Water of death – water of life

Water of death – water of life

Thirteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Gordian Marshall preaches on Paul’s words on the waters of baptism.

St Paul never met Jesus — at least not before Jesus died. He makes a point of saying that. It’s almost a boast. His faith, his life, is not based on facts or information about what Jesus used to do or used to be like. His whole being is filled by his present experience of the risen Jesus living in him. He presents it as if he himself had been brought to life.

It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Gal 2:20)

But Paul is not unrealistic. He is not carried away with any romantic notions that Christ’s life in him will make everything rosy. How could he be? He has a long list of things that have gone wrong for him: arrest, imprisonment, shipwreck — you name it, it has happened to Paul!

And that is why he makes such a close link between the death of Jesus and his resurrection. It is not just that one happened after the other. Paul’s conviction is that if you want to share in one you have to be involved in both. Paul uses the symbol of baptism as a way of highlighting both of these elements:

when we were baptised in Christ Jesus we were baptised into his death, ? so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life.

Baptism, like the other sacraments in Christian tradition, involves symbolism. A very simple explanation of sacraments is the belief that through the use of these symbols we become part of what the symbols are pointing to. Now the principal symbol in baptism is water, and water is particularly appropriate for what Paul is talking about. It points in two different directions.

Think first of the damage water can do, from the mess of a burst pipe to the death and destruction caused by floods or storms at sea. It can be a symbol of all that goes wrong in life, even to apparently senseless death. But at the same time water can be a symbol of life. From something as simple as forgetting to water plants to the horrific pictures of the effects of drought across the world, we can see how essential water is for life.

Water can take life and water can give life. As a symbol water can point to death and it can point to life. That is why it is so apt for what Paul is trying to express. The symbol of water in baptism brings us to share in the death and risen life of Jesus. We become part of both. In fact, in Paul’s terms, we become part of Christ, part of Christ’s body through which his death and resurrection are visible and tangible in today’s world.

This notion of the body of Christ was very important for Paul. He didn’t see the transformation that he talked about as being simply a personal matter between himself and God. For him the body of Christ was made up of all the baptised. All maintained their individual identity but all united in being the sacrament, the effective symbol of the Jesus who, Paul believed, had transformed his life.

All the members of the body have their failings and, perhaps even more importantly, they are all liable to death. But through their human frailty they are effective symbols of the death of Jesus to which they are joined by their baptism. But equally they all show something of the new life in which Paul took such delight. That too comes through their baptism. Failure and success go hand in hand, just like death and resurrection, and the baptismal water of death and water of life.

Very often it is possible to see only the failures. Any successes remain hidden, at least from our own eyes Sometimes others may see them, just as we may sometimes see that spark of the new life in others which they cannot recognise in themselves.

Paul’s plea in this letter to the people of Rome is to believe in the life of Christ in ourselves. We believe, he says, that by our baptism we have died with Christ and, in our frailties, we can say we have ample evidence of that. But that should give us confidence that the same baptism gives us a life that cannot be overcome.

Readings: 2 Kgs 4:8-11,14-16 | Rom 6:3-4,8-11 | Matt 10:37-42

fr. Gordian Marshall was the superior of the Dominican community in Glasgow for many years, and a member of the Editorial Board of He died on 14th December 2007. May he rest in peace.