Baptism by Fire


Here are my thoughts for the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, 10 January 2010.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Acts 8: 14 – 17; and Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22.

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If there is one topic that has positive and negative elements in my life, it is my baptism. I was baptized on December 24, 1950 at the First Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington, North Carolina.

Now, for some, this really wasn’t my baptism because I was only an infant and I didn’t know what was going on or what it meant. However, I was raised with the knowledge that I was baptized and I have tried to live my life with that knowledge.

(I first described the following episode in my life in “That First Baptism”.)

But there was that dreary night in late March, 1969, and I was struggling to get back to school after Spring Break. A severe snow storm had crippled travel and instead of making it easily from Memphis to St. Louis, I found myself sixty miles south of Kirksville in Moberly, MO. I was familiar with Moberly but in which I knew no one. Somehow I ended up at the small Bible College located there. The inhabitants of the men’s dormitory found me a space in which I could sleep that night.

In the course of that evening’s conversation, one of the soon-to-be evangelists and preachers asked me about my baptism. I replied that I had been baptized when I was three months old. The young man who asked me this question then informed me, in no uncertain terms, that my infant baptism didn’t count and that I needed to be baptized as an adult if I was ever to see the gates of Heaven.

Perhaps those weren’t his exact words but the meaning of his message was clear and I was greatly disturbed by what he said. First, I was not ready for such words, traveling in difficult circumstances and in a time when my whole future seemed so uncertain. I was struggling with life as a college student and trying to get my grade point average back up after a disastrous fall and winter quarter. (For those readers who attended Truman State University, my alma mater, after 1969, the 1968/69 academic year was the last year the academic year was based on quarter. With the 1969/70 academic year, the school made the change to a semester calendar.) If I messed up the courses that spring, my academic career would take a beating. In addition, Kirksville had a policy that if you were absent the day before or the day after a break, you would lose .5 credits for each course that you missed. This was an additional pressure that I didn’t need at that time.

Since this was the spring of 1969, I thought that there was a good possibility that I would spend the next semester registered as a student of the University of South Viet Nam at a branch campus designated by the United States Army. My request for a draft deferment had been messed up and I anticipated receiving that wonderful letter from my Uncle in Washington at any time.

Just before I had left Kirksville for home and some quiet time, I met with the pastor of First United Methodist Church to have communion. Reverend Marvin Fortel admitted to being surprised by this request (perhaps, because most of the students who attended First Church were from communities nearby and would have taken communion with their parents in the church where they grew up) but he agreed to meet with me before I left. It was just the two of us, meeting in the chapel of the church. Rather than the ritual of communion, it was more of a discussion about communion. And in the process, I came to find out that I did not completely understand what it was to be a Methodist. I had gotten caught up in the “works versus faith” argument that dominates so much of the writing of the Bible and I wasn’t sure which side I was on. But it was clear that my understanding of what it meant to be a Methodist and perhaps a Christian needed some clarification. And as I have written and spoken before, I left that day with a better understanding and a determination to be who I was to be in the eyes of Christ (see “Our Father’s House”).

So it was that a week later, battered by travel and angst, I received another blow when I was told that there was a distinct possibility that I wouldn’t get into heaven, no matter what had happened that Christmas Eve in 1950 in Lexington, North Carolina.

I declined the offer to be baptized that night, perhaps because I wasn’t sure but more likely offended that someone would tell me in the name of Christ that my baptism didn’t count. Even back then I had a dislike for those whose process of evangelism is to tell you, especially when you are already down, how bad your life has been.

I am not going to get into a theological debate about the justification of “infant baptism versus adult baptism”. Too me, it falls under the same category as “immersion versus sprinkling.” Yes, I do not know what was said that night in Lexington, North Carolina by either the minister or my parents on my behalf but I do know that my parents, each in their own way, saw to it that what was done that night was not done in vain.

As I began my confirmation classes in 1964 I also began working on my God and Country award for Boy Scouts. As part of that award, I worked out a way to hold a brief service while my troop was camping in the Rocky Mountains outside Denver. We were a troop that many times camped way back in the hills and that required that we carry every thing in. My father built me a cross that I could take down and fit into my backpack and then put together for the service.

My mother was the rock of my foundation, making sure that Sunday School was a part of my life. Ours was not the most spiritual or religious family but God was present and it was that foundation that got me through those troubled times of 1968 and 1969.

The two scripture readings for today from the New Testament both acknowledge the baptism by water followed by the baptism by the Spirit.

While there have been times when I have put the church on the back burner, it never left my life. But the foundation that was laid with my baptism in 1950, and with the Gospel message and the work of the church would lead me through tough times and good and to this point today.

In one sense that young man in Moberly who told me that my baptism didn’t count was correct. If I had been baptized and my parents had done nothing to raise me in such a way that I would come to know Christ in my heart as my personal Savior, then my baptism would have been meaningless. It would have the same value as the baptism of Carlo and Connie’s baby in the closing scenes of “The Godfather”. Michael Corleone has assumed the role of godfather for his niece and while he is reciting the ritual of baptism, renouncing evil and the powers of Satan, his henchmen are imposing their own justice on The Godfather’s enemies and opponents.

There are those today who were baptized as infants, with great ceremony and members of the family standing around smiling and enjoying the moment, but who didn’t follow the path placed before them that day in their life. For these individuals and their families, this is simply a single moment in their lives and the lives of their family, part of the triad of water, rice, and ashes.

But I do know one person who attended one such event because his family insisted on his presence. And while he had no idea what would happen, his attendance at that event would change his life, for he would find the Lord and later become a pastor in the United Methodist Church. Such effects are what we hope would happen to all who stand as family before the minister and watch the child baptized.

When we baptize an infant, we as the family and the congregation make the pledge to insure that the child before us grows up in such a way that he or she will find Christ when they are old enough. Perhaps we should ponder that thought a little more.

The Gospel reading for today is perhaps the reason why there are those who say that you need to baptized as an adult in addition (or in spite of) to one’s baptism as a child or infant. As John said to those standing on the banks of the River Jordan, “I shall baptize you with water; the one who is to come shall baptize you with fire.” And whether one is baptized as an infant, a child, a young adult, or an older adult, the baptism with water is meaningless unless later you receive the Holy Spirit, the fire that John was alluding to. Perhaps the discussion should be in the ways that one receives the fire, for there are many ways that we encounter Christ and accept the Holy Spirit.

A man died last Monday. His name was Tsutomu Yamaguchi and he was 93 when he died of stomach cancer. That he lived to such an age is perhaps not noteworthy but it is noteworthy that he was the only person to survive both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings.

On the morning of August 6, 1945, Mr. Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a business trip when the Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy” on the city. Though horribly burned and temporarily blinded, he was able to return to his home town of Nagasaki and go to work on the 9th of August. His coworkers would not believe him when he described the horror and terror of the August morning and what they should do if such a bomb were to be dropped on Nagasaki. His boss went as far as to say that such words were treasonous and he should be quiet. And apparently at that very moment, “Bock’s Car” dropped the “Fat Man” atomic weapon.

Fortunately, his co-workers and boss, who moments before had dismissed his words and warnings, heeded them and because of the way their office building was constructed, they survived the blast.

It is highly likely that those who survived the two attacks were filled with anger, hatred, resentment and a desire for revenge. They are the same feelings that many people in this country still harbor today, some 9 ½ years after 9/11/2001. They are feelings that no doubt resurfaced following the attempted Christmas Day bombing.

And Mr. Yamaguchi would quite quickly tell you that he had those feelings as well. But out of those feelings came a desire that such an occurrence should never happen again. Throughout the remainder of his life, Mr. Yamaguchi worked for peace and nuclear disarmament.

I cannot say whether he was a Christian or not; the cause for peace transcends religious boundaries. But as one who was truly baptized and transformed by fire, his efforts should strike a chord in our lives as well.

But we hear too many Christians, both laity and clergy, who speak of war as the answer. Their discussion goes beyond Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of a just war and seems bent on the total destruction of those who do not believe as they do. There is fire in their spirit but it is the same fire of death and destruction that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki some 65 years ago.

The fire that John speaks of in today’s Gospel reading is a transforming fire, a fire that cleans our soul much as the water of baptism cleans the “outer dirt”.

You can say that you have been baptized and that you have accepted Christ in your life. There are plenty of people who say that today. But their words, their actions, and their thoughts belie that. They may be a Christian on Sunday morning but they are among the loudest to call for war on Monday; they are among the ones who cry at the plight of the homeless and sick on Sunday but do little the rest of the week in the way of help. They were the ones in church when I was young who sang that Jesus loved all the children regardless of color but worked to keep the same children out of their schools.

The transformation of baptism is more than a single moment in one’s life. It is a moment that should define and begin one’s life. It is not the time in life when this is done; it is what is done with the rest of your life after that moment in time.

Baptism by the Holy Spirit is a life changing event. As you finish this piece today, you need to think about your baptism. Have you lead the life that you and/or your parents promised God you would lead on that day? Have you truly accepted Christ in your heart and with your mind and your soul?

Baptism is the outward sign of God’s grace. And God’s grace is unlimited and never ends. The opportunity is now. Just as Isaiah told the people of Israel that God had not forgotten them, so too is he telling us that God has not forgotten us either. And we have the opportunity, just as the Samaritans did when Peter and John came through to change our lives.

Shall this be the moment that you are truly baptized by the fire of the Holy Spirit?

3 thoughts on “Baptism by Fire

  1. Hi Tony Mitchell, I don’t know you,but I have Google News settings such that I receive notice of blogs that mention Truman State University or Kirksville, MO. I went to Truman in 1982 as a nontraditional student, earned BA and MA in history with Dr. Schnucker as my advisor. He shepherded many a pre-ministerial student through his classes and had a profound effect on my life.

    I was raised in an “adult believer’s immersion” tradition. When I decided to leave the very, very legalistic group I was in, I settled on the Presbyterian church in Kirksville. I wrestled for a long time about infant baptism vs. adult believer’s baptism. Thank goodness my college classes with Dr. Schnucker, Dr. Appold, and Dr. Smitz gave me the tools to work through this dilemma. To me it is profound that the entire church vows to help raise the infant in the Christian faith when that child is baptized.

  2. Paula,
    Thank you for your comment. As you might have gathered from reading this piece (and perhaps some of the others that I have posted) the time I spent in Kirksville was a very valuable part of my life.

    While my course of study at Truman was different from yours, I came to appreciate the advice and counsel that I received from various faculty members in other departments as well as my chemistry advisors.

    The history of the United Methodist Church is one of connectionalism; it is a concept that I am finding that many people do not quite grasp. The idea that we as a congregation would renew our own baptismal vows when someone is baptized in the church and that we as a congregation would vow to support a child is part of that connectionalism. Yet, many people do not understand that very essential point in denominational relationships.

    I have a piece to write for my local church (which I may post later in the spring) and your comment will help in its preparation.

    Say high to the people in the Chemistry Department at Truman for me (there are one or two who know me as an alumnus) and blessing to you, your family, and your ministry.

    In peace,
    Dr. Tony

  3. Pingback: Notes on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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