"All My Sins Have Been Worshed Away!" Thoughts on Baptism
It's the first century, and you are gathered with your family and some of your close friends in a grotto below the street of the town where you live. You are a Christian, a follower of the Way of Jesus. And you are about to be baptized.
The place you are gathered is a cistern to catch rain water. Everyone seems nervous and solemn. A man standing near the cistern, beckons each of you forward. You take off the robe you are wearing and step naked into the water. The man proclaims that you are "buried with Christ in his death," and that "you are raised to new life in his resurrection." And he does this "In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit."
As you emerge you are given a white robe and the man anoints you liberally with oil. Above you on the street, you can hear the sounds of your town waking up. A rooster crows and a cart rumbles past. If anyone on that street above knew you were here, they might very well try to do you harm. Your heart beats a little faster at the thought of this, but then you look down at the white robe, and smell the strong scent of the anointing oil and you know that none of that matters.
You are new. You are transformed. You have been given new clothes, and will be given a new name. Your heart feels free and... forgiven. You belong.
It's the 21st century, and you are sitting in a pew inside a lovely sanctuary of the church of which you are a member. Sunlight is streaming in through the windows and you can faintly here the sound of cars driving on the street outside, and the sound of a lawnmower moving back and forth nearby.
A young couple is standing in the front of the sanctuary with the minister, who is dressed in a robe and holding the couple's two-month old baby boy. The baby is dressed in a tiny suit and is on the verge of crying. The minister speaks some words of comfort to the child and then begins to address the couple and the godparents who are standing off to the side.
The minister speaks of community and belonging. He speaks of the importance of family and the church in the life of a child. At last, he reaches into a beautifully appointed baptismal font nearby and sprinkles a tiny bit of water on to the head of the infant. He does this "In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
The infant begins to cry, but not too loudly. Everyone smiles, and one of the grandparents stands up and takes a hurried photo.
You feel strangely warm inside about this whole scene. You remember stories your mother told you about your own baptism. You think about how much the church has meant to you over the years. You see the faces of Sunday school teachers and youth leaders and little old ladies with blue hair that gave you Life Savers.
You feel connected. You think about God's presence. You feel like you belong.
I have to confess that I shamelessly borrowed this from the late Martin Marty, who wrote a little book on baptism six years before I was born---adding my own little twists here and there, of course. I wanted to begin my sermon on Baptism by playing on the imagination of those who will be gathered and hearing it.
And to make a point.
Baptism is a sacrament. A sacrament is something that is of this world, but points to what is holy and sacred---and not of this world.
This is what we teach, and say that we believe every time those of us who call ourselves Christians affirm baptism as a sign and symbol of God's saving grace.
This is my favorite image of baptism... ever. From my favorite movie... ever:
This is a funny moment, to be sure. But there's something simple and beautiful about it. I particularly love the look on Delmar's face when he emerges from the water and feels differently.
There is something mysterious and confusing about baptism.
It sort of begs some serious questions from us, doesn't it?
Why do we use water?
Do you have to be immersed, and if not why?
Why do some churches baptize children, and others just dedicate them?
Is baptizing children even Biblical?
What does baptism do?
Can you be a Christian without being baptized?
These are all excellent questions, and I am sure there are others. But you have to start somewhere, right?
Tell you what, why don't we start by reading a passage of Scripture that talks about baptism, and go from there.
1What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.Every time I officiate at a funeral or a memorial service, I begin by reading a good bit of this passage of Scripture. I read it on behalf of the person who has died. I read it as a confession of their baptism.
If I was being completely correct, I would also add somewhere after reading this that for the person who has died, "their baptism is now complete." Why would I say something like this? Because for those of us who call ourselves Christians--followers of Jesus--we should never stop confessing the faith of our baptism as long as we live.
And we die, we should be able to count on the fact that someone will pick up where we left off, and confess it for us.
Because the story of our baptism is a story of redemption because of Jesus... a story of repentance... a story of cleansing and pardon... a story of the power of the Holy Spirit.. a story of inclusion and belonging... a story that isn't over, but only beginning.
My baptism story began when I was ten years old. I remember being overwhelmed by the desire to be baptized during a Sunday morning worship service at the Westland Baptist Church in Denver, Colorado. I guess I'd seen a few hundred people baptized in my lifetime at that point.
And the way the pastel light in the baptistry at Westland Baptist played softly on the Jordan River mural behind it captured my imagination.
Roughly two weeks later, I found myself standing at the edge of said baptistry staring at the smiling senior pastor of the church who was wearing waders and a huge smile. I was wearing the smallest baptismal robe that the lady who ushered me back to the changing rooms could find. It was easily three sizes too big.
I tentatively stepped on to the steps of the baptistry and into the water. Almost immediately, the baptismal robe that was three sizes too big floated to the surface.
I must add here that earlier when I had been asked to change from my church clothes into the baptismal robe, I was confronted with a dilemma while standing in the changing room: whether or not to leave my underwear on during the baptism.
Hey, don't judge me. I was ten.
I realized that I had not brought extra underwear with me, which meant that if I left them on, I would have to wear wet underwear home---or not, if you know what I mean. Neither of these seemed very palatable to me. So I made a snap decision, and opted to leave my underwear in the changing room.
Which brings me back to the baptistry and the floating baptismal robe.
Yeah, it was an awkward moment for both me and the grinning senior pastor. Fortunately for my tender psyche, you couldn't really see---ahem, anything---because I was too short for the congregation to notice.
I managed to gain control of my wayward robe, and the pastor grabbed hold of me and had me cross my arms in front of me. I don't really remember all that he said to me. What I do remember is what he said right before and after he immersed me in the water.
"Buried with Him by baptism into death," he proclaimed and then I went under the water. As I was being rushed to the surface I heard his voice "waaa-waaa-ing" like Charlie Brown's teacher, and then this:
"Raised into newness of life by the power of the Holy Spirit."
Later, I stood waiting for my parents to pick me up outside the changing rooms. My hair was wet and my clothes sort of stuck to me a bit. But at least my underwear was dry, I had that.
I remember my mom hugging me tight and my dad beaming from ear to ear. People in the church that I had never met came up to shake my hands and congratulate me. It was the first time since my parents had become members of the church that I felt like the people in the church actually cared about me. I belonged.
And there was something else, too. The words of the preacher were still ringing in my ears, "Raised into new life..." I would later realize all too well that being baptized didn't guarantee that I was never going to sin again---or be held accountable for the sins I committed.
I did feel differently, though. I felt cleaner, and brighter for some reason. And it wasn't all due to the fact that I'd been dunked under water. Although, the water did make a difference.
Thinking along those lines, I have to say this: Baptism is not simply water. I know that lots of Christian traditions and faith communities, including the one that baptized me, place more than a little emphasis on the waters of baptism.
It's not all about the water. There are bigger things going on, not the least of which is the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit that ushers us into a unique relationship with Jesus Christ and a new life.
But then again, water is not simply water.
Think about it.
In Genesis, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of Creation like a dove. After the Flood, a dove was sent by Noah to determine if humankind would indeed live a new life on the earth after it was washed clean.
In Exodus, the People of God passed through the waters of the Red Sea from death into new life.
In Job, God confronts Job's frailty and doubt with images of the ocean's depths and His mastery over them.
In the Psalms, the psalmists use the image of water to speak of cleansing, forgiveness, and new life.
Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, and when he came up out of the waters, the Spirit of God hovered over him like a dove and the voice of God spoke affirmations over his Son.
When he met with his disciples for their last Passover meal together, Jesus washed their feet with water, humbling himself, cleansing them, preparing them for what was ahead.
So, yeah. Water isn't just water.
Here's where some people might chime in and say, "Well, if water isn't simply water, than why don't all Christian traditions use more of it? Why don't we all immerse people, rather than sprinkling them?"
Presbyterians do, in fact, allow for the possibilities of immersion. But hardly any of our sanctuaries have baptistries in them to accommodate those who would wish it. The Reformers who are the ancestors of our tradition did not practice immersion, but regretted the fact that it fell into disuse and wished for its return.
And this was in the 16th and 17th century. Why we didn't heed their wishes, I'll never know, but I wish we had. You see, the Bible is on the side of those Christian traditions who lobby for believer's baptism by immersion. It's nigh to impossible to definitely defend sprinkling based on the Biblical witness. Besides, there is something highly sacramental about watching a convert go into the water and come up out of it, joyous and beaming.
But in the end those of us in the mainline Protestant stream tend to fall back on the idea that God is Sovereign---that he is in charge with a plan and a purpose. The moment of baptism is a moment where God is acting in the midst of His people.
Baptism is not about what we bring to the table, it's all about God. In keeping with this line of thought, we might say that the presence of water is important, but a spectacle of water is not. It's not about how we baptize, but that we baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, trusting that God is not only present but active.
Which sort of brings us to the whole concept of baptizing children. I get asked this a lot by people from traditions where baptizing children is anathema. Presbyterians believe in what might be called "covenant baptism." The parents and family of a child bring them to the font, confessing the faith of their baptism for them.
Contrary to what I hear from some of my Baptist friends and colleagues, Presbyterians do not believe that covenant baptism guarantees that the child being baptized will one day confess their faith and embrace the grace that has been given to them. They very well may not.
But this is a community moment. The community brings the child, so to speak. The community affirms their duty to raise the child in the faith. The members of the community also reaffirm their own baptism each time they do this.
And what are they actually doing, anyway?
What happens when we are baptized?
First, I believe that we participate, as Paul said in Romans 6, in Christ's death, burial and resurrection. I will never forget the words of the preacher who baptized me. He told me I was "buried" with Jesus and "raised into newness of life..." In a very real sense, the old me was buried there in that baptistry and the new me walked up out of it, forever changed. There was a reason, I felt differently. I was. I had been claimed. I had identified myself with Jesus. I would fall flat on my face more than once after that. I would deny that I knew Christ more than once. But I was/is His, and He was/is mine.
Second, I believe that baptism serves as a means of embodying our conversion, pardon and cleansing by the Holy Spirit. Even as a ten year old, I knew in my heart that I was probably going to sin again after being baptized, but like I said, I felt cleaner and brighter---different, if you will. I had stepped forward to publicly proclaim that I knew I was broken and in need of Jesus, and then was washed by the water in front of the faithful.
Third, I believe that baptism reminds us that we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is present during baptism, shared with us through the water. It is a tangible thing that points to what is intangible. Christ promised the Spirit to his disciples. The Spirit came to the Church at Pentecost and transformed it. The Spirit is part of the inheritance promised to those of us who confess the faith of our baptism even now---sort of the first installment of what we will become when we are resurrected like Christ. The Spirit gives us hope, convicts us of what we ought to do, and to be.
Fourth, I believe that baptism serves to incorporate us into the Body of Christ. When we are baptized with water in the presence of our community, we are assured our inclusion into the family of faith. Not because of anything we have done or can bring, of course. We are claimed and included because of grace and mercy that we do not deserve, but are given freely. Belonging to something greater than we are cannot be underestimated. It feels amazing for a reason.
Finally, I believe that we are baptized as a sign and symbol of the coming Kingdom of God. When we are baptized, it is a foretaste of the way things will be, and bitter reminder that they are not as they ought to be. One day there will be a new Heaven and a new Earth. One day we will be made new through the power of the Resurrection. One day the world will be full of the glory of God and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord of all. And until that day, you and I who are baptized in the water need to embody that as living sacraments for the world.
This is a beautiful story.
It is a story of how God has saved and is saving those He loves.
It is a story of the redemption of all of Creation.
It is a story that includes people like you and me who have been washed in water, cleansed from shame and guilt, identified with the ministry, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, and given the Holy Spirit to transform us and the world around us.
Tell your story. Tell it over and again. Never stop speaking of it until the day you draw your last breath and are finally in the presence of the One who called you into the waters of baptism, who transformed you and gave you life.
Remember your baptism and be thankful.