Calvary Unplugged: What Is Baptism?

Calvary Unplugged: What Is Baptism? August 22, 2011

Calvary Unplugged: What Is Baptism?

I love this time of the year, when everybody starts to trickle back in from summer adventures.  Welcome back, everyone.  We’re so glad you’re back.

Today we continue our series, Calvary Unplugged, where we’ve moved out of the sanctuary and are doing something a little bit different than our usual worship routine.  It’s good, every once in awhile, to get a different perspective, to think about life together from a different vantage point.  These past few weeks we’ve been revisiting the basics of our gathered community—why do we do what we do as Christians, what does our practice mean here atCalvary? 

Anybody learn anything interesting so far?

Today we’re going to talk about baptism—what is baptism?  This is kind of important, don’t you think, especially since we are…Baptists??  The truth of the matter is that different Christian communities hold different positions on baptism, but we’ve been saddled with a name that might suggest we’re a little, well, consumed with the whole idea. 

Let’s be honest, the name Baptist conjures up scenes from O Brother, Where Art Thou, you know, groups of the devout wearing white robes and singing on the river bank, eager to get anybody wet who will agree. 

Or, perhaps it reminds you of a story I heard recently from a friend, who moved from another country to a very southern state when he was about 5.  Nobody in his family could speak English, especially that kind of English, but he remembers shortly after they arrived that a nice lady in a white Cadillac took them to a place called “church” one Sunday morning, where they all took a bath. 

Baptism in its very nature often provides some awkward experiences, or, as we like to say around here, great fodder for future book writing efforts. 

(Amy Dale shares a funny Calvary Baptism story.)

Gotta love being a Baptist.

Baptism is biblical, of course.  There are stories throughout the New Testament about believers being baptized—even Jesus himself.  The practice was not new to Christians; there are rituals similar to baptism in many other faith traditions, and there was specifically one in ancient Judaism that the Christians certainly modified.  Baptism in early Christian communities was a way to be identified with the new sect that had formed—it was public and shared by the community, a way of being part of a bigger whole.

Though churches have in recent years taken the name Baptist off their signs, thinking they will appeal to a wider audience without it, the fact remains that we hold the name Baptist (unfortunate or not) for a reason.  Anybody know why?

Well, we have to go way back to find out.  In the 3rd century, when Christianity had become an established institution, the practice of going down to the river and being baptized under the water took on some modifications.  The leaders of the church at that time began to teach that infant baptism was acceptable—you know, get everybody baptized early and get it taken care of.  That’s when, understandably, baptism by sprinkling, using a baptismal font, became the standard norm. 

By the 4th century baptism became, not a community celebration of faith, but rather a required rite of the church, which priests had to administer in a certain way using a certain ritual.  As the Middle Ages progressed baptism of infants became standard, and this was actually the rite where a child was given his or her name.  Communities used baptism records as records of population—everybody did it and it was part of every person’s life journey.

Things with baptism started to change during the Reformation.  Leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin began to teach that baptism was more than a social rite of passage but actually a sacrament—a holy and necessary experience of faith.  This muddied the theological waters and, whether the reformers meant it or not, underscored the common belief that baptism and salvation were inextricably linked—that you have to be baptized to be saved, in other words, and that you had to get it done early, as an infant.

In the middle of all of that religious and political turmoil came the Anabaptists.  Anybody heard of them?  Anabaptists were a group of radical reformers that objected to the church and to the leaders of the Reformation.  Specifically, they felt that “believer’s baptism” was the only way to go.  In other words, when you’re a baby and you get baptized, you don’t have a choice about what’s happening to you.  Baptism should not be celebrated, the Anabaptists thought, until a person was of an age where he or she could make an informed decision about faith.  In fact, Anabaptists were all rebaptized as adults in accordance with this belief.

The next iteration of this doctrine of baptism was the insistence by some reformers that sprinkling was not an appropriate way to baptize.  After all, Jesus was dunked in a river.  Some even went so far as to say that it’s not really baptism of you’re not dunked.  All the way under.  Everything must get wet!

These reformers’ beliefs took hold and spread around the world with the birth of the missions movement.  They came to theUnited Stateswith early colonial Baptists, who baptized only adult believers by immersion.  As you know, they paid a steep price for refusing to baptize their children in the church and for insisting on these crazy displays of public baptism in a pond or the river.  Didn’t matter what time of year it was, either.  Ministers did not hesitate to break through ice on rivers and ponds to get someone baptized in the dead of winter.  (Plus, anybody remember colonial tests for being a witch?  Baptism in the lake and being a witch were a little too close for comfort in some places.)  No wonder everybody thought Baptists were strange—even back then! 

In modern Baptist life (and this may shock you), there are many different opinions about what baptism means, how it should be practiced, etc.  Since we’re Baptists and we hold to the autonomy of the local church, there’s no higher authority—a council or a board or a Pope or Bishop—that sets policy for every Baptist around.  We’re mandated to follow the leading of God’s Spirit for our own community.  As you might imagine, this makes for a whole bunch of differing opinions among Baptists.  In other words, on the issue of Baptism, as on most other issues, there is no one answer to the question, “What do Baptists believe?”.

Here are some basic points of contention (with thanks to Don Flowers):

•   Is baptism necessary for salvation? What about someone who professes Christ as Lord and Savior but is never baptized?  Are they saved?

•   If part of the reason for baptism is the remission of sins, what about sins committed after baptism?  Constantine, the great emperor/evangelist who is credited with forming theHoly Roman Empirewas not baptized until just before he died, because he believed that if you sinned after you were baptized, those sins were not washed away.

•   How should the baptism ceremony be conducted – should candidates be immersed, or “sprinkled”?  Does it matter?

•   What happens if someone is baptized by a priest or minister who is later excommunicated or who breaks away from the church? Is the baptism still “good”?  One of the great controversies of the early church surrounded the qualifications of the one doing the baptism.  Is it just as good if the Associate Minister baptizes you?  What about someone who isn’t even ordained?  Can they do “real baptisms?”

•   Should people be “rebaptized” if they leave one denomination for another?  There are some churches that will go even further, who require anyone joining their church to be baptized, so they can be sure it was done right!

•   Who should be baptized?  Infants, or only “believers?”  And what about people who were baptized as infants?  Do they have to be baptized again?

As you might imagine, we could debate with others who hold differing opinions about these issues all day long.  What I want to tell you today, though, is what we practice here atCalvary.

  • Baptism is an ordinance, not a sacrament.  It’s a holy part of our worship experience as a community and an important step in publicly confessing faith and intention to be part of the community of believers, but it is not a sacrament of the church performed in a stipulated way that renders it ineffective if specific steps are not followed.
  • Baptism is not necessary for salvation; it does not erase sin.  We’re of the opinion that each one of us is challenged to embrace a personal faith in relationship with Jesus Christ.  Baptism is an outward symbol of an inner transformation, so there’s nothing magical about getting dunked, in other words.
  • Baptism is administered atCalvaryby immersion whenever possible.  We do this because we’re Baptists and we celebrate in the Baptist tradition; because we have a really cool Baptistery that is original to our building; and because the act of going under the water and emerging from it represents death to an old way of life and birth into newness of Christ—in the presence of our faith family, who is on this journey of faith along with us.
  • We have an “open baptism” policy, adopted by the church in the 1970s.  That means, we honor your baptism in another Christian community.  If it is a meaningful faith experience for you, we honor that and do not require “rebaptism”.
  • One of the requirements of membership in this community of faith is an experience of Christian baptism.

And that last point, I think, is where we need to pause to truly understand what baptism means in our community of faith.  With all the baggage of being Baptist and with all the differing faith backgrounds each of us brings to life in community here at this time, in this place, Baptism here atCalvaryis so much more than a box you check for admission to membership.  It’s an act of public profession that takes courage and commitment, during which we get wet in front of each other and tell each other publicly that each of our lives is in the process of being transformed through relationship with Jesus Christ…that we want our faith family to know that…and that by our public profession we enter even more fully into a mutually dependent relationship with each other, where we challenge and encourage each other in the journey of following Jesus.  Baptism has power in that way…to draw us together, to give words and action to our private commitment…to engage each other in our individual journeys of faith.

There are many among you who have had powerful faith experiences through baptism, experiences that have drawn you and us into corporate faith community in powerful, wonderful ways.  I have asked two among us to share their experiences, one from the perspective of being Baptized and one from the perspective of baptizing another:

(Chuck and Allyson share stories.)

And so, I am thinking it’s not so bad to have “Baptist” on our sign outside.  Those who have gone before us died for their belief about what baptism represents.  In part, because of their conviction we have the freedom to interpret our faith and practice in accordance with our convictions.  More than that, we have an incredible and moving worship tradition that provides a vehicle for each of us to personally express, publicly, our faith for this time and place, in the context of a community full of people who share our doubts, struggles, and convictions, and with whom we travel this road following Jesus.

For shared faith, for a beautifully symbolic way to express and celebrate it together, we can only say: thanks be to God.

Amen.


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