That First Baptism


Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, the Sunday we call the Baptism of the Lord.

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It was a dreary night in late March, 1969, and I was struggling to get back to school after Spring Break. I had flown from Memphis to St. Louis only to be told that I could not fly into Kirksville. As I recall that conversation, nothing was said about why I could not fly into Kirksville but I surmised that there had been a rather severe storm during the period that I had been “down south” and the new runway the airport authority had laid down must have cracked, so no planes could land.

Being rather new to the air traveling process, I opted to fly to Columbia and go from there. That was my first mistake. I should have allowed Ozark Airlines to get me from the St. Louis airport to Kirksville by whatever means they could; it would have been the correct thing to do. But I didn’t understand that and so I opted to travel as far as I could. When I got to Columbia, I had to take a bus northward to Kirksville and shortly after I left Columbia, I found out why no planes were flying into north central Missouri. A rather large snowstorm was dropping snow from Moberly north to Kirksville.

The bus trip ended in Moberly, some 60 miles from Kirksville and there were no busses going north until the next morning. So I was stuck in Moberly, a town I was familiar with but one 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 also struggling with life as a college student and trying to get my grade point average back up after a disaster fall and winter quarter. (1) If I messed up the courses that spring, my academic career would take a beating.

And 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 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.

So on that night 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 how bad your life has been, especially when you are already down.

I am not going to get into a theological debate about the justification of “infant baptism versus adult baptism”. 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. Paul asks those listening to him how they were baptized and they replied “into John’s baptism,” meaning the baptism of repentance that John the Baptist offered in preparation for the coming of Jesus. (2)

We have come to think of repentance in terms of feeling guilty or sorry. But the word repentance goes deeper than that; it represents the first step in a transformation or conversion into the disciple of Christ that we are meant to be. Repentance turns us from sin, selfishness, darkness, idols, habits, bondages, and demons (both private and public). When we repent we turn from all that binds and oppresses us and others, from all the violence and evil in which we are so complicit, from all the false worship that has controlled and corrupted us. Ultimately, repentance is turning from the powers of death. That one ominous force that seems to be so much of our life no longer has the power it does when we repent. (3)

Some might say that you must be aware of your baptism for that to take place and that as a child I could not have been aware of what was going on. But my parents were aware and, no doubt the charge was given to them, just as it is given to parents who bring their children forward to be baptized in the United Methodist Church today (4), to raise their children in such a way that the power of this baptism is understood. And don’t forget that in the United Methodist Church, the congregation accepts the responsibility to raise the child in a manner consistent with the message of the baptism. (5)

However one is baptized, it is the first step. It is the beginning of the process. As we read in Genesis today (6), it is the step that will allow us to see the light.

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.

Just as John the Baptist announced that there was someone greater than he was to come (7) and the people should be watching and waiting for him, so too did I look for the signs of the Savior.

Baptism is the outward sign of God’s grace; it is the beginning of a new life. As we begin this New Year, as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, both as an infant in the temple and as an adult on the banks of the River Jordan, let us stop and think about our baptism. Let us make sure that we have walked in the path that was illuminated for us that one day in our lives. Let us also make sure that our lives provide the illumination that others will need so that they can come to the Light and the Life.

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  1. For those readers who attended Truman State University, my alma mater, the 1968/69 academic year was a transition between an academic year based on quarters and an academic year based on semesters. The spring term was a semester term but the courses were designed to get everyone on the same track for the upcoming fall semester.
  2. Acts 19:1 – 7
  3. From Jim Wallis, “The Call to Conversion”, page 5
  4. From the United Methodist Hymnal, page 40: the pastor asks, “Will you nurture these children (persons) in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life? The parents each respond with “I will.”
  5. From the United Methodist Hymnal, page 40: the pastor asks, “Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include these persons now before you in your care?” The congregation responds, “With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”
  6. Genesis 1: 1 – 5
  7. Mark 1: 4 – 11
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6 thoughts on “That First Baptism

  1. I appreciate your thoughts on this subject. I only became a Methodist about a year and a half ago. Before then I was a life long Baptist. My wife, I, and both of our children were baptized by immersion but now when I see the little ones as they are brought forward by parents to the baptismal font I see a family and the entire body of the church participating in this once in a lifetime event. To me it’s one of the most moving experiences of the church service.

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