Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are rites of passage from “Egypt” to the “Promised Land,” not symbols of a Babylonian Captivity. Rites of passage are ceremonies or celebrations that occur when people leave one group to join another. So, which group is it that we leave and what group are we entering when celebrating Baptism and the Lord’s Supper?
Ultimately, baptism signifies death to our old humanity and new life in Jesus, the truly human and the personal ground of our new humanity. We died with Jesus and have been raised with him through our union by faith in the Spirit. As a result, we are to live no longer as slaves to sin, but as slaves to righteousness (See Romans 6). Whereas baptism refers to the beginning of the Christian life, the Lord’s Supper refers to the continuation and maturation of the Christian life. Having been cleansed (1 Peter 3:21) and baptized into Jesus’ body through the Spirit (See 1 Peter 3:21; 1 Corinthians 12:13), we find our nourishment as we feast upon Jesus through his Word in faith, recollecting his sacrificial work (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), participating in his presence (1 Corinthians 10:14-22), and anticipating his return (Luke 22:15-18; 1 Corinthians 11:26).
According to 1st Corinthians 10, the people of Israel were baptized into Moses at the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:2; see also Exodus 14). Moreover, they ate the Passover Meal in preparation for their exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12). Every baptism in the Church and every celebration of the Lord’s Supper reenacts the Church’s participation and ultimate fulfillment of this story in Jesus of Nazareth through whom all God’s people receive their eternal inheritance (Hebrews 11:39-40). Luke 22:7-23 depicts the Lord’s Supper, which Paul recounts in 1 Corinthians 11, and alludes to in chapter ten.
Paul warns the Corinthian Christians to refrain from sexual immorality and idolatry (chapter 10) and divisions in the body, including exclusion based on the “haves” and “have not’s” (chapter 11). He warns them in light of Israel’s fate in the wilderness (chapter 10:5) and in light of how some of them have already died because of partaking of the Table in an unworthy manner (chapter 11:29-30). Contrary to what some might have thought or took for granted, these rites were not mere symbols, but vital signs that expressed their life with God in Jesus, and with which no one should trifle. And yet, they did trifle. They failed to account for the spiritual significance of these sacred signs. Like Israel of old, they were in danger of heading back to spiritual slavery in Egypt, dying in the spiritual wasteland, or falling prey to spiritual exile in Babylon.
Sometimes, people have confused the rites of passage from Egypt to the Promised Land with entrance into other domains, such as sub-cultures or even nation states and empires. Throughout much of western church history, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were not simply rites of passage into Church fellowship, but entrance into the larger sub-culture, or at times, the whole society. The connection between the Church and State was, and still is in some places, a very synthetic or cohesive one. It entailed what many refer to as Christendom in which to be an Englishman or a German or an Italian or an American meant being a Christian, and vice versa. Going way back, once the Church received official recognition by the Roman Empire, it was no longer persecuted. Such official recognition led to the Holy Roman Empire in which the citizens of the empire and God’s kingdom were one. As a result, some claimed that the Church went from one persecution to another—namely, the “Babylonian Captivity” or “Egyptian Captivity,” however one wishes to express Empire.
Interestingly enough, Martin Luther spoke of the Babylonian Captivity of the Church in relation to the sacraments. In his work by that title, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” Luther addresses the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, rejects several of them, restores the cup to the laity in his emerging network of churches, dismisses Transubstantiation (while still affirming Christ’s real presence), and repudiates the idea that Christ is sacrificed anew in the Mass. Luther’s critique of sacramentalism was devastating to the priestly powers (sacerdotalism). Still, in the case of the Mass, Luther’s aim was not to destroy or undermine the priesthood, as the Luther scholar Roland Bainton argues. Bainton writes, “His concerns were always primarily religious and only incidentally ecclesiastical or sociological. His first insistence was that the sacrament of the mass must be not magical but mystical, not the performance of a rite but the experience of a presence.”
One cannot die for another, but one can in a sense be initiated for another into a Christian community. For that reason baptism rather than the Lord’s Supper is the sacrament which links the Church to society. It is the sociological sacrament. For the medieval community every child outside the ghetto was by birth a citizen and by baptism a Christian. Regardless of personal conviction the same persons constituted the state and the Church. An alliance of the two institutions was thus natural. Here was a basis for a Christian society. The greatness and the tragedy of Luther was that he could never relinquish either the individualism of the eucharistic cup or the corporateness of the baptismal font. He would have been a troubled spirit in a tranquil age.
For all Luther’s talk that the Church was held captive through faulty teachings and related practices pertaining to the sacraments, he did not make a clean break himself.
This is not to say that it is only adherents of infant baptism who can easily confuse Church and State, whether historically or presently. I have witnessed a great deal of believer baptism communities that tend to view the baptismal act as salutary and ultimately a rite of passage into the society at large, and not into a vibrant community of living faith. No matter if we are Roman Catholic, Lutheran or Baptist, we must guard against an ex opera operato orientation in which active faith is missing and salvation is mediated simply by the ceremonious act itself.
The sacraments or ordinances as the case may be can function as rites of passage into a vibrant and liberating community of living faith in Jesus. We must not discount their spiritual significance, nor confuse these rites with entrance into society at large or the State. When such disregard or confusion occurs, we go from celebrating our freedom in Christ Jesus to being enslaved by other lords—like “Babylonian Captivities” of old. When such disregard or confusion occurs, we move from finding our ultimate identities and imaginations enwrapped in Christ’s kingdom reality to this or that social club’s marketing pitch and brand, or nation state’s creed and flag. When that occurs, the church will require a revival in God’s Spirit—a true baptism by fire!
According to Gordon Fee, the Lord’s Supper was probably part of a common meal. The ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ were likely divided during this celebration, as it was “sociologically natural for the host to invite those of his/her own class to eat” in the dining room. Those not of their class (the less fortunate here in Corinth) ate in the courtyard. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), pages 533-34.
Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: A Mentor Book, 1977), page 107. On the devastating blow to the medieval church that resulted from this treatise, see pages 105-106 of Bainton.
Bainton, Here I Stand, page 110.
I do not have opportunity in this post given the limits of space to address the subject of baptismal regeneration by water, a doctrine I reject. Nonetheless, I maintain that there is a subtle connection between spiritual and physical reality, as Scripture conveys spiritual realities through physical means. Thus, while not effectual, water baptism and the Lord’s Supper participate in the spiritual realities to which they point: namely, God’s Trinitarian mystical (not magical) operations in the life of the believer and believing community through faith in God’s Word.