Pilgrims from Paradise:
In the last podcast, we talked about a very haunting and mystical encounter that Abraham, or rather Abram, as he is known at this particular point in time, has with God. As we recall, God has Abram take a heifer, a female goat, a ram, a turtle dove, and a pigeon, cut them in two, except for the birds, and place the parts on the ground opposite each other. God’s voice and the mysterious vision, the smoking oven, and burning torch moving between the bloody pieces of animals, make Abram powerfully aware of the presence of the living God.
In our study of the life of Abraham, remember, we are looking for parallels between the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, the promise that he will be father of many nations, and the fulfillment of the promise of salvation to those who put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We are allowing Abraham’s experience with God to inform us about the correct relationship between our faith, our works, and the actual realization of salvation. Does salvation come by faith alone, or is something more than faith needed? That is the basic question we are asking.
Looking at Abraham’s story will answer that question for us. As we journey with him, we will see how his encounter with God relates directly to our own. We have already identified one commonality. God’s fundamental and supreme desire for Abraham is the very same as it is for those who trust in Christ. He desires to draw all His human creatures into an intimate experience of oneness with Him. Then, at the end of the last podcast, I suggested that Abram’s other-worldly experience of severed animals, ovens and tortures corresponds to another experience in the Christian life. But I left you, my listeners, to ponder what that might be. So, what is it? To me, it seems the parallel experience is baptism.
Let’s think about it. Abraham, or Abram, responds to God’s promise in faith. He believes God. The very next thing God does is invite him into this profound experience of His divine presence. Here, at the very beginning of Abram’s journey toward his promised future, long before the events necessary for the accomplishing of that purpose have transpired, God paints for Abram a detailed picture of the promise fulfilled. The whos, whats, whens, wheres and even whys of Abram’s great destiny are presented to him as an accomplished fact.
Now, let’s contemplate baptism. Just as He did with Abram, God comes to us with a promise. This time it is the promise of eternal salvation. By faith, we say yes to the promise, or more correctly, we say yes to God. We give Him permission to count us as willing participants in His righteous existence. As soon as we do that, God asks us, just as He did Abram, to join Him in a powerful experience of His being, but rather than asking us to cut up animals, He asks us to present ourselves to the waters of baptism. We fall into that watery grave, and all that we were before dies. Emerging from the water as new creatures, God reveals to us, just as He did for Abram, our promise fulfilled.
But for Christians, that revelation of the promise accomplished far transcends the descriptions made to Abram. For how does God show us the promise of salvation completed? First, let us remind ourselves what salvation really is. It is not just God seeing us differently. It is not about God considering us legally okay in His sight, even though we are not really okay in His sight.
No, as we have said many times in these podcasts, salvation is a relationship of perfect oneness with God, and with all who truly love God. So that means, the question is, what does God do at our baptism that gives us a taste of this promised union fulfilled? He sends His Holy Spirit to take up residence in us. The third person of the Holy Trinity joins Himself to our beings. Perfect union with God becomes for us a perfect possibility.
I say possibility, because our situation at this point is just like Abram’s at the moment God reveals His presence and the details of Abram’s future. Just as for him, our promise is set before us in its fulfillment. In the coming of the spirit, we taste oneness with God, but the process of actually getting there, of actually willingly participating, day to day, in the righteous life of God, until our lives become genuinely melded with His, still lies before us.
The journey we face is just like the one we shall see Abraham traversing in the next few chapters of Genesis. We shall see that the passage leading to the fulfillment of our promised salvation is just like Abram’s, a pathway fraught with trials and moments of crisis capable of completely derailing our promised future. To surmount these obstacles, we shall see, requires much more than faith alone.
Now, I know that for many listeners, especially those in the Protestant Evangelical traditions, the analogy I have drawn between Abram’s experience and baptism may be difficult to digest. That is because those believers have been raised to understand baptism, primarily, as just an outward public testimony of a person’s inner decision to believe in Christ. That doesn’t seem to compare at all with Abram’s mysterious and ethereal meeting with the Lord. But for Orthodox Christians, it is not hard to see the relationship between the two.
For Orthodox Christians know what Christians have known since the days of the apostles. In baptism we plunge right into God’s righteous existence. In baptism we meet Him in a manner that far surpasses Abram’s vision of God’s presence. As I have implied already, in Orthodox baptism, together with Chrismation, and the sacramental anointing with oil that goes hand in hand with it, the Holy Spirit of God enters into the body, mind and spirit of the believer in Christ. God joins Himself to the life of the one who by faith receives Him.
It is important to realize that this is what all Christians believed about baptism up until the Protestant reformation. Baptism was understood to be essential to the Christian life, an act which is absolutely necessary for salvation. That is because it is through baptism that the event which makes a person a Christian, the receiving of the Holy Spirit, occurs. Just believing in Christ isn’t enough. The scriptures are clear on that. Remember St. Peter’s admonition to those who desired salvation on the day of Pentecost? He was quite up front about it. He told them they had to repent, be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit. That’s what we read in Acts 2:38.
What is more, when Jesus sends the apostles into the world, He does not command them to make new disciples just by preaching to them and getting them to profess faith in them. No, He says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).” Why did He want His disciples to baptize? It is because that is the activity the members of the Holy Trinity have chosen to use as Their instrument for uniting human beings with Themselves.
But today we live in an age when televangelists get people saved by praying the sinner’s prayer alone in the comfort of their own living rooms. To follow up those often emotionally emotionally charged altar calls by telling their listeners, “Of course, you can’t really consider yourself a Christian until you go get baptized,” well, that would be a very anticlimactic and probably donation-reducing complication. Relatedly, there are millions of people today who practice a sort of do-it-yourself Christianity. They have nothing to do, as they are fond of saying, with organized Christianity. So for them, getting baptized would likely require an involvement with some other Christians that they would just as soon avoid.
Even Christians from Western churches that have traditionally upheld the necessity of baptism have fallen prey to this modern attitude. A while back, I was thoroughly astonished by something I heard a Baptist friend of mine say. He was talking to someone on the phone about a discussion he had had with me a few days before. Not knowing I was in earshot, he lamented to the person on the other end, “Boy, I’m worried about Matthew. Do you know the Orthodox believe that baptism is necessary for salvation?” Now, as I said, the necessity of baptism is something that all Christians took for granted until the reformation. Of course, any time I talk about this, someone brings up the matter of the thief who was crucified next to Jesus. The Lord told the thief that he would, that day, be with Him in Paradise. “He wasn’t baptized,” someone will insist, “and he was certainly saved.” No, he was not baptized, and he was most certainly saved. But the thief is an exceptional case, and as much as we love to do it, we cannot take the exceptional cases and make them the rule.
The truth is, the lax attitude toward baptism shared by so many in the Christian West, really has its foundation in the fact that for Western Christians, faith has become something that happens in our heads. We think about God, we study about God, we draw conclusions about God, and we apply what we have decided about God to our lives. If we want to know God better, we join another bible study. What has been lost in the West, is the simplest, most essential truth, of Christianity. God desires us to become active participants in His life. Let’s put it like this: God wants us to dance with Him, not just think about Him.
I always feel up against it when I talk about these matters, especially with those in the Protestant Evangelical camp. I lived most of my life in that world, and I know these folks do see themselves as dancing with God. That is, they see themselves as experiencing the living presence of God. I used to lead the worship music in Charismatic meetings on many an occasion. I excitedly proclaimed to those present, “Don’t you just feel the presence of God here?” Sometimes I am sure He was there, but when I began to study Eastern Orthodoxy, and the life and experience of the early Church, I soon came to recognize that what my contemporary Christian counterparts thought of as the presence of God, was not what the ancient Church and the Christian East know it to be.
What I came to understand was that in my Western experience, my encounter with the presence of God was usually an emotional response to some wonderful thought about God, about His love for me, or His mercy, or His goodness. I would think about that in my mind, and a warm feeling would rise up inside me. I interpreted that feeling as the presence of God. Or sometimes, what I called the presence of God was my very vivid and tangible awareness of the total emotional energy in some Christian meeting—the words to the worship songs, the mood that the worship leaders carefully stirred up in those present—these contributed to everyone in the room having the same strong emotional response.
Put all that energy together, and you have something powerful. It is not hard to believe that it is God. But when I talk about knowing the living presence of God as an Orthodox Christian, I am talking about an experience that is not primarily mental or emotional. “Well, if it is not mental or emotional, what else could it be?” I hear people asking. The best way I can explain the difference, is to use the imagery I have already employed—that of a dance. We will investigate that simile and what it has to tell us about how God fulfills His promises to Abraham, and to us, next time.