On 17 November 1957 I was baptised. The youngest of the twelve candidates, I was thirteen and a half years old. The baptisms took place in a large Baptist church in Zurich, for at the time my father was a professor of the International Baptist Theological Seminary situated in the village of Rüschlikon just along the lake. As is the custom in many Baptist churches, after my baptism I was welcomed into church membership and given a baptismal card on which was a text specially chosen for me by Werner Rosemann, the minister. The text was from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which in English reads: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom 14.8).
It was a complicated text to give to a thirteen-year-old. In Romans 14 Paul encourages the Christians at Rome to “welcome” one another in spite of their theological differences. In this context, as the Australian commentator Colin Kruse noted, on first reading the preceding verse where Paul states “We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves” (Rom 14.7) would appear to suggest that Christians should be considerate of one another, but as Paul continues on into Rom 14.8 we discover that Paul’s point is that Christians do not live or die for themselves, but for the Lord. “Paul”, wrote Colin Kruse, “is not interested here in our interconnectedness as human beings, but rather in our accountability to the Lord”. For as Paul declares, “We are the Lord’s”. The underlying Greek word kurios which is normally rendered as ‘lord’ might be better translated as ‘master’. We belong to him, we are accountable to him, we must put him first, whatever. For once Eugene Peterson is more accurate than most other translations:
Jesus lived and died and then died again so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other. (The Message)
Perhaps the one exception of the more regular translations is the Revised New Jerusalem Bible:
For none of us lives for ourselves and none of us died for ourselves; for if we are alive, we are alive for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; and so, alive or dead, we belong to the Lord.
The reason why my minister had chosen this text for me at my baptism was to make clear that from now on I belonged to Jesus. When we are baptised we are not just confessing that “we are Lord’s”, we are surrendering ourselves to the lordship of Jesus. With the passing of the years I have come to realise that this is a very ‘high’ view of baptism. Compared to many Baptists for whom believer’s baptism is just an act of obedience or an act of witness, this ‘high’ view of baptism sees believer’s baptism as the moment when we give ourselves to Jesus, whatever the future of life in the world may hold. It is also a very ‘high’ view of baptism compared to infant baptism, where the young child is declared to belong to God by dint of having Christian parents.
As a thirteen-year-old living in Zurich, in a way which would not be true of many people living beyond Zurich, I realised Paul’s words here in Rom 14.8 are very challenging indeed. For just a stone’s throw from the church where I was baptised was the spot on the river Limmat where Ulrich Zwingli, the great Swiss Reformer, drowned Anabaptist women on ducking stools and burnt the men on the bank. At that early age I became vividly aware of the cost of discipleship. As Jesus himself said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8.34,35). Through being baptized in Zurich Nonconformity was etched on my soul.
This week I celebrate that just over 65 years ago I ‘went through the waters’ of baptism. Along with the eleven other baptismal candidates we together declared “We are the Lord’s”. I am glad that on that day I committed myself to following Jesus.