Harrowing Of Hell
November 6, 2022

Baptism – The Nature of the Soul as a Person’s Identity

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Today is All Saints’ Day, and it is a big day, because today is the day I get to introduce you to Ms. Ira Rose, Mr. Wes Eap, and Mr. Nasir David Mercy. They are the ones we are baptizing. And by this baptism we are saying they belong to this community and that we promise to raise them in the Christian lifestyle. And that is good, and we will do our best, won’t we?

To do this, however, we are going to have to be clever and current and confident in our capacity as Jesus followers because the children you see before you today, Wes, Ira, and Nasir will not be the same persons that you are promising to bring up in the Christian lifestyle in a year or 2 years or 5 years or 12 years or 22 years or 47 years or 72 years or 105 years, because that’s my prediction of how old they will live to be. But what do I know; it could be 110. My prophecies are always give or take five years.

The point is that these small people will change. Their bodies will completely change. Their cells will turn over and they will get bigger, they will talk, and they will walk (Ira already does).  Nothing about these three you see in front of you today will be the same in seven years. Nothing.

And so, if these persons will change into completely different beings, then how do we know who they are if they are going to be fundamentally different in 7 years?  

Christian baptism has an answer to that question, because baptism is pointing to the thing behind the thing. You’ve heard me say that before. Baptism is pointing to the permanently present, eternal beings of Wes, Nasir, and Ira, irrespective of what happens to their bodies. Baptism is about the unchanging reality of their identity, which is bound up not in their body, but rather is inextricably linked to their souls. Wes belongs to this community because of his soul. Ira belongs to this community because of her soul. Nasir belongs to this community because of his soul. Their identity is their soul, not their body. It is their unchanging souls, and this is what we are honoring, and promising to care for today.

I have been talking a lot lately about the soul; about how care for the soul is the responsibility and opportunity of Christianity community. Talking about the soul, however, is tricky. As German theologian Heinrich Zimmer wrote: “The best things cannot be talked about, the second-best things are almost always misunderstood, so we spent our time talking about the third best things the weather and sports.”

The soul is of the first category, and my preaching about the soul probably falls into the second category, and you’d probably prefer if I preach about the third category–the weather–because you can stay home and watch sports. And yet, as a learning church, we still seek to articulate the best things even at the risk being misunderstood.

So, onward in this conversation about the soul, but as we go remember one thing above all things, that Ira, Nasir, and Wes are souls that we love. Ira, Nasir, and Wes are souls that have been entrusted to us. Ira, Nasir, and Wes are deeply and eternally connected to God. Remember this as we now talk about their souls.

Today we do so within the context of Jesus’ conversation with the Sadducees. It is a conversation about where the soul resides, that is where it is located, which is a big question that a lot of people have given a lot of thought to for a very long period of time.

So, we return to the Gospel of Luke, and Jesus’ conversation with the Sadducees. They were thoughtful, clever, curious, and well educated men, who set before Jesus a puzzle about a woman, seven husbands, and who she is married to after she dies. To which Jesus references: Moses, and the bush, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. The bush he refers to is the burning bush from the Book of Exodus that Moses encounters in the desert after fleeing Egypt.

Moses sees this bush, and approaches it cautiously because his mind can’t comprehend the presence of a bush that is on fire, and yet, is not reduced to ash. That however is the least of his problems because suddenly, Moses finds himself in conversation with the bush itself. A voice from the bush says: “Go, Moses and set my people free.”

“Who are you?” Moses asks. “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” “You want me to set the Israelites free?” “Yes.” “They don’t like me,” Moses responds. To which God replies: “Tell them ‘I am’ sent you. I am who I am,” God says.

“How is that helpful?” I imagine Moses’ thinking. Will the people of Israel follow a God that they cannot see? People struggle with things they cannot see or engage through their senses; including God, including the soul. That was true back then and that is true today.

But here is the insight offered by theologian Anthony Quinton who wrote: “Because a soul is permanent and unchanging in its element or presence in a person’s conscious life, it does not vary independently and therefore is unobservable.” In other words, because the soul never changes,      because it is simple, singular, and complete, there is no way to see the variability of the soul, and therefore, discern its presence through change. As a result, we are unable to comprehend the soul through our senses.

God is the same way. Because God is immutable and unchangeable, God’s presence is undiscernible to our mind. We have nothing to input, to bind to, in a way that gives us capacity to identify God, or the soul, for that matter. Our minds cannot comprehend God or the soul, and so, the manner by which we engage them is through faith.

This is what baptism is, a service put forth in faith, to identify the thing behind the body of the baby that we dunk in water today…  their soul.  And we ask their parents in this service to name them: And they will say: “We name this soul Nasir David Mercy.” “We name this soul Wesley Eap.” “We name this soul Ira Rose.”And these names will travel with them their entire life, and I dare say, their eternal life, because that is who they are, marked as such by the power of the Holy Spirit, in baptism, as God’s own.

In baptism the name becomes the thing that attaches to the permanent, singular, simple, presence of the unchangeable soul. Ira, Nasir, and Wes will never be their identity because of their capacity to remember things, or because of what they know, or who they are related to, or what they look like, or what they do, or what they have, or where they live. They are who they are because, as C. S. Lewis wrote, “A soul is that which can say I am.” As in: “I am Wes.” “I am Ira.” “I am Nasir.”

Their identities will never be about their consciousness, or even their brains. For if their brains stop working (and I’m not just talking about adolescence) their souls will always be vibrant and fully intact; because unlike the body, which has zillions of moving parts, shifting and changing and dying at all times, the soul is simple, singular, permanent, and unchanging.

Theologian, Richard Neuhaus said it this way: “The soul is simple and singular, indivisible with no quantity.” And if it is singular, then it has a singular power, and that is a power that is continuously flowing through it, and it is named – love.

Another theologian, Nicolas Malebranche wrote: “The connection that links the body and soul is God,” and God is love. Love is simple and singular. Love resides in the soul. Love is the thing behind the thing.

In baptism the name becomes the thing that attaches to the permanent, singular, simple, presence of the unchangeable soul. It is by our name that we hold to our consistent identity across time, as did Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, so, too will Nasir, Wes, and Ira.

Their bodies will change. These children will change, completely. And that is as it should be, but what won’t change is our love for them, what won’t change is their always and eternal souls, that can say: “I am Nasir,” “I am Wes,” “I am Ira,” and “I am linked in love by my soul to the Great I AM.”