Reflections on Baptism – 1/11/09 – Mark 1:4-11, Romans 6:3-4

It’s nice, sometimes, when things fall into place without a lot of intentional planning of our own.  That’s a little how I feel about this and the next three weeks of worship.  I shared in the Musing that we have a four week block now where every Sunday we will be either observing or exploring some kind of ordinance, or, as we like to call them, a sign of the church.  In following the lectionary this week we have a focus on baptism, and then next week we’ll share in communion and look at how this act is connected with the calling of being peacemakers.   We also happen to have the Coming of Age celebration for our next group of youth on the 25th, as well as the ordination ceremony the week after that.  And so we have a chance to reflect on some of these practices, ancient and almost brand new (in the case of our coming of age ceremony), that are ways that we mark our identity.  I hope this can be a time when we gain a deeper sense of the way we are shaped by these practices.   We’re not having any baptisms today, but we’ll take some time now to meditate on its meaning.

A couple months ago The Mennonite magazine had an issue with a focus on baptism (11-18-08, ).  The lead article was by John Roth of Goshen College called “Remembering our baptism.”  He described the joy of recent baptisms at his own congregation and then went on to lament that he feels that the significance of our baptismal vows has been diminished in how they actually function in our lives.  He wonders if we are doing enough with instruction before baptism, as well as what he refers to as “continuing education” after baptism.  He worries that our tradition’s emphasis on baptism as a personal choice can too easily get co-opted by the individualism of our culture such that we don’t make a strong enough connection between our baptism and our commitment to a faith community where we are accountable to one another and willing to give and receive counsel.  He also wonders whether the Anabaptist teaching that baptism is not really a sacrament – an act that in itself changes our standing before God – but rather a symbol, or sign of that change that continues to happen throughout our life – he worries if this has potential to reduce baptism to “merely a symbol,” not actually very important and not actually changing us.      

One of his closing comments is a reflection on the experiences he has had at Lutheran worship services, a tradition that practices infant baptism.  One of the things that has stood out to him that he most appreciates about Lutheran worship is that there is a time each service where they are encouraged to “Remember your baptism.”  He then jokes about the irony of Lutherans, who technically can’t remember their baptism, holding this up as a weekly reminder, while Anabaptists, who, by definition, are supposed to be able to remember their baptism, are so rarely encouraged to do so.     

With all this wondering and worrying going on in this article about baptism, I wonder what comes to our minds when we are asked to “remember our baptism.”  And more than just the details around how and where and when you were baptized, I wonder how this call to remember our baptism makes baptism a present reality for us.  How does our baptism shape us?  How doesn’t it shape us?  How might it shape us?  How does it inform our present identity and sense of calling and allegiance?

This was more or less one of the questions that came up during one of the times after worship recently when the youth had a chance to ask a panel of four adults any questions they wanted to about their faith journey.  These brave adults gave thoughtful answers to the youth’s questions about sin, and heaven and hell, and God’s existence, and evolution, and what the Bible means to them, and the stories of their baptism and what that means to them.  With baptism, answers ranged from one who was baptized as an infant and who has since come to find great meaning in that event, to one who felt pressure to be baptized at a certain point in life because that’s what good kids did, to one who chose to be baptized not out of any great revelation or personal conversion experience, but as an expression of committing oneself to the work of the church and to being in community with those seeking to live in the Jesus way.  So we had a wonderful diversity even within that small group.         

I want to recognize the diversity of experience among us, and also recognize that baptism has not been a part of everyone’s faith journey.  I hope that we can have a rich, multi-faceted view of baptism among us and that we have chances to share these stories when we have opportunity.

I also recognize that events like this – baptism – like wedding vows, like communion, are never static in their meaning.  As we grow and learn we load them full of significance as to what they mean to us now, sort of retrofitting the experience to bring it up to speed with our life.  Which is really what remembering our baptism is all about.  To bring a past event into the present, and to learn from it things that we never could have anticipated when we actually experienced it.    

What I’d like to do now is to present two different sets of things that baptism brings together, each of these  centered around a scripture, and look at the ways these comings together give us a picture of what kind of thing we are entering into when we are baptized.      

The first coming together I want to highlight in baptism is that of the royal tradition, the kingly, and the servant tradition.  This is one of the major themes being illustrated in John’s baptism of Jesus.  The king and the servant fused together.  Jesus launches his ministry out of the one that John had already begun, and goes under John’s hand in the Jordan River.  It’s the first thing we read about Jesus in Mark’s gospel: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

There is plenty to unpack in this short narrative, but I want to focus on the voice that comes from the heavens.  The words themselves are a conflation of two traditions of the Hebrew scriptures.  The first part of this statement, “You are my Son” is a reference to the royal tradition when the king was coronated and declared to be the Son of God, something common throughout the ancient near east.  The words come from Psalm 2, believed to be a Psalm used at a coronation ceremony.  Part of that Psalm reads, “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.  Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage.”  By referencing this Psalm, the voice from heaven is signifying a royal event happening.  There is a giving of power, a conferring of authority that is taking place.

But then something very interesting happens.  The next words come out of a tradition that we may consider the flip side of the royal tradition, that of the humble servant.  The rest of the phrase, after “You are my Son” is “the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  These words are an allusion to one of the servant songs of Isaiah.  Isaiah 42 begins “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, with whom I am well pleased…he will not cry out or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;…he will faithfully bring forth justice.”  With this reference, the voice from heaven is signifying the humility and lowliness of the calling.  Essentially unnoticed, off the radar screen, as if it’s nothing at all.  A power so subtle that it’s not heard in the streets, but comes from below to bring forth justice.

By bringing these two together, we have the conferring of an identity through baptism that shapes one’s life.  True power and authority, are made evident in servanthood.  The one who is baptized enters into this odd position of recognizing the great worth of one’s life – a king, a queen, a beloved child of God, while also recognizing that one’s work may not even register in the ways that work and worth are often measured.    


The other coming together in baptism that I’d like to point to is that of death and resurrection. 

No one is completely sure what all the physical act of baptism was meant to represent as it was practiced throughout the ancient world — in Babylonian and Greek cultures, for example — and then was adopted by Judaism as a way of marking the conversion of Gentiles. When John the Baptist came on the scene he was using a form of religious ritual that had been around before him and was speaking fresh meaning into it, inviting people to be baptized for forgiveness of sins.  But why dunk people in water?  One of the proposals for what was being represented is that baptism was an act of simulated drowning.  That going under the water and coming back up out of the water, was nothing less than a symbolic death, and being raised up to new life.  The person being baptized is voluntarily entering into a death of the old life and beginning a new life.

This is what seems to be echoed in Paul’s letter to the Romans.  At the beginning of chapter six of that letter he says “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”          

In this image the water becomes both a grave and a womb.  The end of a life and the beginning of another life.

In our Anabaptist tradition the connection between this simulated drowning of baptism and an acceptance that one might actually die by drowning has been quite direct.  The one who we consider to be the first martyr of the Anabaptist movement, Felix Manz, was one of those who was in the inner circle of people who first re-baptized each other as adults, believing that they were now claiming their true allegiance to Christ above their allegiance to the established church and the violence of the state it was so entangled with.  In response to this heresy, in a twisted 16th century sense of humor, the magistrates decided that if anyone who called themselves Anabaptists wanted water for themselves, then it was water they would get.  Felix Manz was bound hand and foot and drowned in the Limmat River in Zurich as a warning to those who would challenge the authority of the church.  Drowning came to be referred to as the “third baptism.”  If the Anabaptists wanted to give themselves a second baptism as adults, they could very well meet up with the third baptism soon thereafter.

And so in a very real way, one’s acceptance of baptism was closely tied with one’s acceptance of death, an idea very much present in the New Testament.

Whether or not our lives are threatened as a result of baptism, there is a sense in which baptism carries this spiritual reality of accepting death.  We can think of baptism as dying in advance.  This is where the more mystical aspects of our baptism come into play. 

Through baptism we are invited into a condition, a way of being, that has already taken death into account and is connected to the Life greater than ourselves.  We come to acknowledge that our lives are no longer in our hands, but that the life that we now live, we live to God.  Our small individual “I”, our limited personal ego, gives way, dies, we could say, and is joined up with the Great cosmic I, the I AM, that holds us in being.  By dying in advance, we have the opportunity to take that spiritual journey of what it means to live beyond ourselves, as if our life, as we would have it, were already over.    

And then we continue to have life in this world where there are great injustices, like waterboarding, and other forms of torture, and the taking of life, and the oppression of the weak, and our baptism enables us to enter into this context with a spiritual footing.  As we take up the new life of Christ, we live a life in a community that is a contrast to these injustices and we accept that we may very well be on the receiving end of these injustices.  If we have died in advance, then our life that we do have becomes a gift that we are given every day.  So what will we do with it?

Baptism is a coming together of the royal and the servant.  Death and resurrection.    

We put a lot of value on being an age of accountability and responsibility when we make our decision for baptism.  But no matter how old we are, we never really know what we’re getting ourselves into.  We have a vague notion when we recite our baptismal vows that we are entering something that we’re only beginning to understand, and we have the rest of our lives to work out what it means to be a dead/resurrected queen/king/servant beloved child of God.

If you have been baptized, I offer that the event is something that can continue to carry more meaning throughout your life.  Whatever it meant to you at the time of your baptism, you get to continue to pack the event full of meaning as you grow, and keep coming back to that event that symbolizes all these things for us, letting it shape our priorities and our commitments.

If you’ve not been baptized I encourage you to consider this as a way of publicly expressing and marking your faith commitments.  I’m open to hearing from you and being in conversation, and, if you decide to move forward, to walk with you toward receiving baptism.

Let’s end this reflection by learning a lesson from the Lutherans and remember our baptism.  Remember the vows we have made to God, to ourselves, and to our community of faith, and remember the gift, the voice, the resurrection, that fills our life with mystery and grace.

Remember, beloved children of God every one of you, remember your baptism.