"Baptism!" George Clooney's character in O Brother, Where Art Thou? says derisively after learning that his traveling companions have had their sins washed away, "You boys are dumber'n a bag of hammers." This line was especially funny to my friends and me because of our religious heritage.
I grew up in the Church of Christ, where standard doctrine is that if you want to go to heaven, you have to get wet. And not just a little wet: full immersion. If we were Greek we might tell the story of Achilles as a cautionary tale. We found this line hilarious, so much so that we bought one of our fellow disaffected CoC'ers a bag of hammers for her birthday. We made it a decorative thing -- they were some sort of cute little craft hammers -- and for all I know she still has it on her wall.
Peter tells his contrite crowd that to appease God they must be baptized, and we have no reason to suspect that he had anything but a good dunking in mind. Curiously, however, going to heaven when you die is neither mentioned nor clearly implied. It doesn't seem to be an issue. Peter, I'm sure, probably believed in some kind of conscious afterlife, so that's still on the table, but it doesn't seem to be what the whole baptism schtick is about, or at least it doesn't exhaust it.
My guess is that it served as a marker of being part of the eschatological community, a blood-on-the-doorway kind of thing. If the Day of the Lord is coming, and especially if you just killed the Messiah, you might want to get your affairs in order. But this isn't a get-out-of-hell-free card; it's making sure you end up on the right side when judgment rains down.
Moreover, they would almost certainly have heard this in a communal context: Israel's collective sins would be forgiven, and God would finally deliver them from exile. The promise, he tells them, "extends to your children and those who are far off..." which suggests that even people who didn't get wet -- dare I say it? -- would nevertheless be beneficiaries of this act of contrition.
We may or may not get more of this idea in Acts, but I think there's reason to believe that the early believers saw themselves as part of a divine plan to save everyone -- kind of like one of those Star Trek episodes where the crew of the Enterprise has to prove to some alien race that humans are worth keeping around. There's nothing new under the sun.
But what does this new community look like? Luke tells us, actually: "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." This, too, is a Church of Christ mainstay, only we seem to interpret as a fragment of a 1st-century church bulletin: "Apostles' teaching" is preaching, "fellowship" (the word in Greek has financial overtones) is the offering, "breaking of bread" is communion, and "the prayers" means that somebody (and by "somebody" we meant a man) prayed over each of these stages. There was an opening prayer, an offering prayer, a communion prayer, a prayer before (and sometimes after) the sermon, and a prayer to cover the awkwardness of no one coming up for the invitation, which may or may not have doubled as a closing prayer.
Things aren't quite like that at our church today, for some good reasons and some bad ones, and I'm obviously poking a little fun. The gist is that I grew up thinking that Acts 2:42 describes things that we have to do on Sunday in order to get church right. I think this misses the point, especially if we take a closer look at the rest of this chapter of Acts, which describes them sharing their resources (holding all things in common, in fact), especially food, and spending time together.
Where the New Testament describes the assembly, they're eating, sharing, and making decisions together. In fact, the only time one of the words commonly translated as "worship" gets used to describe the assembly, it's an unbeliever doing the worshiping (specifically, falling prostrate in response to the open prophesying of the gathered community).
In a way, Acts 2 is Luke's version of, or extended commentary on, the Great Commission: "...make disciples of all nations..." -- check -- "...baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit..." -- check -- "...and teaching them to do all I have commanded" -- check. Simply put, there's no way, textually, that we can make Acts 2:42 something different from 2:43-47.
To say they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching is to say that they were committed to doing the things the apostles taught them. These are things the apostles learned from Jesus, so we can see this latter part of Acts 2 not only as unpacking of of 2:42 but also as an earnest attempt by the post-Pentecost community to keep Jesus's commandments. It's not exhaustive, certainly, but it is instructive.
"Fellowship," then, means more than taking an offering; it means a deeper level of sharing than, say, 10% of one's income. This was not compulsory (my conservative friends can rest easy that this is not a defense of state socialism) but neither was it rugged individualism or mere "charity" (a very good word that has taken a lexicographical beating, but that's for another day).
The most basic sharing was the "breaking of bread." This has eucharistic overtones, of course, especially by the time Luke and Acts are being put into somewhat final form, but we cannot limit this to the eucharistic rite itself. They ate together, as a means of sharing each other's company but also a means of sharing their food. Luke will have more say about this in upcoming chapters, so I won't belabor the point, but: they shared their stuff.
Finally, "the prayers" included (without necessarily being limited to) the singing or chanting of the Psalms, something that would have been familiar to them from the synagogue tradition. A communal act. Common prayer. The analog in our day would not be merely the utterance of a prayer in front of the congregation by a male representative, but singing songs together. You know, since we don't chant psalms.
[Should we? I don't know. Some early Calvinist groups famously (or notoriously) forbade the singing of anything but psalms in their assemblies. In our day, it might be an interesting way to re-school ourselves in Biblical language, a check against the vapidity of Jesus-and-me evangelicalism. At any rate, I think those responsible for writing and selecting songs for the assembly should take much greater care in attending to the lyrics, to the words they are putting in the mouths of the worshiping community. If the answer to "What language can I borrow?" is "80s love songs," perhaps we're missing something. Not that I'm prejudiced; some of my best friends are 80s love songs.]
So: we are baptized into a particular kind of community with particular practices. It's less a metaphysical transaction than initiation into a people. I do enjoy the symbolism of baptism, of death and rebirth, of the cleansing waters. We're baptized "in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit," the meaning of which is not, if I'm honest, immediately apparent. It's a nod to the Trinity, sure, but I suspect we're missing something here, some original context that might well be unrecoverable. If the passage where this phrase occurs is an interpolation of a later baptismal formula, which I find plausible, then any "original meaning" was lost before the words got put into Jesus' mouth.
What I like to think it means, which I'm not sure is supportable by the text itself but is at least consistent with the ecclesiology of the book of Ephesians, is that we are baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that we are immersed in the divine Name, swimming in the eternal Logos, bouyed by the amniotic waters of the Spirit from before time began. That we breathe the very breath of God and become the Body of Christ.
And maybe -- just so they don't take themselves too seriously -- we should give the newly baptized a bag of hammers.