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Baptism

By Charles Rush

January 12, 2003

Mk. 1: 4-11


W h
en I was just beginning seminary, I asked an elderly priest what he found to be the most enjoyable parts of ministry. Without hesitation he responded baptisms and weddings. Over the last 20 years, I have to agree with him. They are special moments and they are quite a blessing to be a part of.

The bible has a word for special moments like this, called 'kairos', which means fulfilled time. Like the coming of our Savior, like the long awaited birth of a new child into the world, this is ordinary time that has been filled with a rich meaning. The meaning of this special time shapes and orders the rest of ordinary time.

Several years ago I was looking through a photo album with my aging grandfather and we came to a shot from the early twenties, him standing in a dapper suit with a hat on. With shaking hands, he removed the snapshot from the album and held it closer and I noticed that his eyes were growing moist so I asked him what was so special about this rather ordinary photograph. "That was the night that I first met your grandmother. My life was forever changed." Not surprisingly, I was somewhat filled with emotion as well realizing that if things hadn’t gone well that night, I would not have been. There is a long chain of implication that follows from a moment of fulfilled time, things which you cannot now envision because you cannot yet see the doors of opportunity, nor the times of trial, that await you. But this is the nature of the call to faith.

Around here, most of the time when we think of baptism, we think of babies in white gowns, brought by their parents, who make promises to raise them in the faith, with their god parents. That is one of our traditions and it is the overwhelming favorite at present. That process leads to confirmation, usually when these kids are about 13. We take them through a year of education and reflection at the end of which, as very young adults, they make a commitment to follow in the religious tradition they inherited as their own- usually with qualifications, questions, amendments- but they follow.

This tradition of infant baptism lifts up and celebrates the fact that we were beloved before we even knew better. Someone was watching over us, taking care of us, and helping us to find the way before we were remotely aware of it. That is one of the root meanings of grace, that God loves us before we deserved it, before we could do anything to merit it, God was for us and with us.

And the other tradition, one we only rarely practice here anymore, is adult baptism. That is usually a full immersion in the water, after adults have made a conscious decision to change the course of their lives and follow after Jesus, a radical new direction.

In the earliest days of the church, this was by far the most common practice. And the ritual itself was pretty dramatic, usually to match the serious change of life that some of the early converts went through.

I found myself last summer, standing in the Cathedral basilica of ancient Carthage, the home Church of St. Augustine, when he was the Bishop. It is a magnificent church. In the middle of the church is an inlaid baptismal font for adults. It is not a small pitcher of water. But it is in the shape of a cross and you walk down into it.

Baptism is a sacrament that signifies a change of life. The symbolism is a death to the old self and the regeneration of a new self. In the earliest Church, adults to be baptized fasted during Holy Week. On Holy Saturday before Easter, they stayed up all night keeping the Vigil. Right at dawn, they stepped into the baptismal pools, like the one in St. Augustines Church (but the earliest Christians were usually baptized outside. They faced the West, shrouded in darkness, a dramatic symbol of the life of darkness they were leaving behind. They were baptized in the nude, which may help explain why church attendance was so much better then. The Priest dunked them so that they were fully immersed, then turned them around under water. As they rose out of the waters, they greeted the first rays of the new dawn on Easter morning, a spiritual rebirth like unto the mystery and drama of their natural birth. As they walked out of the waters, they were given a white linen gown and they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. But this Supper used milk and honey instead of the traditional bread and wine, since milk and honey are symbols in the Old Testament of what we will eat in joy and celebration upon arriving in the Promised Land.

The Christianity practiced in Ancient Rome was much more dramatic, visceral, and involved. Largely, that reflected the gutsy character of the Age. If you have seen the movie Gladiator you have some idea of just how much violence and oppression that made up daily life in Rome. (It is a rare movie from Hollywood that actually managed to understate the daily violence people witnessed). That experience scars the soul. Spiritual conversion was often very dramatic, matched by very dramatic religious rituals.

But drama is not merely the by-product of a past era. I’ve heard missionaries describe similar dramatic conversions and baptisms when they were working in Rwanda, from people who directly experienced the terror of receiving and/or inflicting soul scarring violence during the latest war there. If you read the chilling account of the present day violence in Sierra Leone in this weeks New Yorker magazine, this is not a thing of yesteryear.

Around here, we are mostly taken off guard by people that have a substantial spiritual conversion. One of my colleagues in St. Louis, the pastor of a fairly large, upper middle class Church tells the story of a guy that had just such a conversion. For this guy, Steve, a regular baptism in the church was not enough. He wanted to be baptized in the river.[1]

The pastor had never baptized anyone in the river and was fairly well taken aback, but worried at the same time, worried that all of his education and all of his upper-middle class settledness, maybe he had lost touch with the simple, profound drama that spirituality can have in people’s lives.

So he agreed to have a baptism at the river, announced it in church, and to his surprise, 19 people from the church showed up on an autumn morning, a day, as it turned out when the first frost of the fall settled on the ground. The pastor mutters to himself, the line the great Chief Crazy Horse, used to use before battle. “It is a good day to die”.

They drive to a bend in the river in a procession of cars that resemble nothing so much as a funeral procession, which, in a spiritual sense it was. They get to the end of a country road, and pass through a cattle gate that literally has a sign on it that reads, “If you do not intend to pay, Do Not Enter.” I don’t think Dante could have put it better for the would-be disciple of Christ.

They get to a bend in the river, filled with clear, spring-fed water, an iridescent green in hue. They look up the river and a couple of guys are fishing in front of a waterfall, probably named James and John, the pastor thinks to himself. The river ran loud.

The pastor called everyone around Steve and they prayed for him in a circle. They read a couple passages of scripture. Usually, Ministers that do baptisms in the church have on a pair of waders to keep them dry and warm. This day, the pastor had the same pair of jeans on that Steve had. Together they walked into the bracing cold water, while the people on the bank sang, “Shall we gather at the river.” The pastor, noticing the vitality of the river, said that he and Steve were welcomed into the water by Brother Bass and Sister Perch as Saint Francis would say.

They turned. Steven confessed Jesus as his Lord. The pastor says, “And in the name of the Trinity, he [Steve] was laid back like a dead man. Cold waters closed over him like a tomb. Then he was raised into sunlight. He could breathe as if born.”

What a great symbol. Waters do indeed have an amazing healing effect like that, the way that salt water heals cuts. And it is even the very sound of water. When my children were little, we would often rent a beach front house on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. My kids knew that, as likely as not, they could come find me at night, sleeping not in the bed, but out on the deck, on an air mattress, so I could hear the ocean all night long. Sometimes, by morning, there would be two or three of them out there with me, blankeys in tow. Even today, if I can’t sleep, I listen to the sound of a flowing stream. My children used to tease me about it, coming into the bed room with rain gear on or an umbrella. But there is something spiritually powerful about water that not only cleanses, but heals and makes us peaceful as well. It reminds me of the quote from St. Augustine, ‘my heart was restless, until it was a rest in Thee.’

The pastor concludes his memory of the baptism in the river. “But for me, the strongest image of that day was what followed. We had walking left to do, a long, cold walk through the river to the shore. Long before we got there we heard the people singing, their arms were outstretched, holding out blankets and towels to wrap a brother in. When we reached the shore, they welcomed and warmed him and folded him into their care. They enfolded him too.”[2] That is what the Church looks like on its best days.

We become the vocal chords for God, like unto when Jesus heard a voice from on high, the voice of God, saying, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

That line comes from Isaiah 42 and is actually a description of the Suffering Servant of God, and it portends what kind of Messiah Jesus will be for us, one who will give his life for us. “It means touching, living, going, doing, caring for peole. Here is my Son, the servant. Still wet from his baptism, Jesus left the Jordan and went about doing God’s business. Every crying person, every brokenhearted person, evey hungry person, every diseased person, every alienated person, every suffering person was his business… What is god’s business? To serve the needs of every human being.”[3]

That, by analogy, is our direction too. That is why Martin Luther used to say to people, particularly people who were facing a difficult situation or a morally ambiguous situation, “Remember your Baptism”. It is a reminder that it is not enough to simply ask “What do I want out of my life?” We must go on to ask, “What does God want out of my life?” It is not a question that we should take for granted, lulled into apathy by the immediate culture around us.

I read about a colleague that taught Freshman English at college. He assigned a 500 word essay with the simple question, “Why did you come to college?” He waded through a pile of sophomoric responses like “I hope to meet babes” and the predictably over earnest, “I’d like to get a good job” and “I want to get out of my boring hometown and meet people”.

Finally, he had two papers that spoke of what it meant to be human, of dreaming dreams and finding a vision, of what it means to live a fulfilling life by making a contribution to our wider society. One of them concluded saying, “My god help me, and strengthen me mentally, physically, spiritually, so as to become a fruitful citizen, and to help my country and my race.”[4]

The professor was very impressed until he passed the papers back to his class and discovered that those two papers were written by the only two students in the class who were not American. One was from Lebanon and the other from Angola. Sometimes, we who have lived for so long with so many privileges and freedoms take them for granted in a way that people who have suddenly had a new opportunity do not. Likewise, in the spiritual realm. We must remember our baptism, remember that we are put on this earth to make it a more humane place, to fill it with spiritual purpose, to ease the suffering of those around us, to build community, and lift up one another in love.

Fred Craddock tells a story about a man that he met when he was a young pastor, a rather committed nonchurchman. The man told young Fred rather bluntly when they first met, “I work hard, I take care of my family and I mind my own business.” He had no need of the Church. In other words, “leave me alone.” That was no problem to Fred, who left him alone.

Several years later, the man had quite a change of life, and just presented himself one day to be baptized which Fred did. More time passes and one day Fred strikes up a conversation with him about his turnabout.

Fred says, “Remember what you used to say to me all the time back then, that you work hard, that you take care of your family and you mind your own business.”

“Yep” said the guy. “I said that a lot.”

“Do you still say that?” said Fred.

“Yep” said the man.

“What is the difference?” asked Fred.

The guy thought for a minute and said, “I didn’t know what my business was back then.” Brothers and Sisters, Remember your baptism. When things are morally compromised and ambiguous, when the world around you is cynical and inhumane, remember what your business is. Remember whose you are. God bless.

Amen.



[1] The story is from Paul Duke and is recorded in his article “Living into Our Baptism” in Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, pp. 24,25.

[2] Ibid. p. 25.

[3] Fred Craddock in “Attending A Baptism” from The Cherry Log Sermons, pp. 10-11.

[4] Mark Trotter, “Working on A Commission”, preached at First United Methodist Church in San Diego on January 10, 1999.

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