(This sermon was presented to a community of various faith backgrounds in hopes of promoting the formation of our specific community. It is geared towards opening up dialogue on Baptism, not steering towards one specific means, and hopefully will help individuals understand baptism in a personal context and not merely an embedded tradition of the larger church.)
Last week we tested out the whole “walk on water” thing, using Matthew’s account of Peter walking across the surface of the lake to Jesus’ outstretched hand as a guide… For some odd reason, none of us were able to stand on the surface of the water last week, so it seems only fitting to transition from walking on top, to diving underneath its waves.
I mentioned that I wanted to look at Baptism in a meeting with Paul and Christian in a worship planning last week, and Paul, though not saying “don’t go there,” did encourage me to tread carefully, as he, throughout his ministry, has found that Baptism can be one of those “dangerous topics,” but if any church embraces a little danger, it’d be this one… so lets jump in!
I admit, my pastoral naivety made me kind of brush off Paul’s warning; that is until I switched some of this week’s preparation from the usual Biblical Commentaries and concordances, to a survey of various online forums, blogs, and debates about the subject… and as it turns out Paul was not only right, but had understated the situation.
There were debates over everything from what temperature the water should be to what do you wear? Whether to use distilled or tap water, or if baptism needs to be performed in a natural body of water? Can you sprinkle water or do you have to be submerged? What age do you have to be? What words must be spoken? Etc., etc., etc.…
Well I owe you all an apology. See, I can’t answer all those questions, but hopefully can help establish a foundation so that we, as a community, are able to start an ongoing conversation about the meaning of baptism and how our community can best embrace the sacrament. Baptism is just that, a sacrament, not an argument, and sacraments are supposed to unite and not divide, so with that lets turn to today’s passage out of Paul’s letter to the Church of Ephesus, Eph. 4:1-6…
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with ALL humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
The Apostle Paul starts with a simple plea; “I beg you,” he writes, “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” There… simple as that. What is Baptism? Part of the answer is that baptism is our acceptance of our divine calls; and note how we are called to accept it, “with humility and gentleness, patience and love, and making every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace!” Those were NOT the adjectives that one would use to describe the baptism debates of I read through this past week.
“There is one body,” the letter continues, and that body is us… we are the church, the body of Christ. As individuals we play different roles and have different personalities, talents, passions, and such, but we are unified. We are the hands and feet, fingers and toes of the one body. Not only is there one body; but Paul goes on to say that there is “one spirit, one Lord, one faith, one God,” and specifically for our case today, there is “one Baptism.”
So with umpteen different ways to baptize and an argument for each, how can there be just “one” baptism? John Calvin dove into this topic describing what he calls the “once-and-for-all” baptism, that of Jesus by John the Baptist, and Calvin sees our baptisms thereafter as our participation in that one perfect baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. This “one baptism” refers to the deeper spiritual baptism of which John the Baptist alluded as he spoke, “I baptize you with water, but one who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
“I’m sorry Ryan, but that doesn’t count…” the camp pastor said to me in front of a small group as I stood there, somewhat perplexed, on the shores of Lake Serenac in upstate New York.
See, I had been baptized as an infant, via a sprinkle on the head non-the-less, at the nearest church to our house some 13 years before this conversation; and with parents by my side who didn’t much frequent the building in which they then stood.
“Oh,” I responded in a rare loss for words. “Um. Why not?”
“You have to go completely under the water,” said the counselor, “to wash yourself clean,” he paused and looked at me to see if I followed. “And it doesn’t work as a baby.”
“Doesn’t work,” I thought. I was new to the Christian thing and my theological training was limited to whatever Hollywood chose to present in their latest faith related film, but I knew enough to know that something was wrong with those words… “it doesn’t work.”
“So I guess I should start taking baths instead of showers,” I said before thinking of the awkwardness my comment would cause in days to come as my counselor (whom I shared a cabin with, now had me flagged me as a heretical and slightly obnoxious hell-bound teenager. I was a bit of a smart-ass at that age (not much changes) and though the whole theology thing was foreign to me at the time. Little did I know at that point, I was embracing one of the most important concepts of the sacrament that I was being questioned about. Peter, the water-walking disciple of last week, spoke of water baptism in 1 Peter 3:21: “this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
There is not one right way to baptize, because it is not the water (no matter if water is sprinkled on your head or you are dunked under its waves) that washes your soul clean… the water is a sign of something far more beautiful. It’s a sign of our birth into a life of forgiveness and love, it’s a sign of our participation in Jesus’ one baptism, his grace, and his and as Peter declares, his resurrection.
In Matthew 23:25 Jesus himself responds to the Pharisees saying, “Woe to you, you clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
So there is no one “right” way, but is there a wrong way? What happens in that case?
Sure there is, but its not so much incorrect in practice, but intentionality. It would have been the wrong way had I been pressured to jump into lake Serenac out of guilt or insecurity. If a community is not faithful in accepting an infant and blessing their journey towards a relationship with Christ, or an individual in a believer’s baptism is not ready to accept God’s grace, then you can sprinkle or submerge all day long and its not going to make any difference.
So what happens in that case? Are we going to get struck by lightning or rebuked by God? Are we cut off for eternity? No… worst-case scenario, an incorrect baptism is simply a bath, and we take baths all the time; hopefully.
Same with Communion, the other sacrament; what is communion without God? A snack! (and honestly if you were going to pick a snack, a wafer and thimble of grape juice probably wouldn’t be your best choice.)
But given the beauty and transformational power that these sacraments bear for our lives, having them reduced to a simple snack or bath is indeed a horrible thing, not because God disowns or condemns us, but because of the relationship that we are missing out on.
The sacraments are much more than outward rituals; they are inner transformations; and its wrong to rush into them out of fear, guilt, or pressure. We should seek to learn about them, and allow our participation in them, when we are ready, to be transformative and a true and powerful sign of our deeper commitment to our faith and our community.
So there is no right way, how about a right age? After all, according to that camp counselor, there are a lot of folks in church pews around the world today, myself included, having been baptized as infants thinking they are good to go, but who may be in trouble. Not only that, I know I have a pretty good 30 year list of post-baptism sins building up that God probably isn’t thrilled about so maybe we should all jump into a lake every morning just to be sure?
“Back again huh” yelled the giggling life guard from the little white poolside chair, “glad to see you’ve come around.”
The two seminaries in Louisville, Presbyterian and Southern Baptist, are right next to each other, so we would let the Baptists use our library and they would let us Presbyterians come over and use their rec center. As the staff got to know me over the years, it turned into a running joke (one of those that we think if we repeat it enough it will become funny) that every time I came to swim I was coming over to be “re-baptized” the Baptist way, a believer’s baptism.
So as earlier alluded, Presbyterian’s are part of a larger group, including Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Catholics that baptize infants; these traditions will baptize at any age by sprinkling or pouring of water onto the individual, or by immersion. Though they baptize infants, as the child grows and progresses in their spiritual journey, they go through “confirmation,” during where they study and accept their faith in similar fashion to the commitment present in a “believers baptism” of churches such as the Baptist, Independent Christian, or Disciples of Christ.
To answer my Baptist lifeguard friend though, none of these traditions would “re-baptize” someone with an infant baptism or a baptism from another denomination because, going back to that original letter from the Ephesians, there is but “one” baptism. That also means that, despite racking up 30 years of post-baptism sins, there is no need to jump into a baptismal font.
As for infant Baptism, it relates back to the infant circumcision of Exodus and is a demonstration of our dependency as Christians on the larger community, Christ’s resurrection, and God’s forgiveness and love. Thus the baptism of an infant is public and involves the commitment of the community and the parents to guide, pray for, and love the infant as they grow in faith.
Martin Luther, in what is known as the Small Catechism, wrote “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Ghost has CALLED ME by the Gospel…” An infant’s complete dependence on their community is a demonstration of our complete dependence on the grace and love of God.
So whether in Baptism, communion, or just showing up on Sunday morning, it is essential in our lives to continue to, as Watchman Nee once wrote, make “outward expressions of an inward faith.” Baptism is personal… faith is personal; and Baptism is communal, because we are members of one (larger than just those sitting here at 10:04 on a Sunday morning). Our baptism, of any age and any means, is our putting faith into action, and is the sign of our covenant with God.
To sum things up, I was watching TV the other night (I only get one channel so I am at God’s will… or NBC’s for that matter) and an old episode of 2 and ½ men came on. “I Love you Charlie,” Charlie Sheen’s girlfriend said with waiting eyes under the sunset.
“Um. Thank you” he replied… and her eyes sunk. He didn’t have the guts to say it back, “Love” was a scary word with lots of baggage; he couldn’t let the world know, couldn’t let her know. “Thank you” was funny a humorous response on a sitcom, but the reality of it is this: God says those words to us in many ways, every day. “I love you (Fill in with folks from the group),” and today we look at one way of saying them back.
Discussion- “What are some ways that you return those words to God in your life? Or what’s holding you back?”