So Baptism Means What?
Roger Fenn, who I believe started the Fenn School, in Concord in the United States, was known to enjoy telling the story of how, as a young boy, he had been present at the baptism of some relative, and thinking it inspiring, he decided to baptize himself. Baptisms in those days, as with many traditional churches today, were “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Ghost.” In his Church a required part of the ceremony was total immersion. Young Roger was fairly confident he remembered what was said and done in the ceremony, so he went home, sat himself on the edge of the horse trough, pinched his nose, said “Roger Fenn, I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and into the hole he goes….” — and dropped backwards into the trough!
For outsiders to Christianity, baptism must appear something of an irrelevant curiosity. Certainly the form of baptism offered by the various forms of the Church is by no means agreed. Sometimes it is seen as a naming ceremony, and sometimes more a ritual to mark entry to Church membership. I know of Christians take for granted the idea of total immersion, whereas those from other denominations seem to prefer a highly formalised symbolic ritual as for example we see with the touching or sprinkling of water to the head as part of infant baptism. Sometimes the baptism takes place in the sea or in a river, but for many of those who we might like to think of themselves belonging to the older more established Churches baptism is a much more refined and gentle process.
Although, at least as far as the leadership of the Church is concerned, while now baptism generally means a symbolic way of marking entry into membership of the Christian family, historically that wasn’t always the case. Remember in Jesus’ day there was no Christian Church to join when John the Baptist was calling for repentance and offering baptism as a change of life intention.
The early Jews had a place for baptism, but that was for gentiles, the non Jews who wanted to convert to Judaism and who needed to be cleansed of the beliefs they were renouncing. This, incidentally, is why John the Baptist would never have been accepted in formal Jewish circles in his day. By offering baptism to those who came to hear him in the desert, he was saying by implication they had strayed so far from the faith they needed as preparation for the Messiah, they should no longer see themselves as Jews and they needed baptism back into the true faith.
From what most Churches teach about Jesus, it may even seem strange that Jesus wanted to be baptised. After all, if he were indeed the Messiah, John would hardly be likely to think of Jesus as needing repentance and a return to the true faith. The other gospels certainly seem to record John as initially being unwilling to give him baptism but those of you who followed the Luke reading carefully might have noted that Luke does not even specifically refer to John performing the baptism even if from the other gospels it seems likely he intended this to be understood.
We cannot even be certain as to why Jesus chose to be baptised – particularly by John who many might say was Jesus’ inferior.
Perhaps this was partly Jesus’ way of showing his humanity and humility. Just as Luke points to Jesus growing in wisdom and maturity as a young man, perhaps the act of seeking baptism was a way of Jesus acknowledging that he was arriving at the banks of that river in need to take that significant step of public declaration of his intended mission. That Jesus was putting himself at the same level as the nobodies gathered to listen to John the Baptist gives us another dimension and reminds us that if Jesus himself can start his history-altering ministry with this act of humility we should look at ourselves again to see if our discipleship shows the same marks of humility.
But here is another thought….. What if Jesus had received his baptism, then returned home satisfied that now he had been put right with his faith, that now his relationship with God had the seal of religious approval, and therefore he might now retire with honour. Well would he still deserve our loyalty? Hoisting the “Mission Accomplished” banner prematurely would surely have made no sense. It was the first step of a journey to be embarked upon, rather than a destination, that Jesus was declaring in his chosen act of baptism.
But if that is true of Jesus, surely the same should be said of the purpose of our own baptism. I am guessing that many here have had an infant baptism ceremony in their past, and I guess there will also be some here who are now adult, who have no doubt been present to recite the congregational promise to support the baptized child and their family as they grew in their faith. A simple question … how has it worked out since? Are the marks of our Baptism now evident to others in our lives and mission, not just in church but in our day to day world? And as to that promise to stand by the family as they helped the baptised one grow in wisdom and faith ….What did we actually do to follow through on that promise?
It is certainly not a given, that all who would be Christian understand that it is the living not the title that counts. I seem to remember Tolstoy once observed, with perhaps only slight exaggeration:
“Everyone thinks of changing humanity, nobody thinks of changing himself (or herself)”.
One of the nicest Baptism services I have ever attended was with the Epsom Calvary Tamil congregation. It was dignified, thoughtful and impressive – followed by a celebration banquet … and what’s more I suspect it would have left John the Baptist and his baptism ceremony looking uncouth and amateur by comparison.
But let’s not focus too much on the form of the Baptism. Never forget that the Baptism itself is only the setting for the promises made. We can indeed work very hard to ensure that the setting is as memorable and helpful as possible, but the real test of the ceremony will probably take days, months, years and even decades to play out, because the test is not based on how we stage the ceremony, but is found rather in the fulfilment of the promises.
Certainly in the case of reporting Jesus’ baptism there was reference to great drama with Luke describing the Holy Spirit as a mysterious disembodied voice recognising Jesus as the Son of God – yet this same Holy Spirit promptly sends Jesus into the wilderness for more than a month of reflection and tough living. For me if I had the choice I confess I prefer the catered banquet in the Church hall as a postscript to baptism but from what I have observed of the Christian journeys of others (and to a much lesser extent from my own journey), what I interpret as following the Spirit often leads into challenging and uncharted waters.
But let’s face the issue squarely, baptism only makes sense if we and our supporters emerge from the baptism to be committed… open to a new and different way of life. With infant baptism the commitment is one on behalf of the child which means of course that in the first instance the difference will need to be found in the acts of the supporters. Again let’s face it squarely. Unless the baptism signals some sort of genuine change why else would we want the ceremony in the first place?
I think that for me looking back I can say one unexpected benefit of entering into the contract of baptism is that through the new adopted way of life I get glimpses of wonder in the new possibilities it captures.
However baptism can only signal the start of a journey with uncertain and unpredictable way points – yet for those aware, a journey associated with a clear impression of destiny no matter how elusive the destination might appear to be. In my own case, honesty also reminds me that it is a journey to which I haven’t always been true.
Now contemplating my current retired state, and looking back, there have been those watershed highlights. In some ways I feel uneasy about two issues. The first is that the customs of the Church means that our focus is drawn to what happens in the Church building – but even there we should never lose sight of the contributions of all the church members. Our buildings are overseen and continually repaired and developed by skilled tradesmen in the church family, our social meetings catered for by generous and skilled cooks, our grounds maintained by those happy to give of their time and skills.
But you know the real efforts of the church family are probably better seen back in the homes and the streets where we actually meet most of the people. Yes in the Church there are good prayers that draw attention to real needs – but many in the community and those in the wider world are facing practical settings and real life issues which can’t be addressed in the comfort and security of the Church building. No matter how magnificent our Church music or familiar our medieval church customs this is not why Jesus entered the Jordan river or why our baptized selves are called to address issues of hospitality for strangers and finding practical solutions for issues of inequality and genuine need.
I guess each Church member who tries to act out the promises of Baptism and confirmation will find themselves living a life with its share of failures and frustration. Words said unwisely – or words left unsaid until too late. Harmful political decisions left unchallenged…. A dying person not visited in time, sick and lonely people not always visited … many, many missed opportunities.
In retrospect, strangely enough it isn’t our failures or successes that define the life – and if it comes to that I suspect most of us have failures as well as successes. What does make the journey worthwhile is the certain knowledge that there has been a feeling of shared destiny which, in truth, can probably find its origins in those initial decisions – baptism, confirmation and what Kierkegaard once called “the eternal Yes”. True perhaps the end goal seems as far away as ever, but the warmth of friendship and the support of a host of people who share the goals and frustration of ministry have added immeasurably to the joy of this stage of the journey.
Rex Hunt when he talked of this particular topic of the Baptism of Jesus referred to the opening scene of Jesus’ public ministry, where the storyteller Luke has Jesus using the words of Isaiah to describe the significance of this baptism event, when he appears before his home synagogue gathering.
Until I thought it through, I was surprised when Rex said, it is not a word or call of mission, sending him into the future that provides a sense of identity. It is more a sense that in Baptism we are assuming a new identity, this chosen, this person called by name.
Not a calling but not so much so much to ‘do’.
But rather a calling to ‘be’… that liberates for life.
Baptism then is calling each of us by name. Whether or not we hear and respond to that voice is what makes the difference between the missed opportunity or alternately a life changing experience.
The 20th century prophet Howard Thurman put the words of Isaiah into contemporary poetry – and some of you will know the music version:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
The inward journey to claim and center ourselves in that divine essence within will hopefully encourage us back to the world to do the work we know goes with living the message. Perhaps we can relate to this and say our own AMEN
NOTE to the reader:
I am in the process of up-dating the complete set of lectionary sermons for the three year cycle. (sometimes this includes updating previous sermons). Since other preachers tell me they use the sermons from this site as part of their own preparation I am keenly aware that others could make this collection of sermons more valuable as a resource by sharing good illustrations (or necessary corrections). Please feel prepared to add your own comments or suggestions in the comment box at the end of each sermon.