Get Used To The Water
Jesus’ birth is described in only 2 books of the New Testament: Matthew and Luke. His baptism, on the other hand is talked about in six books: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts and Romans. The Scriptures place more emphasis on his baptism than on his birth. Brian Stoffregen suggests, “Perhaps that should be a clue for us. Perhaps we should not only give greater emphasis to Jesus’ baptism but also our own baptisms. Should we not publicize baptismal anniversaries of our members as we do birthdays and wedding anniversaries?”
James R. Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) makes this important point: “As the inaugural event of Jesus’ public ministry, the baptism tells us not what Jesus does but what God does to him” [p. 34].
Baptism is not about what we do. It’s about what God does. It’s not about my decision for God, it’s about God’s decision for me. God tears open the barrier between heaven and earth, God alights on me, possesses me and fills me with the Holy Spirit, it’s God’s voice that declares, “This is my child.” The only decision I can make is to get out of God’s way, to stop resisting God and to receive the gift that God has been trying to give me all along, the gift of my true self as God has always intended me to be. And even that decision is not entirely an act of my will; I come to that point of decision because God has enticed or nudged or shoved or dragged or persuaded or gently led me to that point.
There is an important difference between John’s baptism and Christian baptism which is often–too often–overlooked. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance and a washing away of sin. Christian baptism is about receiving the power of the Holy Spirit and a initiating a special relationship with God.
Baptism, from the Greek word baptidzo, means to dip under, to dye, to immerse, to sink, to drown, to bathe, to wash. When we are baptized we dip under the surface of religion and into the depths of faith. We are dyed the color of Christ. We are immersed in the life and love of God. We sink down into the depths of God’s compassion. We are drowned in the death of Christ so that we might be raised into his eternal life. As St. Paul says in Romans 6.5: For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” We are bathed in God’s cleansing grace. We are washed in the the flowing waters of new creation.
Writing about baptism in Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes: “Christianity is about water: ‘Everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters.’ It’s about baptism, for God’s sake. It’s about full immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s also holy, and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched…. In the Christian experience of baptism, the hope is that when you go under and you come out, maybe a little disoriented, you haven’t dragged the old day along behind you. The hope, the belief, is that a new day is upon you now. A day when you are emboldened to take God at God’s word about cleanness and protection: ‘When thou passeth through the water, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.’”
Baptism is not a one-time event. It is a way of life. Baptism is not fire insurance. We don’t baptize babies so that if, God forbid, something awful should happen they won’t go to hell. We baptize them so that they can be immersed from the very beginning in a life where they are always seeing and experiencing the presence of God, ideally within the family of faith–within the community of all those sisters and brothers who have also been given what St. Paul calls “a spirit of adoption.” We baptize adults because it is never too late to begin that new life as God’s child, never too late to become a new creation, never too late to receive that “spirit of adoption,” never too late to be embraced by and enfolded into the family of faith.
There is always that hope, that desire, to be new, to start over, to be whole. Crosby and Nash in their song, Lay Me Down say it this way:
Somewhere between Heaven and Hell
A soul knows where it’s been
I want to feel my spirit lifted up
And catch my breath again
Lay me down in the river
And wash this place away
Break me down like sand from a stone
Maybe I’ll be whole again one day
Baptism is all about God’s amazing grace, but it is not a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card. In fact, if you’re living out your baptism, it just my put you in jail. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, Daniel Berrigan, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Perpetua, the 285 Muslim converts–including children–who were arrested in Iran last year, the 42 Ethiopian Christians arrested in Saudi Arabia on December 17… Baptism put them in jail.
Romans 8:15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Baptism may call us to suffer with those who suffer for the sake of Christ. Baptism may call us to suffer with our brothers and sisters who suffer. We are God’s children. The heirs of God’s dominion. Baptism brings us not only privilege and blessings, it brings responsibilities. We have joined the family business–God’s family business. We have a job to help realize God’s vision for the world, to transform the whole world so that God’s justice, God’s shalom, God’s idea of equity and equality, God’s generosity and God’s compassion are the standard and norm “on earth as it is in heaven.” Sometimes that means we have to stand up to the powers and forces in this world that are in opposition to God’s vision. But baptism can give us the strength to do that, too.
Some of you no doubt remember how during the civil rights marches the authorities in Birmingham tried to stop the marchers with fire hoses. Martin Luther King, marching at the front, felt the full force of those hoses. When he spoke about that later, he said that he and the other marchers had a common strength that gave them the courage and the power to keep going. He put it this way, as “we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were a Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water.”
Brett Blair wrote, “You and I know the water. All of God’s children know the water. We share by our faith this common symbol, this initiation, this rite, this power of God over the deep and often raging chaos of life. We know water!” All over the world baptism unites us. We are children of God… and it’s a very large family. That means that no matter what we’re facing, we never face it alone. We have Christ. We have our Abba. We have the Holy Spirit. And we have a whole world of brothers and sisters.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.