What does baptism actually do? What is it for and what does it accomplish? We probably each have a knee-jerk answer to that question, but I’d like to break it open and consider what it meant to John the Baptist and to Jesus, what it meant to the early Christians, and what it might mean to us today. Because the answers are diverse and multi-layered.
To John the Baptist baptism represented repentance, turning away from a false, destructive, ungodly way of living and making a commitment to start fresh. He baptized people in the Jordan river, putting them right under the water and hauling them up again as a symbol of drastic change, cleansing, starting fresh. And he did it in the context of telling them that the Messiah was coming very soon, in a day of reckoning. People who came to him wanted to make a fundamental change in their lives. They confessed their sins. The gospels tell us that all sorts of people came: people from the countryside and people from the great city of Jerusalem; Pharisees and Saducees; tax collectors and soldiers. And John told them all to shape up and prepare for the coming judgment. Baptism for John was the dramatic symbolic act of repentance and cleansing.
Yet Jesus’ experience of baptism was quite different. We don’t know why he came to be baptized. If our theology says he was incapable of sin then he had nothing to repent of. Perhaps he was simply joining in as a way of identifying with the crowd of sinful humanity around him, though that strikes me as a weak form of play-acting. Perhaps he was burdened by a heavy issue in his life that he wanted to be rid of: something bad that had happened; a difficult question that was weighing him down; a dark memory. He came to John and was baptized, and the gospel writers tell us in their different ways that it wasn’t an experience of repentance and forgiveness, but of divine love and affirmation. The Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “You are my beloved son, in whom I delight.”
Baptism for Jesus was an experience or realization of his belovedness, his divine sonship, his pleasingness to God. And that seems to have been a pivotal experience for him – something new, not something he was already familiar with and confident about. And it marked a new beginning for him – the start of a long retreat in the wilderness, followed by the beginning of his public ministry of healing and preaching. Jesus’ baptism was life-changing, not through forgiveness of sin but through affirmation of his belovedness.
By the time the apostles were teaching and preaching the gospel, baptism was understood to be both in water (the baptism of John) and in the name of Jesus (baptism of the Holy Spirit), and it marked entry into the Christian community. Sometimes individual adults were baptized, sometime whole households including servants and children. It was associated both with repenting of a sinful former life, and with starting a new life empowered with the Spirit of Christ. It was personal and communal. It was sometimes understood and welcomed, while other times its significance was barely grasped.
And I think Christians have been in that muddly place ever since, with regard to baptism. There are different practices, different requirements, different understandings. Some denominations practise infant baptism pretty well indiscriminately, focusing on the necessity to be baptized in order to be saved. (Just get the baby done.) Other denominations reserve baptism for adults, as a symbol of intentionally choosing a faith and a life. (Come to Jesus.) Anglicans of course do both: we baptize babies and adults, and we tend to focus on it as a sacrament of initiation – joining the faith community, in which you then grow with maybe many moments of repentance and forgiveness, affirmation and commitment.
I’ve been performing baptisms for almost 40 years now, and I’ve pondered what exactly I’m doing many times. I’ve never turned anyone away, though I’ve sometimes found people have stepped back after making the initial enquiry (almost always for their child) and hearing that it’s about joining a community of faith, not just getting the baby done. I’ve baptized many babies and children whom I’ve then never seen again, despite the parents and godparents’ promises to raise them in the faith community. Is that a failure? We can’t know. We can’t know what the Holy Spirit is doing in that child’s life, and that family’s life. We can’t force results; we can only prepare the ground.
Some infant baptisms do mark the beginning of the family connecting with the church and staying involved. That is always a joy, and the gifts and skills and involvement they bring change and shape the church. It’s a two-way street. It’s unpredictable and beautiful.
Some baptisms I’ve done stand out all these years later. The tiny baby girl born with a fatal genetic disorder that gave her only a few weeks to live. I baptized her in the church, anointed her in the ICU, and buried her in the cemetery, all in the space of one season. It broke all of our hearts, yet God was so close in every moment. God was so close, telling us that despite her short life Amy was no less a beloved child of God.
Or the baptism in the lake here, in the early fall of 2019. Deacon Michael and I, along with our trusty servers Grace and Anna, waded waist deep into the lake, and then Samantha was baptized, and Michael Barrett and Mark Houghton renewed the vows of their baptism and were immersed in the water. It was dramatic: each one falling back into the water as Michael and I pushed them down, then being hauled up, dripping and soaked. Each had their own reasons for wanting to do this, and for each it was a powerful experience. And I felt the presence and power of God, affirming each one, touching and changing each one, calling each one.
What about your own baptism? Whether you remember it or not, chose it or not, what does it mean to you? And if you’ve never been baptized, what might it mean? As you picture your baptism, can you hear God saying, “You are my beloved child and I delight in you”? And can you trust that the Holy Spirit is indeed working in you, transforming you, calling you forwards on this adventure of life and faith?
Baptism in our tradition is a sacrament, and that means there’s an element of mystery to it. It’s “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, ” as we used to teach kids in confirmation classes. Baptism is us showing up, for a whole slew of reasons, and God doing the rest – in ways we may never comprehend. I’m happy not to define it too precisely, because it isn’t a cut and dried transaction (I do this and God does that), it’s one step in a lifelong journey.
But some things I do know and can affirm absolutely: we are each beloved children of God; we are works in progress; we need each other in our faith communities, and there’s always a way back when we screw up. And I hope that later this year, when it’s warm and we’ve all been vaccinated, we can go down to the lake again and celebrate the gift of baptism. Amen.