Christianity demands a total change of heart on the part of the believer. This has been always a difficult task for the believer to accomplish. Whenever it happens, there might be on the other hand a group of people who may look at the believer as a pretender or just a traitor.
This is what happened to the community of early Christians. The Jewish authority felt let down by all those who decided to follow the new teaching of Christ. They went as far as decreeing that those who converted to Christ were traitors and must be expelled from their families and were no longer members of the people of Israel.
Those who converted to Christ knew this and they had a very strong decision to take, either to be counted for Christ or against him. Many of them decided to become Christians and this triggered off a long history of martyrdom in the history of the early church.
One reason which may explain the kind of ordeals that the Christians went through in the first centuries of Christianity is the nature of baptism that they undertook. Baptism was a common rite at the time of Jesus. Those who accepted the teachings of the Baptist, for instance, were baptised.
So too were pagans who embraced the Jewish religion and even those who became members of a religious sect. It was meant to signify the radical transformation that had taken place in the lives of those people.
It is that radical transformation which gives the true meaning to Christian baptism. Take for instance a person who has led an intemperate life and who never thought about God.
One day he or she decides to follow Christ. What will be his or her greater desire? It won’t be simply to forget the past, but to break away from all his or her wrongs and to look at the future with a new heart.
This is exactly what should be signified and achieved through baptism. That feeling of being born anew must be there. That painful yet interesting experience of the death of the ‘old one’ in us and the birth of the ‘new one’ in the same person.
In early Christian times, the one who was baptised was totally immersed in water signifying that the old life was washed away and buried deep in the water. The one emerging from the water was a new person, hence the significance of the new name.
Paul tells us that when we were baptised we went into the tomb with Christ and joined him in death, so that as he was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life.
It is true therefore that this experience of dying and of being born anew in Christ should be the characteristic mark of every Christian. It is when we fail to experience this that our Christianity fails to make the difference in our every day life.
Because Christ was the first to pass from death to life, and by his death he destroyed sin and death, every Christian must experience a certain kind of death to sin and to the old life in order to share in the joy of resurrection and of the new life.
In concrete terms, a Christian shall experience this in his or her daily small sacrifices, tolerance, and a continuous formation of a Christian conscience in which he or she follows the footprints of Christ.
When talking of our Christian mission, Jesus reminds us of the necessary sacrifice that it entails. He insists on the necessity of following him totally even to the point of death.
He desires the total commitment of the disciple. Here Jesus does not call for the abandonment of natural family relationships; he demands rather that these should not interfere with or weaken the bond between the disciple and Christ.
One who does not make a whole-hearted decision in favour of Jesus is not worthy of him and so does not measure up to what is required of a true disciple.
On our part as Christians in general, he demands of us the courage to give up all that is not compatible with our Christian way of life. Then we shall become like Christ and he shall identify himself with us.