One Sunday, a young family came to church and sat in the front row so the children could have a clear view of everything. It happened that on that particular Sunday, the pastor was baptizing a brand new little baby. The little five-year-old daughter, watching from the front pew, was utterly fascinated by the baptism ceremony, but didn’t really understand what it was all about. As the pastor began to scoop water from the font and pour it onto the baby’s head, she turned to her father and in a very loud voice asked, “Daddy, why is he brainwashing the baby??”
Baptism isn’t brainwashing, of course, but over a lifetime it is supposed to change the way you think, the way you see the world, and the way you interact with the world. We baptize people, including babies, as a sign that they are included in God’s grace and in God’s mission to transform the world. We baptize because Jesus told us to baptize. And we baptize because Jesus, himself, was baptized.
The baptism of Jesus is covered in all four gospels. Sort of. John’s gospel has a scene where Jesus is at the river while John is baptizing, and John says he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove, but the Gospel of John never actually describes Jesus being baptized.
My favorite version of the Baptism of Jesus is in the Gospel of Matthew because it starts out with John and Jesus arguing. Can you imagine it? There they are, hip deep in the water, and Jesus says to John, “Do you have to dunk me all the way under? Can’t you just scoop up a handful of water and pour it over my head?” And John says, “Dude! No! Are you crazy? I’m John the Baptist, not John the Episcopalian!”
Actually, what they were arguing about was that John didn’t want to baptize Jesus—at least according to Matthew’s account. Jesus came to John to be baptized, and Matthew tells us that John would have prevented him. It didn’t feel right to John. It didn’t feel appropriate to him because he knew that Jesus was more important than he was. For him to baptize Jesus seemed upside down and backwards. “I need to be baptized by you!” he tells Jesus.
I need to be baptized by you. That’s an interesting choice of words. The wording in Greek implies that John is lacking something that he thinks Jesus can give him. What could that be?
Jesus finally persuades John to go ahead and baptize him when he says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Today’s English Version translates that as “Let it be so for now. For in this way we shall do all that God requires.” The Contemporary English Bible says, “For now this is how it should be, because we must do all God wants us to do.”
Basically, Jesus is telling John, “let’s go ahead with this because it’s the right thing to do.”
So there’s another reason we baptize: it’s the right thing to do. It’s what God wants us to do.
The word “baptism” comes from the Greek verb baptizein which means “to dip,” or “to dip frequently or intensively, to plunge or to immerse.” It’s also the verb that’s used to describe putting dressing on a salad, though, so you could say it also means “to sprinkle.”
Because early Christian baptisms were usually by immersion, some have insisted that you have to be fully immersed or it’s not a real baptism. But The Didache, a manual for good church practice written in the late 1st or very early 2nd century said, “If you have not living water (running water, such as a stream or river), baptize into other water; and if you cannot in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”
That practice of pouring out water on the head is called afflusion, by the way, and as The Didache attests, it has been one of the ways the church has baptized people since its earliest days.
Martin Luther described baptism as one of the means of grace through which God creates and strengthens “saving faith.” He borrowed language from Titus 3:5 to depict baptism as a “washing of regeneration” in which infants and adults are reborn. In that rebirth, said Luther, we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ.
“Baptism, then,” he went on to say, “signifies two things—death and resurrection, that is, full and complete justification. When the minister immerses the child in the water it signifies death, and when he draws it forth again it signifies life. Thus Paul expounds it in Romans 6: ‘We were buried therefore with Christ by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.’ This death and resurrection we call the new creation, regeneration, and spiritual birth. This should not be understood only allegorically as the death of sin and the life of grace, as many understand it, but as actual death and resurrection. For baptism is not a false sign.”
In other words, as Luther describes it, we actually die and are resurrected in our baptism. Life—baptized life—is brand new.
Luther also said that the amount of water is never an issue. Water is the physical sign of what God is doing in baptism; it is the Word of God that makes baptism effective. One drop of water is enough because it’s the Word of God that has all the power. The water and the Word together become a sign of what Christ has done and is doing for us.
Baptism is not a sign of my decision for Christ, it is a sign of Christ’s decision for me. It is a sign of God’s grace—the grace that gives us life, the grace that sustains our life. By the presence of the living Word, Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in us and works through us, that one drop of water can make all the difference in the world.
Baptism isn’t an event, it’s a way of life. But if our baptism makes one drop of difference in our lives, then we nurture that new life so it can grow and mature. That’s what church is for. That’s what Bible study is for. That’s what prayer and contemplation are for. But church, prayer, Bible study—these things are not our mission—they are things that prepare us for and empower us for our mission.
The late Thomas Troeger who taught preaching at Yale Divinity School once said, “When we follow Jesus into the waters of baptism, we are making a statement, a witness to our desire not only for a new life for our individual selves, but a new life for the whole world. We are renouncing Herod’s action of shutting up John, of shutting up hope, of shutting up the transformation of this world. We are affirming the opening of heaven, the opening of hope, the releasing of God’s renewing power into the world.
“Every time we have a baptism in our churches, we are making a statement of the same good news that John preached. It is not good news to the Herods of the earth. It is not good news to those who want to shut up the transforming power of God, including those who do it in the name of narrowly doctrinaire religion. But it is good news for everyone who yearns and hungers for a new world, a new creation. When we follow Jesus into the baptismal waters or when we reaffirm our baptismal vows, we are giving testimony that the opening of heaven is greater than any human effort to shut up the power of God.”
What happened for Jesus in his baptism also happens for us in our baptism. The heavens are opened to us so there is no barrier between us and the presence of God, no barrier between us and each other. We are told that we are loved. We are named as children of God in a world that wants to call us all kinds of other names, a world that encourages us to label ourselves in ways that separate us from each other and to name others in a way that separates them from us. But baptism reminds us that we are all God’s children. We are all in this together.
Yes, our word baptism does come from the Greek verb which means to immerse. But what is it that we are immersed into? The water is an important sign. It speaks to us physically, spiritually and psychologically in a powerful way. But what we are being plunged into is the life and love, the vision and mission of the Triune God.
In a world full of bad news, baptism makes us the Good News people. Our baptism loves us and names us. The Spirit of God descends on us and into us to empower us and to open our minds and hearts. And our ears. In baptism we are given a new identity; we hear God proclaim You are my child. I am pleased with you. I like you! Now…let’s go out and change the world!
 Matthew 28:19
 Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary
Image by He Qi