Holy baptism is an incredibly multi-valent sacrament. It signifies entrance into the life of the church. It is an outward and visible sign of God’s grace. It is an opportunity for transformation, as well as a public sign of the spiritual transformation of the one undergoing it (think O Brother, Where Art Thou). It is a joining together in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In Scripture, it is a dramatic dying and rebirth (Colossians 2:12), a sign of unity (1 Cor. 12:13), a washing (1 Peter 3:21) as well as adoption as children of God (Galatians 4:5). It is a moment in which God gives God’s Spirit in a special way, and the recipient is named child of God.
It’s also a bit of (or a lot of) water and an awkward moment in front of a crowd.
The sacraments are curious. They’re special moments in the life of Christian community when God’s promises intersect with materiality. God’s forgiveness with bread and wine. Rebirth with water. Gospel words flying from a pulpit into ears. Promise combined with a wedding ring. Hope in resurrection spoken over oil imposed. Love expressed in the washing of feet.
If God is at work in all things, how is it possible for God to be especially present in specific places, certain times? How can God “show up” if God is also trans-local? How can God be an “event” when God is beyond time?
Here’s what the primary ELCA text on the sacraments has to say about baptism: “Baptism inaugurates a life of discipleship in the death and resurrection of Christ. Baptism conforms us to the death and resurrection of Christ precisely so that we repent and receive forgiveness, love our neighbors, suffer for the sake of the Gospel, and witness to Christ.”
Interestingly, when I talk to adults serious about baptism, their questions often center around belief. They wonder: Should I be baptized if I don’t believe every single point in the creed? Do I have to believe everything listed here to be baptized? How much does my child need to believe in order to be baptized?
I have a fairly straightforward answer to that question. Answer: Well, perhaps baptism isn’t that which shows you have the right faith, but an event in your life that creates faith and to which you can look back as a continuing resource for faith?
I think fidelity to certain doctrinal propositions is not even close to the main thing in Christian baptism.
Faith is not primarily about cognitive assent to propositions. It’s not a body of knowledge. Rather, it is the continuing practice of life in community centered in Christ.
It’s us joining up with a faith that transcends us, both temporally and geographically. And life lived together allows doubt as one important facet of faith itself.
For example, we confess together that we believe in the resurrection of the dead. But what specifically we believe about resurrection, how it happens, how it works, what it signifies… there is considerable space for a life-time of doubts and new insights. If you don’t believe me, just read some systematic theology. Or Immanuel Kant.
I would never recommend that anyone get baptized if they feel they are violating their own integrity. But if you just have doubts and wonder whether you should get baptized, I say: Welcome to the club. All of us baptized people have doubts all the time. It’s not the anti-thesis of faith. It’s part of it.
What baptism inaugurates, however, is a life of discipleship. It’s you being conformed into Christ that you might love your neighbor, suffer for the sake of the gospel, and witness to Christ. A better question than do I have to believe all this? might be Am I ready for that?
Are you ready to potentially suffer for the gospel and on behalf of your neighbor in their need? If you can say yes honestly, then by all means, be baptized.
At the baptismal liturgy, we commit to:
live among God’s faithful people,
engage the word of God and the holy supper,
learn the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments,
study the holy scriptures,
nurture faith and prayer,
trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed,
care for others and the world God made,
and work for justice and peace.
In other words, baptism isn’t centered in a doctrinal position or set of beliefs (although there are some key texts and creeds worth learning). Rather, it is a way of life. The way of life comes with news and stories to share, doctrines to explore, but these are always resources for the journey, the way of life we are on. Baptism is life lived IN Christ, who himself through his Spirit enlivens all the actions we promise to engage in at our baptism.
The other thing about baptism: it’s a wall-shatterer. Although we are already united in our shared humanity (and it can be argued we are also united in our shared solidarity with all of creation), baptism especially signifies God’s active breaking down of the traditional barriers and binaries that divide us. Baptism is scandalous, because it illustrates God’s active over-coming of national boundaries, gender binaries, religious divisions, and more. It brings us to awareness of intersectionality in order to find life there.
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28) One mark of whether a community is doing baptism right: if the community itself is rather surprised by who arrives to be baptized.
When you come to the waters of baptism, you were already a human, and shared common humanity with others. In baptism, the sacrament signifies the “even more” of God’s uniting of our common humanity. We receive baptism as a gift, a resource for trusting that indeed, God’s promise, and our humanity, is enough to overcome and transcend all the forces that divide humanity one from another, and from creation.
There’s more “there” there than we realize, and that’s what sacraments do. They draw our attention to the truth of what already is, by deepening and transforming it.
There are many days, especially in this time of the coronavirus, where as a pastor and Christian, I ask myself, “What the hell am I doing? Am I able to do this?”
Then I remember: “I am baptized! I am in Christ. Let’s go.”
That is baptism..