In the next two chapters, we will consider baptism and communion. These two traditions of the Christian faith are commonly regarded as "sacraments." However, as Robert Barclay notes in the Apology, the word "sacrament" never appears in Scripture. The term has its origin in the military oaths of the ancient world. While the word itself may have a rather tenuous connection to the ministry of Jesus, most Christians have granted the concept a central place in their faith.
As a sign of the high esteem granted to the concept of "sacrament," it may be noted how often Christians have fought over this issue. For example, a central disagreement between Protestants and Catholics is the number of sacraments. On a subject like baptism, Protestants have quarreled over the correct procedure: should people be immersed in water, or merely sprinkled? Should infants be baptized, or is informed, adult consent required?
Convinced that arguments over "proper enumeration" or "proper ceremony" do nothing to connect people with the Light of Christ's Spirit, Barclay and the early Friends regarded the debate over "sacraments" with considerable skepticism.
But if Barclay was skeptical about "sacraments" in general, he never questioned the legitimacy of baptism in particular. (Nor, as we shall see in the next column, did he question the legitimacy of communion).
However, Barclay does insist that true baptism is something distinct from the rituals we humans perform.
Realizing that most Christians simply equate baptism with some sort of ritual involving water, Barclay invites the reader to reexamine what Scripture says on the subject. Barclay is convinced that a fair reading of Scripture will show that the essential baptism is purely spiritual in nature. It is not performed by human hands, but by the power of Christ.
Although John baptized with water, John himself says (in Matthew 3:2), "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
Jesus testifies to this same distinction in Acts 1:5. The Risen Christ says to his disciples, "For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."
Scripture declares a clear distinction between baptism with water and baptism with the Spirit. The former is associated with the ministry of John, the later is associated with the ministry of Christ. And while John's baptism may be a preview of what Christ will bring, it is certainly not a prerequisite -- never does Jesus say, "Receive the baptism of John then I will baptize you with the Spirit."
Barclay argues that the baptism of the Spirit is the essential baptism. After all, what gain is there in getting the outside of our bodies sprinkled, immersed or sprayed with a garden hose -- if our hearts are not reached by the Spirit of God? And if the Spirit is granted to us through the baptism of Christ, then what do we gain by getting wet?
Barclay points to 1 Peter 3:21 as "the plainest definition of the baptism of Christ in all the Bible." This passage proclaims that baptism is "not the removal of dirt from the body, but the answer of a good conscience towards God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
For Barclay, this passage of Scripture is the punctuation mark at the end of his argument. Peter clearly distinguishes between an outward view of baptism and an inward view. He rejects the notion that baptism entails the "removal of dirt from the body." Instead, baptism entails the transformation of our conscience through the resurrection of Christ. It is a spiritual transformation.
The essential baptism is participating in the death and new life of Christ Jesus. Paul writes, "Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Romans 6:3,4). The baptism of Christ is itself sufficient. No human ceremony needs to be added to it.
Here are some questions to consider:
1. Have you ever been baptized with water? What did the experience mean to you?
2. One thing that outward rituals can do for us is to provide a marker for some transition in our lives. Since Friends do not practice water baptism, what other way could someone establish a marker to reflect their commitment to Christ? Is this even important?
3. Read Matthew 28:18-20. How would you interpret this command from a Quaker perspective?
Continue to Proposition Thirteen