Baptism as burial (excerpts from my work on Paul's Spirituality)
For some reason, Paul thought baptism was a way of participating in the burial of Christ (Ro. 6:4; Col. 2:12). That idea is found nowhere else in the New Testament. Of course, almost all of the other writers mention baptism—Luke, Peter, John, Matthew, even the author of Hebrews. And, in most places baptism is referenced as a given, as if readers didn’t need a description of the practice or its significance. Indeed, we are left to infer the logistics (who? where? what? when? how?) and theology (why?) of the ritual. And, when it comes to Paul, things get more complicated. That’s because Paul used baptism—with all of its vagaries and mystifying qualities—in order to make a point about something else. In fact, in every case but one (Ro. 6:1-4), Paul referred to baptism when he was trying to get his converts to learn how to get along with each other (Gal 3:28; 1 Cor. 1:13-17; 12:13; 15:29; Col. 2:12; Eph. 4:5). In other words, Paul never tried to put on paper his theology of baptism; he never felt obliged to explain it. And yet, baptism was a very important touchstone for Paul—especially when he wanted to remind his converts of what they had already committed themselves to from the beginning.
If a man like Paul died in the big city he had to rely upon friends to make sure he received an honorable burial (cf. Matt. 27:57-60). That’s because most merchants and craftsmen who worked in the city left their hometowns in order to ply their trade (notice how often we hear of Paul’s associates in one city, then the next, e.g., Prisca and Aquila lived and worked in Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome). In fact, in most cities there were burial clubs, a volunteer society of poor working class members who promised to bury their dead friends with honors, even holding memorial services on the birthday of the deceased. Sometimes they would gather at the tomb of their dead friend to share a drink or even a memorial meal. To the Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians and Romans, the church probably sounded like another burial society, what with all of its talk about members being buried with Christ and sharing table in memorial. In fact, within a century early Christians began the practice of being buried together in shared tombs—having “died in Christ” they were therefore “buried with Christ.” Or, it could also be that to some of Paul’s contemporaries, baptism may have resembled certain pagan rituals that were performed in order to insure safe passage in the afterlife for the deceased. Some scholars suggest such influences from their religious past may explain the bizarre Corinthian practice of baptizing for the dead (1 Cor. 15:29). In that case, Paul’s converts had simply misunderstood the significance of the ritual, i.e., even though baptism was a rite of passage from death to life, Paul was talking about a different kind of death and life at a different time. Indeed, according to Paul, buried with Christ through baptism pictured both the death and new life of the convert in Christ before the grave. Some of the Corinthians thought they could help their friends after the grave by being baptized for them (like the Mormons do). But, when it came to his Corinthian converts, what concerned Paul more than the misapplied ritual was their confusion over what they died to and who they were to live for when they were buried with Christ.
Paul often used the rite of baptism to explain how the rights of an individual are sacrificed for the welfare of the church. We often speak of Christ’s death and resurrection as a theological starting place for understanding our spirituality. Indeed, most books on Paul’s spirituality skip over the significance of being buried with Christ. That’s because we tend to emphasize our personal experience as the locus of spiritual formation. So, individual preferences end up governing spiritual development. I determine what is vital and what is harmful; my experiences govern what is useful and what is irrelevant. In such an individualistic pursuit, church becomes a place (not a people!) where my spiritual palate is satisfied, where I get what I think I need to grow spiritually. Thus, my experience of the Spirit is determined by my choices, my desires, my expectations, my efforts. I really don’t need anyone else (especially if they try to tell me what to do—as if I don’t know what’s best for me). If a church doesn’t give me what I think I need, I’ll find another that will. But Paul would have us consider the implications of Christ’s burial through baptism as the initiatory experience of the Spirit-led life—something that must be developed within the community of faith. We received the Spirit from others, so we can’t walk in the Spirit alone. Indeed, Paul was convinced that none of us can be Christians by ourselves.