On 18 November 1957 I was baptized along with a dozen others. At the age of thirteen, I was the youngest baptismal candidate. In no way was I an adult, but I was a believer. I wanted to ‘nail my colours to the mast’ and publicly seal my vow of allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ. 64 years later to the day, I am still seeking to work out my baptismal vows.
At the time we were attending Salemskapelle, a large Baptist church in Zurich, for my father was a New Testament professor at an International Baptist Theological Seminary based in Rüschlikon, a lakeside village not far from Zurich. Salemskapelle is not far from the River Limmat, where the sixteenth century Swiss reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, had drowned hundreds of Anabaptists. I was very conscious of the call of Christ to take up my cross and follow him (Mark 8:34). I was conscious too that in being baptized I was joining a company of Christians, many of whom had suffered for their faith. Through being baptized in Zurich ‘Nonconformity’ was etched on my heart and mind.
As is the custom of many Baptist churches, afterwards each baptismal candidates was given a baptismal card with a specially chosen text. My text was Rom 14:8: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s”. I confess that at the time I did not find it the easiest of texts to understand, but over the years I have realized that here we have Christian baptism in a nutshell.
In consulting the commentaries, I like the suggestion that this verse may well have been composed independently of Paul’s writing his Letter to the Romans, for they do not totally fit the context. As I argued in my Manchester PhD thesis which was devoted to exploring ‘The Lordship-of Christ in the Corpus Paulinum’, Paul’s letters abound with early Christian hymns and confessions of faith. This affirmation may also be pre-Pauline.
Whatever, it seems to me that this affirmation states two different truths about Christian baptism. In the first place, in the drama of baptism we entrust ourselves into the safekeeping of Jesus. In baptism we identify ourselves with Jesus who died and rose for us. In the earlier words of Paul in Rom 6 2,3: “All of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death. 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, we too might walk in newness of life.” Or in the words of Rom 14.8: “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s”. From this moment on we no longer belong to ourselves, we belong to him. As the Anglican scholar Anthony Thiselton commented: “To accept Jesus as Lord means to belong to him, in trust and obedience while he, for his part, will care for those who belong to him”. For Paul’s first century readers this was a wonderfully reassuring thought. Whatever the future held – “whether hardship or distress of persecution or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril of sword” their future was secure – nothing “will separate us from the love of Christ” (Rom 8.35). It is also a wonderfully reassuring thought for Christians in the twenty-first century: we may not face the threat of “persecution” or “the sword”, but do face the immediate challenge of Covid and of course the ultimate challenge of death. Thank God those of us who have committed our lives to Christ in baptism, know that we are secure in him.
However, in the context of Rom 14, there is a second truth: as Rom 6.4 makes clear, there are ethical implications to baptism too. In baptism we do not simply confess that Jesus is Lord, we also resolve to make Jesus Lord of our lives. In baptism we declare our resolve to die to our old way of living and instead to live for Jesus. This is what Paul is referring to in Rom 6,4, where he writes of the baptized walking “in newness of life”. In the context of Rom 14, where the church was split on issues relating to food, drink and sabbath observance, to belong to Christ means that we need to respect the views of those who differ from us, recognizing that our allegiance is not to groups or parties within the church but rather to Christ who is Lord of the church and to whom we are all accountable. Although the issues which divide today’s Christians are very different from those which divided the church at Rome, Paul’s teaching is as relevant as ever. If we belong to Christ, then we need to live for him, and to live for him means that we need to love and respect all who have entrusted their lives to Jesus, however differently they may interpret the call of Jesus upon their lives. Now that I am retired and worshipping in an Anglican cathedral I increasingly see how important that is: Of course, there are many issues on which I as a Baptist see things differently from those with whom I now worship: but ultimately what counts is our common loyalty to Jesus Christ crucified and risen. In this regard my old baptismal text remains exceedingly relevant.