There's this curious phrase in 1st Peter, chapter 3, that I've always wondered about. The author is writing a long and sort of confusing sentence that begins with a reference to the spirits in prison that Jesus preached to, continues by reminding us of Noah and the Ark (and specifically God's patience during the building of the ark), and ends up with a reference to the eight people who were saved through water.
Then the author continues, "And baptism, which this pre-figured, now saves you…."
This week, I was looking around for help picking out the strands in that long and confusing sentence, trying to figure out what Jesus' preaching to the spirits and God's patience during the building of the Ark had to do with the saving properties of baptism. I have to admit that I didn't get much help with the strands, but I did get the clear message that "Of course, it is not baptism that saves."
It's hard to argue with this. Baptism does not save us. Jesus saves us.
But that's not what the author of 1st Peter says. He says, "Baptism, which this pre-figured, now saves you…."
So I've been thinking of the story of Noah all week, an imperfect metaphor for baptism if ever there was one, but still, I've been thinking of the story of Noah, and the idea that these eight people and this motley crew of animals were cooped up together in this boat, living together in close quarters and depending on each other for survival. And of course, if you have any imagination at all, you have to think that it's probably not all sweetness and light in there; there were probably days when they wished to be anywhere else than where they were. But salvation meant that they were given to each other; they were in this together.
That's the part of the Noah story I'm thinking about now, the part where salvation means that we are given to each other, that our lives depend on each other. Baptism means being joined to the death and resurrection of Christ, but it's not simply a vertical relationship; there are all of the untidy horizontal relationships too: with the people who love us and annoy us; the people who break our hearts and mend our hearts; the people who bear us up, and the people we can't bear; the people who fail us; the people whom we have failed. And being together with those people, somehow, that is part of how baptism saves us.
I'm really not trying to make the case that only in the church (or the Church) can we find salvation. But simply noticing that baptism and community go together, and that salvation has to do with our relationships with one another, and not just our relationship with God.