These are my thoughts for this coming Sunday (11 January 2009), “The Baptism of the Lord. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 1: 1 – 5, Acts 19: 1- 7, and Mark 1: 4 – 11.
My first inclination was to entitle this piece “From the Beginning” and use the song of the same name by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. But the thoughts in that song are more in line with what happens after the beginning and I will save that for a later time.
The fact is that each of us as an individual has two beginnings in our lives. There is the physical beginning which we call our birth. And there is that moment in our lives when we become aware of whom we are. This latter beginning is not an instantaneous moment but one that expands over the years of our growing up and maturation. With a two-year old grand-daughter running around one household and a three-month in another household, this moment takes on a different perspective than it did for each of us as we were growing up.
So, on this Sunday when we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, we must ask ourselves two questions:
- What is the meaning of baptism?
- What is the significance of baptism in our lives?
We state that baptism is an outward and visible sign of God’s Grace but for many, baptism is simply a stopping point on their journey through life. For too many people, baptism is the first part of the trilogy of a few drops of water on the forehead at birth, a few grains of rice thrown following their wedding ceremony, and few handfuls of dirt thrown on their grave at death.
I have seen more families than I care to admit whose attendance at church is limited to those three events. They come for the baptism of a child and are not seen again until the wedding of that child. Now, there are some pastors who will not baptize a child for that very reason. I think that pastors who do that do a disservice to the child and to the family because I think it simply reinforces the message that the church is closed to all but a select few.
But, by the same token, parents who bring the child to the altar for baptism and then do nothing after that fail in their vows to raise the child in Christ. And the same can be said for the members of the congregation who vow to see that child raised in the church but never follow through. A covenant was made by the parents and the congregation but often times never completed.
Now, there are those who say that this merely points out that only adult baptism is the only true baptism. I have had at least one budding pastor tell me directly that my baptism as a child was meaningless (see “That First Baptism”) and that I needed to be baptized as an adult for it to have any meaning or significance.
And that is the second question we want to consider; what is the significance of one’s baptism in one’s life? As Paul noted in the reading from Acts for today, baptism is more than just the act of being “washed” with water; it is a significant change in one’s life.
In one sense, that budding pastor who told me that my baptism as an infant didn’t count was correct. If my parents had done nothing after that day and if I had not chosen to understand the significance of that day on my own, through confirmation and study for the Boy Scout’s God and Country award (though it took me a while, see “What Have We Learned?”), I would have lost the significance of that day as well.
The significance of baptism, no matter when it occurs in one’s life, is that it is the beginning of one’s walk with Christ. Yet, there are many adults for whom their baptism, as an adult, is the completion of the journey rather than the beginning. I do not find fault with those who seek baptism as an adult. They came to that decision on their own accord and the call for accountability given to the parents when a child or youth is baptized is given to them. What I think happens is that the individual comes into the church but does not grow in the church or with Christ.
I think there is a fundamental basis to Christianity and that basis is found in the Scriptures. But too many people do not bother to study the Word and to understand the Word and the context in which it was written. They are quite willing to accept the printed word as the only true word without understanding the meaning of the words that they read. How many times have I been told that the King James Version of the Bible contains the exact pronouncement of God? Please excuse me for sounding facetious but were not the first words that God spoke to man in Aramaic or Hebrew? The difficulty in understanding the Word of God is that we are reading translations of translations of stories handed down orally from generation to generation. We are stuck with the same quandary that Alice was faced when Humpty Dumpty responded to her in Through the Looking Glass,
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’
The only way that we will understand what the Word of God means is if we study the Word, not from a viewpoint of the law and its exactness, but from the viewpoint of the Spirit and how we are to live our lives. It is easier, I will agree, to hold to a specific view of the Word of God; it means we don’t have to think about what the Word means because our thinking is done for us. It means that others are telling us what the Word means or was what we are to believe.
Some may say that this view allows for gray areas in how we lead our lives; that it gives us some “wiggle” room so that we can do what we please when we want to. I think not; in fact, to see in the Scriptures the way in which we are to live our lives with the Holy Spirit part of our lives is far more demanding than if we simply imposed some sort of law that would dictate our behavior. For living in and with the Spirit means that we must see each individual as an individual and not as some part of a group that we can cast aside because they do something we don’t approve of.
One of the things that Jesus sought to change in His ministry was that strict adherence to the law. It was the law that said that you could not heal a person on the Sabbath but you could heal farm animals. It was Jesus who brought children into society when society cast them out and treat them as second class citizens.
Over and over again, Jesus showed people the fallacy of a life lived in the law but not in the Spirit. Baptism is more than a simple ritual that must be done in order to become a member of the church; it is more than a rite of passage from one age to another. It is a radical step that says that the individual growing up is going to be different.
When Jesus came to John the Baptizer by the River Jordan, it was a statement that His ministry was to begin. Our baptism, no matter at what age it was performed, is a statement that we will be servants of Christ, bathed in the water that cleanses our skin and opens us to the Spirit which will enlighten our soul.
There are those for whom this is nothing more than superstition and if we live our lives as if baptism were a simple ritual, then they would be correct. But if we are baptized in the water and we lead our lives growing and developing in Christ, then people will see there is more to this than just superstition. They will see the life-changing power; they will see the dove coming down from heaven and they will hear God proclaim, “This is my child in whom I am well pleased.”
Baptism is the beginning of life; are you ready to begin that journey?