Take Me To The River

I know why I got baptized when I was a kid. I belonged to a faith community that valued baptism as part of a person’s assurance of salvation. They wouldn’t really tell you that to your face, mind you, but essentially that’s what they believed. The unspoken theology behind their baptismal fervor told the true story. The way I understood it, you might verbally give your heart to Jesus, but it wasn’t truly his until you got dunked. I was officially “saved” when I was six, and I was baptized when I was ten. I think that I was cut some slack because I was a child, and there was this theological leap that people made to “allow” children into heaven---at least in the fundamentalist circles where I spent my formative years. They didn’t have the same rules for everyone, but kids seemed to receive more grace than other people. Funny. A kid who was constantly surrounded by God-talk and who by the age of six had heard the plan of salvation about a hundred times was given a free pass, but some poor dude in the depths of the Brazilian rain forest who had never heard of Jesus was headed straight to hell. Ah, blessed paradox.
At any rate, I decided at age ten that it was time for me to be baptized, and so I told my parents. To their credit, they never really pressured me. I guess that due to the prevalence of the whole “kids eat free in heaven” theology, they thought I was covered in the event of accident, or something more sinister....so why worry? Everyone was happy about my decision and so the whole thing was scheduled for some Sunday morning when the church where we happened to be members at the time did that sort of thing en masse. I don’t remember a whole lot about any kind of preparation leading up to my baptism. I imagine that there was some, but it doesn’t stick out in my mind. What I do recall is having to wear this huge baptismal robe that was about three sizes too big, and that the water was pretty warm when I stepped into the baptismal in front of God and everyone. The robe floated up on me and made me feel fairly uncomfortable, but the whole process was blessedly short. I was “buried” with Christ according to the pastor, who dunked me under the water with his hands on the back of my neck and in front of my nose. Then I was “raised” to new life as he brought me up out of the tank. Some people said “Amen” out in the congregation, and I stumbled out of the baptismal and back to the dressing rooms where my clothes awaited me.  
I didn’t feel any different, even though I imagined that I would. Not much had really changed about my life, or my circumstances. I still felt like sinning, which I thought would at least be a bit abated. Other than wet hair, a hug from my mother and a certificate that resides now in one of my scrapbooks----there wasn’t a single thing about my being baptized that really made an impact on me. But there was something about it that I carried with me, some part of the act of being baptized that seemed to make sense to me, that seemed right and true.
Although not much changed after my baptism, I’ve always remembered it The parts I don’t remember, my parents have helped me fill in so that the act itself is now part of my history, part of who I am and what I believe about myself. I know now that the “right and true” feeling that I experienced was rooted in my own innate understanding that something inside of me was calling out to God---deep calling deep, if you will. I couldn’t put into words why I wanted to be baptized...I just did.
This week's lectionary reading features the account of Jesus' baptism from Mark's Gospel.  The example of Jesus’ baptism gives me something I can hold on to when I struggle with understanding this whole mystery. You see, Jesus came to be baptized when he really didn’t have to be. John the Baptist was proclaiming the coming Messiah and was baptizing Jews who wanted to prepare themselves for his coming by ensuring that they had been truly purified. Up to that point baptism was almost always exclusively performed by Gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism. Proselyte baptism was self-baptism--what John was suggesting was something different, something that required submission and most of all repentance.  The Greek word that is used for "repentance" in Mark's Gospel is "metanoia," which essentially means "to change one's mind, circumstances or lifestyle."  It's used here in the place of the Hebrew word for repentance, which is "sub."  The Hebrew word means "to turn around."  John's baptism involved public confession of sin, repentance and then baptism.  If we believe that Jesus was fully divine and fully human, then confession of sin and repentance would not really have been part of his motivation.  There was, in fact, much more to Jesus' baptism.  
For Jesus the act of being baptized was not about repentance, it was about dedication. He was dedicating himself to follow the will of God for his life---wherever God's will would take him. So there is the first thing about Jesus’ baptism---it was an act of submission.
Futher, Jesus came to be baptized, according to Matthew, at Bethabara, which means house of crossing--they believed that here the children of Israel entered the Promised land. This is important. His baptism was connected with the history of his people---but more specifically with a place in history where incredible change took place and hope was born in the collective heart of the Hebrew people, who had been consecrated by God to be a blessing to all nations.  To that end, John was baptizing both Jews and Gentiles, preparing them for the baptism of the Spirit that would eventually come through the Christ.  When Jesus submitted himself to John's baptism he fully identified with the people God had sent him to save.  
Then Jesus was baptized by water--the earthly sign and symbol, but after he came up out of the water, his baptism by the Spirit took place. It is so significant that the Holy Spirit took the form of a dove---a symbol of hope and renewal for the Hebrew people (remember the Noah story). What becomes obvious is that Jesus baptism is an act of preparation as well----preparation for the whole world to receive Him as Savior and Lord. It was a essentially a consecration---a setting apart of Jesus for greater things, and for more difficult things. Almost immediately after this wonderful scene, Jesus is driven into the desert by the Spirit of God and there he is tempted...
The same voice that spoke to Jesus on the day of his baptism, speaks to us still, setting us apart, and preparing us for service. In the words of Isaiah, “the waters will not overwhelm you, when you pass through fire you will not be burned.” This is the deeper meaning of baptism---to know that we are consecrated, prepared for whatever might come our way, made ready to do good works, to pursue justice, act with mercy and walk humbly before our God.  Our baptism matters because we are who God says we are, and our baptism fully identifies us as part of Christ's body, heirs to a promise that is far greater than anything we could ever imagine.  But in the end, baptism is only a word until it is revealed through the power of the Holy Spirit in the unfolding story of our lives, lived together in community with those whom we share our baptism.  
There are many things that grieve me when I ponder where the Church is at the present and where it ought to be going forward.  I am especially grieved, however, by the way the Church has lost its understanding of baptism and its deeper meaning for all who call themselves followers of Jesus.  Baptism has become a weapon and means for division for so many churches and for far too many denominations.  Believers who have been baptized as infants might be denied fellowship within certain communities of faith until they have been baptized "properly."  Some denominations and churches assert that a person is not truly "saved" until they have been baptized by immersion in their particular church.  The prohibitions and variations go on and on.  What began as a means of uniting believers in the mystery of our Christian faith has now become yet another way that we divide and dissent.  
The Church that is emerging into the 21st century will need to take seriously Paul's assertion that there is "One Lord, one faith and one baptism... One God and Father of all."  When our communities of faith begin to recognize one another's baptism in the spirit of this unity, who knows.... we could very well witness the heavens themselves being ripped apart, the Spirit of the Living God hovering over us like a mother bird, and the gentle words of God whispering in our ears, "These are my beloved...in whom I am well pleased."  


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