In the Name…
Over the centuries, theologians have debated what baptism accomplishes, to whom it should be administered, and, even, how much water should be used. One Baptist minister, however, is on record as saying that while it takes 50 gallons of water to baptize one Christian, it only takes five drops of rain to keep him from coming to church.
But, more seriously, a young mother was once asked by a priest why she wanted to have her baby baptized and her answer was, “To protect him.” To protect him.
From what? I might ask. Certainly, not chicken pox. But, I wish it was that easy. I wish I could say to all the illness and misfortune and struggles of my life, “I’ve been baptized!” and they would all just go away. But, that doesn’t seem to happen. And yet, the young mother did, unconsciously, speak a deep truth. A person who has been baptized is, indeed, under some form of protection.
Because, although baptism does not fix our problems, take away our pain, or change the circumstances of our lives, it changes us and offers a way through those difficulties, pain, and circumstances and ultimately, provides us even with a way through death.
Baptism gives us a new way of being, defined no longer by the laws of nature, but, by a relationship with God, who, as we heard through the Prophet Isaiah, says “I am the Lord, I have called you…I have taken you by the hand.”
You see, those who have been baptized are different from those who have not, but, not in any physical way. Baptism doesn't make our hair turn green, for example. That would be interesting. But, there's no way to tell a baptized from a non-baptized person by looking at a photograph. There is, nevertheless, a difference, a substantive difference, on another level.
The baptized can expect to be heard by God as a son or daughter is heard by a parent. The baptized has access to the unlimited power of the Holy Spirit and can both receive and make graces and miracles. And, the baptized doesn't need a self-help philosophy because the baptized always has help. We can ask the other baptized to pray for us and our needs. And not just those we know. We can also ask those who live in Heaven. The communion, the communication, of the baptized, transcends time and place and dimension because it is not based on who we are, but, on what God has made us.
To know this, to experience this, is the protection of baptism and it is a wonderful thing.
But, the question, then, may be fairly asked – if I am so protected, what do I do with this gift?
If you look at the Episcopal Baptism service, you see that a part of it is called the Baptismal Covenant. It starts with a recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, a statement of personal belief, but it doesn’t stop there. It continues with a series of questions: Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
These questions, to which the candidates or sponsors reply, “I will, with God’s help”, are what we call the post-creedal professions. That is, these are the ways in which we are saying we will live the faith in which we have just said we believed in the Creed.
We will live by being part of the worshipping community, receiving the sacraments and keeping up a relationship with God and neighbour. We will live by examining ourselves and our spiritual quest to conform ourselves, our words and thoughts to the model of Christ. We will live by not keeping the faith a personal secret but sharing it as the motivating force for what we say and how we act. We will live by making ourselves vulnerable, taking risks and treating others as Jesus would. And we will live by looking at the big picture and not being taken in by the unjust structures and prejudices of society.
And these questions, these promises, are part of the baptism service because baptism is, in effect, a boundary between two radically different ways of looking at life and ways of living life and this is nowhere more powerfully symbolized than in the baptism of Jesus himself.
I rather think John the Baptist understood this. The Jordan is not the only river in the Middle East. John could have held his preaching missions in more convenient places. But, in the history of Israel, geographically, theologically, and symbolically, the Jordan was a boundary between the wilderness and the promised land; between sin and forgiveness; between death and life.
That is why he went to that boundary and called people to examine themselves and promise amendment and renewal of life and symbolize this by washing themselves in the water of the boundary. And, Jesus went there to make this repeatable ceremony into a one-time crossing of the ultimate boundary between this world and the next.
Ritually, we are baptized only once. Yet, every day we face boundary experiences; challenges to what we say we believe.
Yes, the circumstances of life, things done and left undone, the ups and downs of living, push us back to the boundary, but there we find the waters. And there we are again immersed and bathed by God’s breath, the Holy Spirit, to strengthen us anew to go forward, not alone, but accompanied by that cloud of witnesses who have also been there and who encourage us to follow them.
For, as one author has said so eloquently, baptism is a call to me, but, it is a journey of we.
In the Name…