Baptism is About Allegiances (review)
[June 22, 2014] Last Sunday, Trinity Sunday, we considered the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel according to Matthew and Jesus’ mandate to disciple gentiles, baptizing them “into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We said that baptism separates us from our old allegiances and sets us apart to our new fidelity.
In Matthew’s gospel, faith (pistis) is not about belief or even conviction but about faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty, allegiance, commitment to a person, fealty. The gentile world worships idols. Pope Francis identifies some of our modern idols: “power and violence,” “money,” and “careerism” (in the 2014 book, The Church of Mercy: a Vision for the Church). But the gentiles are not the only one with idols (as Pope Francis also recognizes). The Jews of Jesus’ time and the Christians of today become intolerant and exclusive and “tribal,” worshiping idols of patriarchy and masculinity, cultural moralities and ideological absolutes.
Friday the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to recognize marriage as between two people instead of a man and a woman, in other words, to stop its own attack on lesbian, gay and bisexual people, the second denomination (I think) to do so after the United Church of Christ. Some Christians perceive this as worshiping the god of culture; others see it as a renunciation of the god of male privilege. Perhaps it was both. However, we are not protected from the god of culture by adhering to a fundamentalist hermeneutic of Scripture instead of a canonical hermeneutic that measures everything by the revelation of Christ (in that context and light). Unless we can measure ourselves in the light of God, we cannot avoid reading our own assumptions into the texts that we read. Yet how do we do that? (“God” becomes a mirror of ourselves; unless we become a mirror of God, what we project onto “God” cannot be trusted.) As a point of fact, the Scriptures say not a word of condemnation about lesbianism (Romans 1:26 is about Genesis 6:1-4 and has nothing to do with same-sex relations; see Jude 6), and the homosexual acts that are condemned are condemned for other reasons than the sexuality of the partners. Nor is transsexuality condemned at all.
Baptism “into” the Forgiveness of Sins (the Nicene Creed)
Let us return, though, to our topic. We are baptized into the Name of the Triune God. It is about our allegiances. Baptism divides: it separates us from all others and sets us apart to Another. In the Nicene Creed we say, “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” People become confused because of the word “for.” This choice of translation makes it seem to mean that baptism causes the forgiveness of sins. This is not the meaning. The original Greek text uses the same word that is used in Matthew 28:19, the word “into” (eis). Just as we are baptized into the Name of the Triune God, we are baptized into the forgiveness of sins. Baptism separates us from one realm and places us in another. Before we were in the world, under the judgment of God. Now we are in a relation of fealty to Christ, where we are forgiven our sins.
In Acts 2:38 Peter says, “Repent and each one of you be baptized upon (epi: on the basis of) the forgiveness of sins,” and with many other words he exhorted them, “Be saved from this crooked generation.” We are forgiven on the basis of repentance; we are baptized on the basis of this forgiveness; and we are saved from the generation we are in by being thus baptized. Baptism is about being “saved” from the generation. It terminates our membership in it, our solidarity with it.
Peter also teaches us in 1 Peter 3:20-21 that the water of baptism saves us as the water of the flood saved Noah. (The relative pronoun at the beginning of verse 21 agrees in gender with “water,” which is neuter, not with “ark,” which is feminine.) The flood saved Noah by terminating his relationship with the world. It was able to do so because he was in the ark (the antitype of Christ).
In other words, baptism does not cause the forgiveness of sins. It saves us from the realm that is under judgment. It terminates our membership in it. It is social, not internal (though it is on the basis of something internal). We are personally forgiven because we repent and give our fidelity to Christ. In John’s language, we have eternal life, we will no longer perish with the world. But we still belong to the world. It still thinks it has title to us. Baptism declares to the world that we no longer belong.
Look at it this way: the Passover freed the Israelites from Egypt. The day after the slaying of the firstborn and the passing-over on account of the blood of the lamb, they left Egypt. However, it was crossing the Red Sea that separated them from Egypt. Pharaoh still thought he had title to Israel until then. Passover represents our relationship to God; the Red Sea represents our relationship to the world. The blood of the lamb terminates our spiritual connection to Egypt. Applying the blood, eating the lamb and leaving Egypt represent our faith. But the water of the Red Sea terminates our social connection to Egypt. Crossing the Sea means we leave that realm of things, we disown it; the world has to contend with the fact that we do so. This is why baptism rather than personal faith incites persecution. Persecution has to do with the termination of our relationship to the world. It marks us publicly as Christ’s own. Faith is something God sees; baptism is something the world has to contend with.
In view of the world being under the judgment of God, we who believe (and on that basis) are baptized into the forgiveness of sins. The creed puts this separation in positive terms. It is a question of publicly declaring where we belong, and, by making that statement, it effects the change that it declares. Baptism separates. It cleanses us from our former association. It buries the old man who is dead (who faith reveals in fact died with Christ).
If that is clear, then in terms of the Nicene Creed, the realm of “the forgiveness of sins” is the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” of the preceding clause. We “believe into” (pisteuomen eis) the church, but we “acknowledge” (homologoumen) one baptism into the forgiveness of sins. Believing “into” the church is outwardly marked (acknowledged) by baptism into the forgiveness of sins.
The word “acknowledge” (which is the word “confess” in Matthew 10:32) means making something public. Literally it means to say (logeō) the same (homo) thing. (Thus it means to agree with or correspond to or be suitable for a person or thing; or to agree or concede to or grant something, or to avow or acknowledge or allow or confess something; or to make an agreement or promise something.) It means to concede to something by publicly acknowledging (saying) it: thus confessing it.
Does “we acknowledge one baptism into the forgiveness of sins” mean, then, that we publicly agree that there is one baptism into the forgiveness of sins? I think it means that we make public confession by or with one baptism into the forgiveness of sins. As the object of the verb, “one baptism” might be what we are confessing but it can also be how we are confessing “into.” We believe into the church and we publicly confess (this fact)—with respect to the world—[by] one baptism into the forgiveness of sins, and from this place we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.
The thing I hope I have made clear is that in this context “acknowledgement” or “confession” has to do with our belonging: do we belong to the world (under judgment) or to Christ (in whom is forgiveness)?
Confessing and Denying in Matthew 10:32-33
This is all said as an introduction to our text, Matthew 10:24-39, for verse 32 does not say “confess me” as it is usually translated, but “confess in (ev) me.” If we confess “in” Jesus before humans, Jesus will confess “in” us before his Father. This is set in opposition to denying him, which means to repudiate or disown him. It has to do with our commitment and loyalty to Jesus or our disavowal of him. Do we own him as our Lord, do we belong to him? Do we give him our exclusive allegiance and fidelity? Or do we not publicly make this clear to others? Are we ambivalent? Do we repudiate this kind of connection?
Chapter 10 of Matthew is about the apostolate. Jesus sends out his disciples to announce, “The kingdom of the heavens has drawn near” (10:7). The word translated as “proclaim” (kērussō) means to herald tidings, to make something publicly known, to give out news. The news is that with the coming of Jesus the kingdom of the heavens has come near. Where he is the kingdom of the heavens is. He is its location. With his coming, it has come. With his public emergence, the kingdom of the heavens has come onto Israel’s stage. This is the good news (the Gospel, the euangelion): the story and significance of his coming. This is what the disciples are to proclaim. The apostolate is the being sent (apostellō) to do this (10:5). The word mission comes from the Latin equivalent of this word.
The apostles are those sent out to do this. The Twelve were sent with Israel especially in mind. After Pentecost other apostles were called into a much wider field, the field of “all the gentiles.” Even though the sphere of the apostles themselves is trans-local and the churches are local, all disciples (believers) nevertheless participate in the apostolate. In Matthew 28:19 we all are sent out, and we are sent out to “all the gentiles.” The Great Commission is spoken to the Eleven (the remainder of the Twelve after Judas left), but only because they are the chosen eye-witnesses of Jesus’ work. The Great Commission recapitulates the entire gospel. The missionary discourse (Matthew 10), which recapitulates and interprets the narrative of chapters 8 and 9, is part of the “all that I have commanded you” that the disciples are to teach new disciples to observe (28:20). A disciple, which word derives from a root which means “to learn,” is one who is taught. The body of Matthew is divided into five teaching sections (corresponding to the books of the Torah), and chapters 8—10 is the second of them.
“Disciple is not superior to teacher, nor slave to master. It is enough for disciple to be like teacher, and slave like master. If they have called the master of the house ‘Beelzebul,’ how much more the members of his household” (Matthew 10:24-25).
So when we are sent out with the proclamation of Jesus’ coming, there will be different reactions. Some people will welcome us and give us and our message hospitality (our work depends on their hospitality). Others will persecute us. We cannot expect people to treat us better than they treated Jesus. In fact, we should expect them to treat us the same, if not worse.
“So do not be afraid of them. Everything now covered up will be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the daylight; what you hear in whispers, proclaim from the housetops. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; fear him rather who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna [the Valley of Hinnom]. Can you not buy two sparrows for a penny? And yet not one falls to the ground without your Father knowing. Why, every hair on your head has been numbered. So there is no need to be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:26-31).
We should not be afraid of people. Jesus says this in verse 26, 28 and 31, at the beginning, middle and end of this passage. Why? Because we, and everyone else, live in the sight of God the Father. Nothing anyone does to us is hidden from our Father; it will all come under judgment. And we can trust that the Father has an eye out for us. If not one sparrow can fall from the sky without the Father’s knowing, nothing can happen to us without his oversight. We are safe in his hands. Indeed, not a hair of our head can fall without the Father paying attention.
As all things are utterly transparent to the Father, we can therefore live with utter transparency before others. We need not cower with what is whispered in our ears but can proclaim it from the rooftops. Some things are perceived only by our spirit, in the dark, in whispers, but those to whom this is given do not make an elite of themselves; they do not privilege themselves and set themselves apart as an exclusive enclave. We have no secrets that we keep from others, there is no occult knowledge among us, no special knowledge reserved for the elite. There are things hidden from our perception, true, but only because they cannot be conceived with the soulical mind, not because we do not publish them for all to see if the Spirit opens the eyes of the heart.
There is no human exclusivity. We live transparently before others in the sight of our Father, knowing that the thoughts and actions of others are also transparent to our Father. However, knowing this, we also know that we are accountable to the Father who loves us and invests so much in us. We fear the Father’s love, fearing ourselves—that we may betray the one who loves us. It is not so much that we fear the Father; it is more like we fear the situation that we are brought into by the fact of the Father’s love for us. It makes us very accountable, very responsible, for what we are given, for the privilege of knowing we live in such love. For the Father can destroy both body and soul in “Gehenna.”
Gehenna, or Gehinnom (derived from the “Valley of the Son of Hinnom”) refers to a place outside of ancient Jerusalem. It was a place where infants used to be offered up as a holocaust to false gods (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6) and came to associated with God’s judgment, the “Valley of Slaughter” (Jeremiah 7:31; 19:2-6). In Isaiah 66:24 it is probably the place where “their worm will never die nor their fire be put out,” which in 30:33 is described as a “deep and wide pyre, with fire and wood in plenty. YHWH’s breath, like a stream of brimstone, will set fire to it.”
It is not at all certain that Gehenna was a dump where dead bodies of criminals and animals were incinerated as later Christian commentaries reports, nor should we assume that it is identical to the everlasting “hell” created by the Christian imagination and adopted all too readily in the Koran. In Rabbinic Judaism Gehenna was conceived as a place of purgatory for the wicked. There they are tormented for up to a year. In the New Testament, when believers appear before Christ at his second advent (when they are resurrected), their works will be judged by fire (see for example, 1 Corinthians 3:13) before they can enjoy (or enter into the inheritance of) eternal life during the period of the kingdom (when all things are brought under the dominion or headship of Christ). (See also Hebrews 6:7-8.) This is probably that to which Jesus is referring.
Is Gehenna necessarily referring to our “afterlife”? Can it not also be the disciplinary judgment of God that begins now?
“Everyone therefore who will confess in me before human beings, I also will confess in him [or her] before my Father who is in the heavens; but whoever will deny me before human beings, I also will deny him [or her] before my Father who is in the heavens” (Matthew 10:32-33).
With Gehenna in view, Jesus warns his disciples that their judgment before the Father will depend on whether they publicly confess “in Jesus,” that is, that they are pledged to him. The New Jerusalem Bible has: “If anyone declares himself for me in the presence of human beings.” This is correct. If they deny Jesus—or, disown him (as in the NJB)—as Peter did, Jesus will disown them before the Father. “I do not know you. Depart from me.” Jesus does not say this those who do not yet believe but to his disciples, his believers. What is at issue is not the conversion of our heart but our public confession of it. Besides, those who do not yet believe are indeed judged by God but never does it say that they are judged by the “Father.” God is not Father to them. God is only the Father of the only Son and those who are God’s children by participation in the Son.
Certainly this judgment takes place when we appear before Christ in the resurrection. But does it not already take place now when Jesus, at the right hand of the Father, declares himself for us or disowns us? How the Father disciplines us as his children depends on the willingness to publicly declare ourselves for Jesus. The measure of that disciple is not outward, in the sense that our circumstances become more pleasant—they may not!—but inward in terms of our communion with the Triune God.
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth; it is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword. For I have come to set people at variance: son against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law; a person’s enemies will be the members of his own household. No one who prefers father or mother to me is worthy of me. No one who prefers son or daughter to me is worthy of me. Anyone who does not take his cross and follow in my footsteps is not worthy of me. Anyone who finds his soul will lose it; anyone who loses his soul for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:34-39).
This confession, of which baptism is the definitive act, is divisive. It separates one from solidarity with the idolatry of the world and makes it known where one stands—on the other side of the line with Jesus. Our loyalty to Jesus comes even before our loyalty to family, even to our parents and children. Whether we are able to take a public stand with respect to Jesus, or whether we let our family hold us back, is the test that shows the world where we truly stand. We are not worthy of Jesus if we cannot stand firm before others. If we prove too cowardly, we will be subject to Gehenna when Jesus disowns us before the Father. What a frightful thought. Again, speaking of this time, this is an inner judgment on our experience of communion with the Trinity. When we appear before Christ in the resurrection, it will be the whole of our life that will come into view for judgment. Where we stand in the end may be the measure of it; but it may not be, depending on how we ended it.
Jesus says we need to shoulder the cross and follow in his footsteps to Golgotha. Jesus declared himself for the Father before Pontius Pilate and it cost him his life. Can we do the same for him? If we are not willing to risk execution by the civil authorities or lynching by the “people,” we are not worthy. In this context, this is what it means to lose one’s soul. To find one’s soul means to save one’s skin. Yes, we survive outwardly, but only by sacrificing our inner communion with Christ and with the Father. Is this necessarily permanent? Ask Peter. He denied Christ, yet Christ restored him that he might strengthen his siblings.
“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will have a prophet’s reward; and anyone who welcomes an upright person because he is upright will have the reward of an upright person. If anyone gives so much as a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he [or she] is a disciple, then in truth I tell you, he [or she] will most certainly not go without his reward” (Matthew 10:40-42).
This is an amazing passage and gives the correct interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46 (compare also 18:5). Here Jesus is not talking about his disciples. He is talking about those people who are not yet his disciples, who are not yet believers. This is clear: to put it in modern terms, the person who welcomes you, or even gives you a cup of cold water to drink, is a non-Christian. This is all about how the non-Christian treats the believer.
The usual statement of the judgment is thus: if you believe in Jesus you are “saved” (forgiven). If you do not believe in Jesus you are condemned. Yet this passage says that if someone welcomes you as one sent out by Jesus (verse 40), if they welcome you as a prophet (verse 41a), if they welcome you as an upright person (verse 41b), or if they just give some refreshment to you simply because you are a disciple (follower) of Jesus, they are in fact doing these things to Jesus himself (just as in 25:34-40). Just as the opposite is the case (as in 25:41-46). When Saul was persecuting the believers he was actually persecuting Jesus. But here the emphasis is positive.
Jesus will reward them for how they treat us as if they that is how they are treating him. Not only that: whatever reward the prophet is entitled to, so are they; whatever reward the upright one is entitled to, so are they. Does this mean that they are entitled to whatever reward the disciple is entitled to they also are? Perhaps.
This defies the idea that those who do not yet believe in this life are damned for eternity. When will they receive their reward? According to Matthew 25:31-46 it is when Christ comes in glory; namely at the second advent, at the time of the universal manifestation of who he is. Those who persecuted the “least of these my sibings” (25:40), that is, “these little ones who believe into me” (18:6), will go away “into everlasting punishment.” Those who treated the little ones well will go “into everlasting life” (25:46). This is at the beginning of the age of the kingdom, when Christ brings everything under his rule. “Into everlasting life” therefore speaks of the enjoyment of this kingdom. If nothing else, these words broaden the expanse of God’s mercy considerably. Why have we been so quick to limit it?
In chapter 10 Jesus sends us out to proclaim the story of his coming (the Gospel). Some will welcome us and give us hospitality. Others will persecute us. Jesus ends this teaching section in Matthew’s gospel with encouraging words: people will welcome us, and whoever welcomes us will come under the mercy and grace of God, regardless of whether they become believers or not.