Christ himself died once and for all sins, the upright for the sake of the guilty, to lead us to God. In the body he was put to death, in the spirit he was raised to life, and, in the spirit, he went to preach to the spirits in prison. They refused to believe long ago, while God patiently waited to receive them, in Noah's time when the ark was being built. In it only a few, that is eight souls, were saved through water. It is the baptism corresponding to this water which saves you now—not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience given to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has entered heaven and is at God's right hand, with angels, ruling forces and powers subject to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22, NJB)
Have you ever read the Bible and had the experience of coming across something there that you'd never noticed before, and which made you sit up and say "huh!"—something which completely rocked how you understood your faith? Growing up as a Protestant, I was encouraged to read the Bible every day. In Sunday School, we were taught to memorise verses from the Bible—most of which I can still recite, or at least paraphrase (the multiplicity of English translations makes it hard to get the exact wording right). When I was 15, I undertook to read the whole Bible from cover to cover, even, just so I could say that I had done so. When I went to Bible college, I decided to do so again in an effort to really figure out what was true about Christianity—since part of my going to Bible college, or at least the particular school I went to, was an attempt to discern which "brand" of Christianity was the true one. This particular journey through Scripture was the one that really spun me around, as I ran into several passages that, as above, made me sit up and say "huh!"
The second reading from yesterday's Mass was perhaps the most staggering example of such a passage. Most of the others (like, say, John 6) I'd read and tried to work out an interpretation that still jived with my old theological views, but when I got to the passage that said "baptism...saves you now", I had no rationalisation at hand to reinterpret the plain meaning of the text for my Protestant theology that taught me that baptism was just a symbolic act expressing our commitment to Jesus, and nothing more. Despite the fact that I'd read the entire Bible before (well, except for those "Catholic" books, of course), this passage from 1 Peter hit me with such force that it seemed as if I'd never read that verse before! Rocked by the straight-forward, plain sense of this verse, I had no choice but to entirely rethink my beliefs about baptism, and to study that issue further. And, of course, if my beliefs on baptism could be so at odds with the clear teaching of Scripture, what else was I wrong about, that I'd just taken for granted? These questions were the very initial steps on my journey that led a little over three years later into the Catholic Church.
Of course, 1 Peter 3:21 isn't the only passage in Scripture to teach about the saving efficacy of baptism. Jesus Himself teaches that unless one is born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God (cf. John 3:3-5), a sentiment echoed very closely by St. Paul in Titus 3:5, when he writes, "it was not because of any upright actions we had done ourselves; it was for no reason except his own faithful love that he saved us, by means of the cleansing water of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit."
Many years after the events of that night where I truly saw 1 Peter 3:21 for the first time, I was sitting at the mechanic's waiting for some work to be done on my car, and writing a blog post, when an elderly woman, herself waiting for her car to be ready, asked me what I was doing. "Writing about theology," I answered her. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "You must be a Christian!" "Yes, I am," I answered. "I'm a Catholic." She was rather taken aback, and said that she was a Baptist (ironically), and that she didn't think that Catholics were Christians because of all their man-made traditions. I told her that I believed that nothing that Catholics believe is contrary to anything in Scripture, and that Scripture at least implicitly teaches the Catholic teachings. She immediately put forth the belief that baptism is necessary for salvation as proof that the Church teaches contrary to the Bible. Smiling, I showed her 1 Peter 3:18-22, and that it plainly says that Baptism saves us. "I've never seen that verse before!" she said, and asserted that it must only be in our "Catholic Bibles." I asked her what translation she preferred, and when she said (as expected) the King James Bible, I loaded it up on my laptop, and showed it to her. We were unable to continue our conversation that day, as her car was ready to be picked up (much to her relief, it seemed), but I'm sure it gave her much to think about.
It certainly reminded me that no matter how well we think we know God's Word, there's always more that He can teach us if we're open to listening, and re-examining what you thought you knew.
A few years back, I wrote a series of articles examining the Church's teachings on the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Each Tuesday of this Lent, starting tomorrow, I'll be posting a similar series on the Sacrament of Baptism. Stay tuned!