Baptism 101

“Baptism 101”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
January 8, 2023

Isaiah 40:3-5
A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

Matthew 3:1-17 from The Message
While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called “the Baptizer,” was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”
John and his message were authorized by Isaiah’s prophecy:
   Thunder in the desert!
   Prepare for God’s arrival!
   Make the road smooth and straight!
John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life.

When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and flourishing? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.

“I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”

Jesus then appeared, arriving at the Jordan River from Galilee. He wanted John to baptize him. John objected, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”

But Jesus insisted. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” So John did it.

The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”

– – –

Today, on the day we celebrate Jesus’ dip in the river Jordan, we are talking about baptism. It’s one of the two sacraments we celebrate, a central rite of our Christian faith, so it’s important in and of itself; but I also want to discuss it as we head into the annual meeting on January 29th where we will be voting on our proposed new membership covenant and on the bylaw that currently requires those who want to join the church to be baptized. My goal is not to try to convince you one way or the other about how to vote, but rather to do what several of you had asked of me during our membership covenant conversations this summer: to give you the lay of the land regarding what scripture says about it and what it means in our tradition so you can make an informed decision when it comes time to vote. And I’m going to try to do it in concise, non-boring fashion. So let’s jump into it!

First up I will just note that our denomination, committed as we are to congregational polity and the autonomy of each church, does not have any general rule requiring baptism to join the church. Many UCC churches do require it; some don’t. In fact, in the late 18th and early 19th century our forerunners in the Christian Church (one of the four denominations which joined together to become the UCC) specifically didn’t require it to honor their core principle of freedom of conscience and the idea that Christ wouldn’t limit communion to those who had been baptized. They held “Christian character” as their only requirement for membership.

Scripturally and in the history of the wider church, baptism has meant several different things and served several different functions. The first two we find in today’s scripture about John baptizing at the river Jordan. 

This wild-eyed, locust-eating camel-hair-wearing prophet was chock full of charisma, drawing people out into the wilderness to hear his preaching and be ritually immersed, a practice not uncommon in Judaism then or now. John’s ministry was the first-century equivalent of a revival, and people were clearly attracted to the spiritual renewal he was offering despite, or maybe because of, his stark message. The Message version of the scripture I read is more accessible and hopeful, which is why I chose it, but it definitely loses a touch of John’s signature fire and brimstone found in other translations: “Repent!” John tells the people, because the Messiah is coming, and “[h]is winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John has no patience for the religious elite who show up to get baptized to follow the newest religious craze, because for John, immersing yourself in the waters of the Jordan should be a change not just to your ritual routines but to your life, a commitment to truly live in God’s ways.

So that’s our first meaning of baptism: ritual immersion to mark a change in your ways.

But then Jesus shows up and asks John to baptize him, and John is clearly thrown because how could Jesus, the Messiah, need to repent and change his ways? And this is how we get the second meaning of baptism: when Jesus comes out of the water, he sees the Holy Spirit and hears a voice calling him beloved: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” Jesus gives us the gift of seeing baptism as God’s claiming us as beloved child, a blessing to carry with us as we live out God’s call in our lives.

Now we skip ahead to the end of the gospel, when the resurrected Jesus is giving his disciples their marching orders just before he ascends to heaven: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Although interestingly, the Bible does not depict the disciples being baptized – it doesn’t seem to have been a requirement for the very first followers of Jesus – baptism in this verse is portrayed as the means by which we become disciples, or students, as the Greek word is literally translated, of Jesus. This passage is also often pointed to as the reason Christians should evangelize – because Jesus said so, and in his farewell speech, no less. But it’s worth noting that Matthew borrowed this bit from Mark, the earliest gospel, and that scholars generally agree it was probably not said by Jesus, but rather added on to Mark’s account by an early church that was not satisfied with Mark’s rather abrupt ending and needed some good motivation for growing their nascent community. 

Paul, whose letters to early church communities form most of the New Testament, has yet another take on baptism, one shaped by his own profound experience of conversion from anti-Christian zealot into a fervent follower of Jesus. Paul writes of the baptismal submersion and re-emerging from the waters as a symbolic death and resurrection: “We were indeed buried with Christ through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God, we too might live in newness of life” – essentially, a spiritual rebirth as we begin our lives as Christians. 

Paul also writes of baptism as part of what unites us as the body of Christ: that we share one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, and so baptism signifies joining the Christian family and our equality in it. In Acts, the Ethiopian eunuch learns about Jesus’ resurrection and that he can be a part of the early church just as he is – and he immediately asks to be baptized as a mark of his faith and a celebration of the space it makes for both freedom and belonging.

By the end of the first century Christians were debating whether baptism was essential for salvation, that is, to be admitted to heaven. In the fourth and fifth century, Augustine enlivened this debate with his significant contributions to the idea of original sin – the theory that we are born into this world marked by Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God in the garden of Eden, and so even infants need baptism to cleanse them of sin and ensure their place in heaven. (During the reformation, the anabaptists would argue that infants can’t make this decision for themselves and would insist on “believers’ baptism” – that only those old enough to claim the faith as their own were eligible to be dunked. Our tradition gets around this conundrum by inviting anyone baptized as an infant to claim their faith as their own at confirmation.)

In those first few centuries, baptism also came to be seen as a wiping away of any and all past sins – to the point that sometimes believers would refrain from being baptized until their sunset years to get the maximum retroactive effect. 

So, we have: ritual immersion to mark a change in our ways; God’s claiming us as beloved children; a commitment to becoming Jesus’ disciple or student of his ways; a tool for evangelism; a spiritual rebirth; a uniting with the Christian family; a celebration of freedom in and belonging to Christ; and a stay-out-of-hell or get-out-of-sin-free card.

Although all of these meanings and functions of baptism have survived into the modern day as part of various Christian traditions, not all of them have survived as part of our tradition – for instance, we don’t go in much for original sin and we don’t tend to think of the Christian life as a series of ritual boxes we check in order to get into heaven. But baptism as an acknowledgement of our belovedness in God’s eyes, as a commitment to Jesus’ way, as a way to unite with other Christians, as a spiritual rebirth, and as a celebration of freedom in and belonging to Christ? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes!

– – –

We talked at Bible study on Wednesday night about how baptism, one of our two sacraments, or rituals through which we experience God’s grace in a special way, is a once-and-for-all deal. Once you’ve been baptized, you’re “good,” so to speak – you don’t have to re-join Jesus’ family or reclaim your belovedness, no matter how off-track your life might get. That’s because, as we say during the actual ceremony, baptism is an outward and visible sign of God’s inward, invisible grace in our lives, and an in-the-moment recognition of something that has always been true – that we are God’s beloved children and are called to live our lives in response to God’s love. God’s lovingkindness towards us, God’s delight in us don’t change – that’s what all that covenant business we covered in the fall was about. So we don’t need to keep coming back to get a do-over.

And yet communion, our other sacrament, which we’ll partake of in a few moments, is wash-rinse-repeat, accessible as often as we need or want it. I think Jesus knew we would need frequent fill-ups along the way, not just a one-and-done moment (which may have occurred when we were too young to remember) to experience God’s grace and the presence of the Spirit in a particularly profound way. Life isn’t static; our faith isn’t static; so we have communion as this powerful way to experience God’s presence with us throughout our lives. 

I was baptized as an infant, and although I have wonderful godparents and very cute (and very 80s) pictures to remember it by, *I* don’t actually have a memory of it. (That’s a beautiful thing about the church – that all those who love us and watch us grow up in this faith community carry those memories, whether of baptism or of touching Sunday school questions or of a hilarious moment in the Christmas pageant, for us.)

But along the way I’ve found ways to do what the church calls “remembering your baptism” – not as a re-do and not so much to recall a memory you may or may not have, but to bring to the forefront what it means for you – your belovedness, your claimed and calledness, your identity and path as a follower of Jesus, your freedom and belonging in this faith and as a part of the wider church. In seminary there was a small font right near the door of the chapel, and every time I went in there for a worship service or for choir practice or just to be alone and think, I would dip my finger in the water and make the sign of the cross on my forehead, just as Rev. Barney Federwisch first did all those years ago. It was a comforting reminder of who I am and Whose I am, and I’m going to start leaving water in the baptismal font up front here if you’d like to do the same whenever you walk through the sanctuary. (And yes, I’ll change it regularly 😉 )

You can also remember your baptism with an actual dunk or sprinkle – you may recall Norma Sherwood did it when we baptized Ella Ford at Walden Pond. Some of you in our membership covenant conversations mentioned that you wished you had been able to choose adult baptism because you have no memory of your infant baptism, or that you got baptized sort of reluctantly because it was a requirement of the membership process but that you would find it so much more meaningful now that you are further along on your faith journey. If that’s you, let me know, and we’ll find a way to make your baptism your own.

But the way I’ve been remembering by baptism lately sort of snuck up on me. Starting with our first annual winter dip in Mystic Lake last year, Sharon Kabelitz and I have done an open-water immersion at least once every month this past year, including another dip at Mystic, several dips at Walden Pond, a dip at Nahant beach last week for New Year’s and even a dip in the Detroit River while I was there for my NGLI pastor gathering. 

When we dip, there’s never any kind of explicit ritual, unless you count yelling “This was a bad idea, why are we doing this?!!” But in freezing cold (or even mildly cold) water, pretty soon you stop yelling or even thinking – all you can do is be, free from worries and judgment and fear, and it’s one of the holiest things I know.

In the water I feel both held and free – supported by the Spirit and released from all my mundane preoccupations, fully alert to the glory of creation and the wonder of my being alive as part of it. It’s giddy and even joyful, and it gives you a natural endorphin high that lasts for hours. No wonder cold-water immersion has been linked to alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

But the other, surprising thing cold-water dipping has done for me is to train me to walk towards what seems difficult or uncomfortable. I have gotten noticeably braver in the last year, speaking up or embracing confrontation I’d rather avoid, because every month I am reminded by voluntarily going neck-deep into water as cold as 43 degrees that I can do hard things – and even find a high on the other side. 

What better way to embrace our discipleship of Jesus, who did all manner of convention-challenging, courage-requiring things and asks us to do the same? If we are to speak up in the face of injustice; if we are to be truly generous in a society that teaches us to hold on to our wealth, and truly loving to people society says aren’t worth it; if we are to forgive someone who has deeply hurt us; if we are to apologize and make real amends for our own mistakes; if we are to heal shame or pain buried deep inside us; if we are to refuse to go along with a status quo that harms creation or oppresses our fellow humans; if we are to maintain a sense of grace in the midst of conflict in our families, church, or communities – we need practice at doing hard things.

Remembering my baptism in cold water every month does that for me. It’s been the greatest unexpected gift, and I hope you’ll consider trying it with us this afternoon – or at least coming to cheer us on. Because whether we require it for membership or not, whether we have undergone it ourselves or not, that’s also what remembering baptism does – it reminds us that we are called as the church to live life for and with each other.

May it be so. Amen.