy. You’ve probably been that guy. ‘You skipped over verse 29. The one about baptizing dead people.’ The lecturer did some fancy dancing. ‘Well, it seems that some in ancient Corinth were so delighted by Jesus that they were worried about their ancestors who’d died before hearing of him, and so may have practiced a form of vicarious baptism on behalf of the dead.’ The student was unsatisfied. ‘So you’re saying there’s nothing in the Bible to stop us from baptizing dead people?’

It brings to mind the famous scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail: ‘bring out your dead’!

Vicarious baptism on behalf of the dead is a practice in the Church of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly called the Mormons. If you join the Mormons, they won’t just baptize you, they’ll baptize your dead ancestors. Part of this is the Mormons’ view of family. It’s permanent. When we marry in Christian circles we say, “till death do us part.” Jesus says in the kingdom there is no marriage. But Mormonism says marriage is eternal. And the marriages that produced you also need to be made holy or else your whole family won’t be together in heaven. Some of the best ancestry websites out there are run by Mormons. Their desire to get clear on ancestry means the rest of us can find who our great-great-great grandmother was or whatever. I love that: their distinctive weirdness produces a gift for the world.

You’ve seen TV shows where folks learn about their ancestry, and so learn something about themselves. Maybe you’ve spit in a cup and sent it off for information. My friend from Trinidad in the Caribbean did that, sent it off, and found out she was mostly . . . German. Strange news for an Afro-Caribbean Canadian. Folks hunting down their lineage are often asking bigger questions. Who am I really? That’s really a question about God.

Who are we really? We’re the ones Jesus Christ is saving. Whatever our ancestry. Now that doesn’t help your fifth grader fill out a family tree for class, I realize. But it’s true. A friend of mine was adopted as a refugee infant from Vietnam just as the South was disintegrating. When she’s talking to doctors and they ask whether her parents had heart disease or whatever, she has no idea. All she knows is the Catholic Church brought her to North America. That’s more interesting than DNA. I don’t have to tell you, do I, that she’s the most loyal Catholic there is.

Our church is in a series on strange texts in the Bible. We’ve been in Exodus all year until now, and wouldn’t you know I got the best observation on Exodus after that series was over. Just last week and I can’t not share it. As they say in the black church God doesn’t always come when you want but is always on time. This is from Scottish preacher, John Bell. The Hebrew midwives risk their lives to see that Moses is safely born. Then Moses becomes midwife for all Israel. He delivers Israel through deadly water to new life in the promised land. The midwives deliver Moses before Moses delivers Israel as a midwife. Isn’t that good? This chapter of 1st Corinthians is familiar and comes up in Easter season a lot. With verse 29 skipped of course. So, what gives? What do we make of it?

First a word about baptism. It’s a mystery in which God saves. That’s why we do it, why every Christian church does it. It’s how God midwives us into new life in Christ. My church in college built a beautiful new sanctuary with a glass baptismal font front and center. We all arrived for the first Sunday of worship and there was a burn mark on the carpet. Apparently the sunlight through that font made a prism and caused a small fire. Careful with baptism—it’s dangerous, and beautiful.

But of course, like everything baptism can be distorted. For many centuries baptism of infants was a sort of birth registry. If you want to know when Jane Austin was born, or whoever, you’d go to their parish church and search the records. So baptism was a sort of baby ritual (sometimes called “christening,” but it’s the same thing). The Christians called Baptists rebelled against this reduction 500 years ago and said no, baptism is a sign of being born all over again. Can’t happen if you’re an infant. You have to confess faith for yourself to be joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection. And while I disagree with that view I respect it.

For the whole church for millennia baptism is a sign that you’re part of Jesus’ people. And in the New Testament whole households are baptized, which would include infants, the mentally disabled, and not just those who ask for it. Baptism is the door to salvation. To be saved you gotta walk through it. Or be carried.

There are exceptions of course. There are always exceptions. Jesus on his cross is surrounded by two thieves. One curses him. The other asks for salvation. No time for baptism. So, the church says in cases of martyrdom one is baptized in their own blood. Serious, huh? I’ll take the water instead, please. Rare exceptions aside, the church has said one needs to be baptized to spend eternity with God. This is why if, say, a newborn was ill, a priest would be called immediately, to baptize. The medieval Catholic Church even came up with a new category: limbo. The baptized go to purgatory, or if they’re a saint they go right away to heaven (very rare), the unbaptized go to hell, but the church couldn’t bring itself to say unbaptized infants go to hell, so they must go somewhere, call it limbo. Sort of like a waiting room, not unpleasant, but not a lot to do. A recent pope said there’s no such thing as limbo, so, don’t worry babies.

This rigmarole is all sort of like us human beings, sinners, to take a gift and make it into a quiz. Did you do it right? What age? What beliefs? How much water? No. Baptism joins us to Christ. It happens with water, like our first birth. It happens in the name of the Trinity, Father Son, and Spirit, like everything that matters. And after that, don’t worry about it overmuch. In ways we don’t understand, God is using this mystery to save us and all things. Baptism is not a test. It’s a gift.

St. Paul gives us some rationale for this gift in the reading you heard. Now, careful reading Paul, CS Lewis says somewhere that it is a shame that, ‘the Lord, who gave St. Paul so many gifts, neglected to give him the gift of clarity.’ With, say, the book of James, it’s clear: ‘love the poor, don’t gossip.’ It’s clear, but difficult, so we don’t usually do it. With Paul, you read him and say, ‘What!?’ We may do a series on Paul in the fall. In this text you see Paul in his greatness. He has heard the church in Corinth is struggling to believe in the resurrection of the dead and he is apoplectic. Without the resurrection, there is no hope. We don’t just believe in souls going to heaven. We believe God will raise us as surely as God raised Jesus. Some of his arguments:

Christ is the first fruits. When a new crop comes in and you haven’t tasted, say, a raspberry since last year, and it’s the best thing you’ve ever wanted, that’s the first fruits. In Israel you take that straight to the temple as an offering. It belongs to God, not you, like all things. But the first fruit is a sign a whole crop is coming, so much you won’t know what to do with it all, you’ll be giving away raspberries to strangers. Christ is the first fruits, but so much more resurrection is coming.

Paul continues: all die in Adam, so all will rise in Christ. That is, Christ is Adam done right this time. As Adam’s fall affected all of us, so Christ’s resurrection affects all of us. By virtue of being human, your fate is altered by the resurrection.

A third argument—they come quick—the last enemy to be destroyed is death. Death is unnatural. An intruder. Shouldn’t be there. And one day it won’t, when Christ annihilates it.

Great, bracing stuff. Paul at his best.

Then Paul throws in, as a by the way, ‘yeah so that’s why y’all baptize dead people. If Christ weren’t raised, y’all baptizing folks on behalf of the dead would make no sense.’ Uh, Paul, it don’t make no sense anyway. Now, Paul doesn’t explicitly approve of the practice. He doesn’t disapprove of it either. He just mentions it and moves on. We know of this practice nowhere in the first four centuries of the church. Only here. And this brings up a key rule in interpreting the Bible. The church has always said we’re not allowed to build whole systems out of a single outlying weird place in scripture. Hard-to-understand verses have to be read in light of clearer ones. And it’s clear in the New Testament that baptism requires water, the name of the Trinity, and confession of faith. They don’t always come at the same time or in the same order. Sometimes you get confession of faith after the water—like when we baptize infants. That’s why we have confirmation in our church. Because baptism is the start, not the finish, of life with God. Sometimes you might lack water, as in the rare case of martyrdom. So we need all three—water, Trinity, confession—but they can come in strange order.

Here’s a little secret: Lots of pastors have baptized someone dead. I haven’t, but many of my friends have. A child has died. Or anybody at all. And someone left behind is destroyed. ‘Not only have I lost them, but they’re in hell.’ This is not the moment for a theological discussion. So, you take some water from the hall water fountain, make the sign of the cross on that beloved forehead, and leave the surviving person reassured. There are no rules allowing us to do this. We just do it. Because we want to show Christ’s mercy reaches beyond the grave. If Easter means anything it’s that. One of my Tuesday Bible study folks told me a story of a child born pre-term in a botched abortion. The child was born alive but wasn’t going to make it. So, one of the nurses slipped out to another room, lit a candle, and baptized the child, and sat with him until he died. It was the right and decent thing to do. Don’t tell me she wasn’t a priest. Christ’s mercy reaches beyond the understandable, beyond the “normal” bonds of life and death, and he’s eager to save all of us.

I’ve told some of you I was actually baptized twice as an infant. And that’s hard to do. My grandmother was an everyday mass Catholic. She was sure my hippie parents wouldn’t bother so this was an emergency in her eyes. She took me to the sink, baptized me with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the emergency was no more. But when my parents inexplicably wandered over to the Methodist church to have me baptized, she was too scared to say anything. This double infant baptism may explain some of my theological schizophrenia. In seriousness, I love that I was baptized as an infant—not because otherwise something bad happens, of course not--but because I’ve always had a sense that God is after me. Seeking me when I wasn’t seeking back. Before I knew my own name, I was a Christian. I might be a bad Christian, or not doing anything about it, a lapsed Christian, but baptism can’t be undone. I mean, we didn’t let our kids choose their favourite sports teams, their political party, why would we let them choose something this much more important?

Annie Dillard tells a story of marching in to her pastor’s office as a teenager to declare that she was done with Christianity. It’s nonsense. He should know. Just take her off the books. As she marched back out, he called after her, “you’ll be back.” What? How dare you? ‘Sorry Annie, but I baptized you. And God has this way of finding lost sheep.’ Annie Dillard became one of the greatest Christian and ecological writers of her generation.

That’s a more individualistic way of viewing baptism. Here’s a more communal way. A friend of mine’s grandfather fought for Chiang Kai-Shek against communists in China. He was also a lay preacher. So, before he led troops into battle, he would get out a firehose and baptize the lot of them. He felt like their safety was in his hands, not only now, but eternally. One could argue this isn’t the best practice of baptism. These guys didn’t have any idea what was happening. But it did show that Christ longs to save us and is most present when we are most afraid. In the early church, an emperor had all his troops baptized. These troops kept their sword arm out of the water, holding their swords. Most of them was baptized, except the arm they would fight with. They still needed that one to belong to the devil, even if they’d enter eternity with no right arm. Silly in one way. In another, they recognized that baptism matters. And that it might mean they should be non-violent. Hence the arm out. Both these soldier examples err on the side of baptism as a communal event. Doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe. We’re all going through the Red Sea together for salvation.

Lots of friends have been baptised as adults. Hence the name “Baptist.” Even if they were “baptized” as infants, they say that didn’t count. So technically they weren’t baptized twice. The first one meant nothing. And lots have moving stories about their experiences. Going down dry and coming up gasping, wow, that was colder than I thought. Made altogether new. Clean like a bath. Newly alive like the day they were first born. At my old church in Boone, we did baptisms down at the river for our confirmands. Those who’d never been baptized went under. Those who had been baptized, we let them wade in, helped them remember their baptism—like we did here at TEMC last January. But we got pushback from some parents. The river baptisms were so cool, some parents asked, should we hold off on baptizing our infants so they can get baptized in the river as teenagers and have that cool experience? A strange sort of success. Now, since Baptists don’t baptize infants, they feel they have to do something, so they’ll dedicate babies. Feels like cheating to me, but anyway, a Baptist minister friend of mine when he does a baby dedication is always tempted to sneak some real live water in, to go ahead and make honest Christians out of them. When I took a group of parishioners to the Jordan River, site of Jesus’ baptism, I told them I wouldn’t be baptizing any of them. They were all baptized already, and we don’t re-baptize because God never gets it wrong the first time. We get there, folks splash around, pray, it’s cool. And then a Nigerian church group turns up. They’re all dressed in brilliant robes. Singing. And one by one they go under the water. And one of my parishioners looks at me with a guilty look and says, ‘hey, um, I’m sorry, but I’m going with them.’ I sort of admire her chutzpah: ‘sure preacher you told us this was wrong, but Imma do it anyway, k?’ Who was I to stop her? I mean, she’d come a long way.

Let me shift continents and centuries. In the early 20th century in Britain moral philosophy had badly deteriorated. Philosophers were arguing that there was no such thing as morality at all. All there was, was what you want, what I want, no way to arbitrate but power. Moral anarchy. People don’t say this sort of thing after the holocaust, do they? One philosopher realized something though. No, not all moral claims are reducible to ‘what I want.’ There are certain kinds of speech that change things. When a judge bangs a gavel and declares you innocent—that’s speech that makes something new in the world. Renders a verdict. Makes a thing so. When a pastor says, ‘by the power invested in me, I declare you married,’ that’s a new state of affairs that didn’t exist before. That philosopher, JL Austin, called these “speech acts.” They don’t just reflect my or your opinion. They change reality. When someone says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” you’re different. I can’t explain how fully. No one can. But it is so. You’re joined with Jesus forever. And almost nobody suggests there is no such thing as morality now. We fight so hard over it because we all assume there is.

Here’s maybe the most amazing thing about baptism. Jesus did it. Submitted to it. The first one under the water in need of salvation was the saviour himself. This is more than a little awkward. If baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, what’s he need the water for? He’s without sin. In one gospel he even argues with John the Baptist a little. John says, ‘no, no, no, you should be baptizing me.’ Jesus says, hey, I’m in charge here, go ahead. Loose translation I grant. When we go under the water we meet Jesus there, who raises us to resurrection life. That’s true at whatever age, whatever cognitive ability, whether we’re alive or dead, an infant or soldier or an inch past death or whatever. A wise person said every person you see, every one of them: that’s someone whose company Jesus longs for. Baptism shows that. No wonder some want to do it more than once. No need, God never gets it wrong the first time.

So you see some things from this strange text. Baptism is important. But it’s messy too. Always has been. There’s been uncertainty about it since we started this whole Christian thing in the first place. But it’s good. So good it spills over the boundaries we make for it to people we’d be tempted to say can’t have it. Infants. Dead people. Non-responsive people. The wrong sort of people. The “right” sort if there are any of those. Jesus is after all of us. And will go through hell itself to get to us. Amen.