July 6, 2007
“Raise your right hand and repeat after me, ‘I (state your name) do solemnly swear…’”
A chorus of voices echoed the words of the mayor as over a hundred police officers, civilian employees, and volunteers of the San Ramon, California, Police Department were sworn in. The carefully choreographed ceremony took place in a middle school gymnasium packed with proud family members, local dignitaries, and well-wishers from the community. The official “swearing of the oath” provided a dramatic finale to the lengthy program which included a grand processional by all those in uniform, a presentation of the colors, speeches from the mayor and the chief of police, and the awarding of badges and service pins to all those being sworn-in. It was a great deal of pomp and circumstance for a small-town police force, but the pageantry was a long-anticipated kick-off to a new era of law enforcement for this bedroom community located in the East Bay Area of San Francisco.
So why was it necessary to go through all the trouble and expense of holding such a swearing-in ceremony? Were not these dedicated officers already at work patrolling the streets of the city? Had not the civilian staff and volunteer force already been hard at work serving their community, some of them for many years? Yes, all that is true. But this ceremony represented much more than just a glitzy program and another opportunity for politicians to spew profundity.
For the last twenty three years the City of San Ramon has contracted with the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office for police services. It was an arrangement which worked fairly well until the town began a substantial growth spurt in recent years. As of the first of this month the community now has its very own, first ever, dedicated police department. Such a milestone needed to be celebrated and those who comprise this foundational force of servant-hearted souls needed to be given the opportunity to pledge their faithfulness to the community, the state, and the country. A swearing-in ceremony allows the participants to publicly declare their commitment to serve. It is a morale-boosting, loyalty-igniting, unity-building, faithfulness-generating, and support-inducing celebration which is well worth the hassle of donning dress uniforms, sitting through political speeches, and enduring all the tradition and formality of such a solemn occasion.
As a volunteer chaplain for the community I was honored to participate in this auspicious event. It did get me wondering, however, why other occasions just as momentous if not more so, do not always engender the same amount of desire for ceremony.
Take, for instance, marriage. If ever there was a cause for a “swearing-in ceremony,” a solemn, public declaration of commitment, certainly this would be it. Of course modern weddings have carried pageantry to the utmost extreme giving rise to an entire industry surrounding what used to be a simple, yet profoundly meaningful event. I can certainly understand why many couples, wishing to avoid the anxiety and incredible expense involved, would opt out of any ceremony whatsoever choosing instead to save their money toward the purchase of a home or other more practical pursuit. Yet those who so choose miss out on the many benefits which come from beginning their life together with a public exchange of vows.
Declaring one’s faithfulness and undying commitment in front of many witnesses, including God Almighty, has a way of preventing a hasty exit from a relationship at the slightest sign of turbulence. There’s something about saying “I do,” declaring, “’till death do us part,” exchanging rings, and signing on the dotted line that makes one think long and hard about dissolving such a sacred union. The Church has long frowned upon those who would cohabitate before the official wedding ceremony, and rightly so. Such behavior diminishes the wedding vows, decreases the level of commitment between partners, and increases the likelihood of failure in a relationship. That which is easy to come by is often not highly regarded.
So tell me, if we can make such a big deal out of two lives coming together to form one or place such a high regard on a swearing-in ceremony for police officers and community servants, why do we approach the new birth of a Christian believer with as little pageantry as possible? Is this not the most important commitment an individual could ever make? If so, why have we relegated the “swearing-in ceremony” to an option, a take-it-or-leave-it event depending upon whatever is most convenient for the new believer? I’m speaking, of course, of the Biblically commanded, Christ demonstrated, apostolically practiced ceremony of baptism.
Okay, I’m certainly aware that ever since the days of Martin Luther the prevailing cry of the Church has been, “Salvation by faith alone!” And I am certainly not suggesting that any outward ceremony can save us from our sin. I am, however, endeavoring to point out that over the centuries since Luther we have perhaps swung the pendulum of faith vs. works in the opposite extreme. By pushing the actual “swearing-in ceremony” into the optional background, no matter how well-intentioned our motives, we have done new believers a terrible disservice. Rather than providing them with an opportunity to publicly swear their allegiance to a new Sovereign, we have made coming to Christ as easy as reciting a few short sentences or offering a silent prayer.
Again, I’m not suggesting that those who have accepted Christ through repeating the “sinner’s prayer” are not truly converted. Conversion is, after all, a matter of the heart, and only God knows what has truly taken place in our hearts. I’m just wondering what has happened to the swearing-in ceremony.
In Biblical times all covenants were initiated by an oath swearing ceremony usually involving the death of an animal by cutting it in two, lengthwise. The parties of the covenant would stand facing each other on either side of the sacrifice. They would exchange their outer coverings symbolizing the putting on of each other’s identity. They would exchange weapons swearing to defend each other. They would declare all their earthly belongings stating that it was all now mutual property. Then they would walk in a figure-eight pattern through the halves of the animal pointing toward heaven saying, “May it be done unto me…” and then pointing down toward the sacrificial animal saying, “as it was done unto this animal if I should prove unfaithful to this covenant.”
They would often take a knife or flint stone and make a cut in their hands. Then they would clasp their hands together to symbolize that their blood was intermingled. Reaching down to the ground they would take some dirt and rub it into the cut on their hands to make sure a scar would remain and serve as a reminder that a covenant had been made between them. They would sit down to a covenant meal where they would serve each other bread and drink wine from the same cup to symbolize that their bodies and blood were now one.
This is exactly what our Lord did when He initiated the Lord’s Supper on the night before He was crucified. The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ – 1Cor. 11:23-25. His death on the cross represented the slaughter of the covenant sacrifice, and as our covenant partner He forever bears the scars of the covenant upon His hands. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. – He. 7:27. The Apostle Paul refers to this “swearing-in ceremony” and equates Christ with the sacrificial animal. Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? – Ro. 6:3.
In baptism, the immersion in water of a believer in Christ, we have the dramatic portrayal of a covenant oath-swearing ceremony where we literally pass through the death of the sacrificial animal (Christ). In so doing we are pledging our allegiance to Christ and swearing our undying faithfulness to Him. It is a public demonstration of the sincerity of our faith. It is a morale-boosting, loyalty-igniting, unity-building, faithfulness-generating, and support-inducing celebration of our commitment to serve the Lord. It is a dynamic demonstration depicting the death, burial, and resurrection of a new believer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! – 2Cor.5:17. It is a beautiful portrait of a believer’s union with Christ. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. – Ro. 6:4. And every time we participate in the Lord’s Supper it is a reminder of our Lord’s sacrifice and the day when we swore the oath of faithfulness to Him.
So why would we downplay the importance of our swearing-in ceremony, and relegate the Lord’s Supper to a once-a-quarter event (if we happen to have the time)? Given the lack of commitment emanating from so many Christians today I wonder if we have propagated a lackluster faith by declaring baptism to be totally unnecessary? We have made becoming a Christian a matter of joining a church rather than enlisting in an army; signing up for a one hour, once a week lesson in life rather than a 24/7 adventure in life transformation; supporting others to do the work of the ministry rather than discovering our own ministry gifts and putting them into practice; looking forward to an eternity in heaven rather than faithfully enduring hard work, trials, rejection, self-denial, and persecution in this life; accepting a Savior rather than surrendering to a Lord. That which is easy to come by is often not highly regarded.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and Christian martyr, puts it like this: “The cross is laid on every Christian…As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This sounds to me like an invitation to a swearing-in ceremony.
Bill, a duly-sworn child of God