Baptism - Buried and Risen with Christ
Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Two weeks ago, when we began reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, I mentioned that the hymn that St. Paul incorporates into the first chapter was probably a hymn from a baptismal ceremony. Today’s passage from that same letter speaks to us about baptism. St. Paul uses a metaphor of being “buried” with Christ through baptism. Most of the baptisms that we probably have witnessed involved water being poured over the head of the baby or person being baptized. However, the first form of baptism actually involved the person being immersed in the water completely. Going under the water was a fearful thing for people of this culture because water represented chaos and death. Baptismal fonts of that era were often shaped to look like tombs or graves. The person to be baptized enters the grave, the realm of death, and then rises with Christ to new life. While we still use this metaphor of dying and rising with Christ, our ritual of baptism does not make this the tangible reality that it was in the past.
It is obvious, however, that it is not the ritual itself that saves us but rather the faith of the individual. The one who has placed faith in Jesus submits to this ritual as an outward manifestation of faith. Putting faith in Christ is the way to salvation for it makes it possible for us to be reconciled with God.
St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians was written while he was in prison. News had reached him that there are people who are going to Christian communities and who are seducing these people return to the mystery religions of the past. He counters their arguments by maintaining that obedience to the dictates of the law will not save them. For instance, Jewish people believed that they were saved by circumcision. In preaching to the Gentiles, St. Paul insists that circumcision, like the external ritual of baptism, cannot save anyone. Only faith in Jesus has the power to save. Through our faith in Jesus, we are identified by his death and resurrection.
Paul’s explanation of Baptism in the Letter to the Colossians differs from his theological viewpoint in the Letter to the Romans. While the Letter to the Romans does say that we share the death of Christ through baptism, he also says that our rising with him is conditional on our daily dying to sin and walking in newness of life. It awaits its final fulfillment at the final resurrection. Consequently, it seems that Paul’s viewpoint has evolved as is evidenced in this letter wherein he states we are also raised with him through this sacrament. Paul himself has now suffered for his faith. He has begun to realize that his faith may in fact bring about his execution. His experience has taught him that resurrection comes through faith in Jesus and is guaranteed to those who live out that faith.
He goes on to say that the debt that we owe to God has been nailed to the cross. It seems that St. Paul is thinking of the “titulus” that was nailed above the head of the crucified. In the case of Jesus’ cross, Pilate wrote “the King of the Jews” and instructed the soldiers to nail that title to the cross. Jesus is our King because he forgives us our sins, he pays the debt we owe. The meaning of this image is clear: in the cross Christ achieved the forgiveness of sins. Christian experience throughout the ages has known this. Jesus’ suffering and death has reconciled us to the Father.
You might remember that when I spoke of the Christ hymn a few weeks ago, I spoke of the preeminence of Jesus in the order of creation and in the order of reconciliation. For any disciple, Jesus must be preeminent, the priority of our lives. If Christ had not died and risen from the dead, our faith would have been in vain. Christ’s redemptive suffering and death is the hallmark and substance of our faith. By our baptism we have been buried with him and have risen to a new life which brings with it the ethical demand to live by the commandment that Jesus gave us before his death. “By this shall all know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”