WHAT IS BAPTISM?
Baptism (Greek baptizō, to dip, to plunge; to perform ritual washings) is the act of cleansing in water that admits one as a full member of the Church. Most Christian churches call it a 'sacrament', a sacred and holy act.
Baptism is a covenant, sort-of like marriage, sort-of like a contract, but really something of a more cosmic scale than either. These kinds of covenants are based on the promises God has made to us. God is trustworthy, and sticks to these promises though we fail in our responsibilities.
Baptism is a promise with a sign; a covenant of grace given to us in a way that we can see, hear, feel, and grasp. It is the promise of God's forgiveness, applied personally. It is also the gift of the Spirit's presence. What an adult is doing in the public ceremony is saying to the Spirit, 'Come on in!'.
What Baptism Is Not
Baptism is not :
- a nice way of blessing someone.
- an event that highlights the minister.
- a way to convince people that they need the institutional church for something.
- an opportunity to take a collection.
- a formal public ceremony marking the arrival of a baby.
- a symboled-up way to take a bath or a dip in the waters.
- a ceremony for honoring the mother in public and before the whole family.
- a way of paying homage to one's Christian ancestors.
There are times for these things. But there are many other ways to do them, and a baptism does not depend on them at all. Baptism is something very different. Baptism is a start of something big -- bigger than you are, and longer than your lifetime. Baptism is the start of following Christ, when God lays claim to you. If it is not that, it is not baptism. If it is that, then there are many things that can go with it.
Jesus Commanded It
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus had commanded his followers to baptize. The sayings of Jesus, of course, are not to be treated simply. Modern scholars may be right in saying that Matthew's precise wording is not Jesus' wording, but those of the author. It is very likely Matthew's précis or summary of what Jesus told us to do when He last left us. We can judge that best by what the apostles did thereafter. The church in Acts acted as if the command to baptize was indeed a command from the Top, right from the start. To put it another way: there were lots of things that Jesus had said were good to do. The early church did those things. But their activity in baptizing (as also with teaching) is done in such a way that it stands out as something they were responsible for doing -- not 'if I feel like it' or 'when I get around to it', nor as a ceremony like other ceremonies that can be exchanged for another if they thought it would help. It was something they did right away. They were not baptizing for their own purposes or in their own behalf. They were acting on orders from God: DO IT!
Jesus himself was baptized, by a man John who had become known far and wide for his baptisms of repentance. But this was no baptism of repentance, since he had no wrongs to turn away from. It became an initiation, marking the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. He did it "to fulfill all righteousness". And when He was baptized, the Holy Spirit came to Him, as Scripture reports, in the form of a dove. Thus, Jesus' baptism started a ministry in the fullness of the Spirit.
Baptism is something of a threshold. It is a threshold of more than a dream: one crosses into a renewed reality which *will* take full hold and be completed, and which is already kicking in right now. You need only cross over once, but you still need to return to the crossing place repeatedly.
What Does Baptism Do?
Baptism's root is in Jesus, and our tie-in to Jesus is through the Holy Spirit working in and among Jesus' followers.
When you're baptized, you are completely covered with God's grace, so that God acts not by your righteousness, but by what Jesus did on the cross. In fact, you are baptized into Christ's death and resurrection, and that can't be stolen from you by anyone or anything. Faith, grace, salvation, and the Spirit's work in you are gifts, not achievements -- blessing, gift and mystery rather than knowledge. We don't merit them or have any right to them, but God gives them anyway.
When you're baptized, God is acting on you as a person -- on you as a specific person or entity, and never as a 'thing' or object, nor just as a part of a larger group. Yet, you really do become part of a larger group : you're counted among Jesus' followers, and the Spirit comes into you to set up shop and start full-time work.
When you're baptized, you're putting your life down a different road, getting off of the road of surrender to evil's power, and onto the road of the faith journey of surrender to the Spirit. You can be fearless about this, because no matter how risky this world gets, God is with you.
Repentance, forgiveness, and renewal are the follow-through on Baptism, for every moment of the baptized's life. These are repeated over and over again. The act which starts it, the baptism, needs to be done only once, and it works from then on. The Holy Spirit takes hold of spiritual life and growth, and is constantly at work, for it takes a lifetime to kill the Old You. No human being, society, authority, or government can take that away or add to it. God is adding and taking all the time, pruning dead wood and growing new branches and blossoming buds for an ever-changing new life.
The Bible on Baptism
Ambrose of Milan wrote quite a bit about the Holy Spirit's presence at baptism. He drew on several images from the Bible concerning God and water:
- the Spirit moving over the waters at creation;
- the Dove which flew back to Noah with the evidence that the earth was healing itself and was coming to a state of peace;
- the Cloud which covered over the Jews as they fled Egypt.
The focus of these is not the water of baptism or what the water does, but on the Spirit and what the Spirit does.
Ambrose went on to point back to the bitter water of Marah (Exodus 15:22), to the water used in healing Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5), and to the paralytic at the Bethsaida pool at Sheepsgate (John 5:1-9).
The liturgies of most liturgical churches refer to these other baptismal themes:
- Water as a sign of the Kingdom, as in the 'living water' Jesus told the Samaritan woman about, and at the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, and, inside the Kingdom, the river which flows from the throne of God;
- Jesus' death and resurrection, as His special sort of baptism (drawn from Luke 12:30, Mark 10:38-39);
- Jesus' own baptism, with the descent of the Spirit as a dove. This last theme is most prominent in today's liturgies. It is used:
- as an example (He was baptized, and thus so must we who follow in His way);
- in revealing Jesus to be God's Son (spoken by God at the baptism);
- in showing that it is the Spirit that makes the water of baptism 'work';
- as when the Spirit is received to mark the start of the baptized's own ministry as a believer (just as Jesus' baptism marked the start of His public ministry);
- as something which sounded the first note of His death, which brought the Spirit of forgiveness to the church.
Another important image of water is found in Ezekiel 47:1-12. The image here is of flowing water that bring life and growth where it flows.
1 Peter 3:20-21 speaks of the time of Noah, where eight people were brought safely through the flood waters. Then, baptism is likened to that act. But in 1 Peter, the real comparison is between the ark (which saves by floating on the water) and Christ's resurrection (which saves through giving its benefits by going into water).
Tradition on Baptism
Christian tradition holds that the water of baptism is both 'symbol' and 'means'. It symbolizes what happens in baptism, and it is the stuff of earth that actually bears the Holy Spirit. Water cleanses; water drowns and kills; water refreshes. Water surrounds us in the womb. Water is the main ingredient of the human body, and especially in the blood which carries the stuff our cells need for life. Water makes plant and animal life grow. Yet, without God's powerful, creative Word, water can do nothing to your spirit. So, when you are baptized, the Spirit acts through that Word and the water to cleanse you and drown the Old You, surround and cushion you as your faith gestates, and carry Christ's presence into you. The Spirit starts to show you what the Word is for, and starts growing you into what God meant for you to be.
Baptized Into the Whole Church
Christians are not just baptized into their denomination or their congregation. They are baptized into 'the whole Church'. The 'whole church' is not an institutional identity, it's a relational one.
"The whole Church" spans time and place. Think about that: once you've been baptized, you're tied in with the underground that Nero was oppressing 1950 years ago, and with Christian astronauts and space adventurers of the future! You're not part of a passing fad, and you are never standing alone! "The whole Church" also spans cultural, racial, sexual, denominational, and socio-economic groupings. All are given the same baptism, under the same God, and made a part of Christ's own Kingdom by the same Holy Spirit working within them. (Paul saw this as one of the most important truths; he staked his Jewish life on reaching non-Jewish peoples with the Gospel.) But if this is true, then in Christ there is not only no cause for hatred or discrimination, but there is positive cause to live, work, love, and worship together. That's the New You the Spirit is fashioning. Ah, but the Old Yous are not dead yet, and we still use distinctions (including useful and truthful ones) as an excuse to hate or to ignore others. Thus, each Christian has what Paul termed 'the ministry of reconciliation', of living a Gospel truth that shatters the social barriers.
The New You of baptism is traditionally symbolized by a new name, meant to describe the character of their new faith. This is what the church means by calling the ceremony a "christening" -- the new name marks the baptized's being made like Christ, the anointed One. "Christening" has, in the English language, lost that impact; a christening's a nice ceremony to do for babies, or maybe to launch ships, rather than a life-changing new start. But then, a person's name no longer means what it used to: in the past, the name meant the person's reputation, power, image, and authority.
"But", some will say, "this means baptism adds up to no distinction among believers. That leaves a big problem: the barriers between believer and non-believer. Baptism doesn't get rid of that difference, baptism is its defining mark. Is the Christian free to shun the non-believer, to ignore them, wall them out of the Christians' lives, and seek to socially displace them in favor of believers??"
The fact is, unfortunately, that the Old Yous are very good at finding new ways to show themselves. There's a difference between believers and non-believers -- perhaps the most important difference there could be. But the believer has the task of following Christ. Christ's example is one of service, and of highly valuing all people instead of mastering over them. All people equally need the good news; our outreach is a way of telling our famished earthly fellow travelers where the food is. Most importantly, the baptized believer looks not to themselves, but to God. God loves everyone. Jesus died not just for those who already believed,but for everybody. The gift of saving grace was given with the aim of reconciling all people to God. The gift, of course, can be thrown in the trash bin because of a lack of faith toward the Giver, but the gift's still being given. (I don't know what happens if you're not baptized, any more than I know what happens to non-believers after they die - that's God's turf and not mine.) The point here is this: if God loves all, including non-believers, then Christians are to love all, including non-believers.
back to the Top
The Baptismal Rite
The ceremony of baptism is hardly unique. Other religions, including Judaism, have had ceremonies of ritual washing or dipping, usually as some form of initiation into something. The Jewish rite led to John the Baptist's rite, which led to Jesus' and then the church's. So, when did baptism start for Christians? At the faith's very beginning.
Baptism is usually done in a way that is not hidden from the public, in the presence of others, and specifically with others who are linked to the baptized person forever by way of that baptism. (There are sometimes invitations sent to specific people asking them to attend, but that's to get the people the person being baptized wants to have there. The event itself is still meant not to be hidden.) As a rule, secrecy is only used where the chance of persecution is high. Otherwise, Christians and even non-Christians are not barred, nor are they kept out of the loop as to whether it was done. You don't baptize yourself; it's always done by someone else (1 Corinthians 1:14-17).
The most suitable times for Baptism, symbolically, are :
- Easter Sunday and the Easter season (Jesus' resurrection)
- Pentecost (the entry of the Spirit, the start of the church)
- Epiphany/First Sunday of Epiphany (tradit. time of Jesus' baptism)
- All Saints Day (becoming a saint, a part of Christ's Body)
Least suitable: Lent (repentance, which is, symbolically, before baptism).
But no time is really wrong for a baptism.
Some baptismal symbols:
- The Baptismal Font or Pool (it is to be kept in clear view of the congregation; whenever it is seen, it acts as a reminder of one's own baptism, and a reminder to pray and work for others to be baptized.)
- Anointing with oil (commissioning for ministry; Messianic)
- making the Sign of the Cross with motion of hand or arms (baptized into Jesus' death)
- Laying On of Hands (commissioning the new Christian to be a witness to the Gospel, and to be a lay minister, as all Christians are)
- Baptismal Robe (putting on Christ; being clothed in righteousness; the robe (Galatians 3:17) is white (Revelation 7))
- Baptismal Candle (Pesach image; enlightened by the Spirit; lit for the first time (in liturgical churches) using the flame from the paschal candle; relit on baptismal anniversaries)
Baptismal Sponsors are people who take personal responsibility for nurturing the faith of the baptized, especially infants. They're usually called 'godparents', though today's godparents rarely actually fill this role. Teens and adults may have someone who is as a 'mentor' to them, or acting as a spiritual counselor; such a person can be a baptismal sponsor. It's important that a godparent not be just a 'friend', but a person who is a committed Christian, active in fellowship with other Christians.
Notes on the Rite of Baptism
In some congregations where a member actively led the baptized adult into the faith, that 'witnesser' is sometimes given a role in the baptismal ceremony, as a thank-you for their role in bringing about that baptism.
In ancient times, and still today in some places, the Renunciation of Evil is more than just a simple "I do" response. In the older traditions, it involves turning Westward (toward the mythical realm of the Devil) and making gestures (for instance, spitting) in that direction to demonstrate the baptized's disdain for the Evil One. Using an approach more meaningful for today's world, some churches have the baptized adult renounce not only 'the devil and all his empty promises', but renounce in public the specific sins they are known to have been committing. In the US, one can hear young women renounce prostitution, or men renounce the sale of drugs or the building of personal arsenals. In Africa and the Caribbean, it may be destroying or turning over to the church a supposedly powerful talisman, or spell books, or statues of idols.
In a baptismal service, the whole congregation prays in support of the baptized, praying in 'intercession', stepping in on someone else's behalf before God. Hopefully, those same people will remember to keep doing so long after the service is over.
It can hardly be deemed inappropriate if a newly-baptized adult passes out, breaks into ecstasy, or can't contain themself from praising or crying. In fact, it's hard to think of a more worthy moment for it. Naturally, an elder might grumble or a church lady might get indignant. But so what? It's not their baptism!
When adults are being baptized, it is best done as a part of a communion service, so they can take the bread and wine for the first time on the day they are baptized. They may also be given (or choose) a baptismal Bible verse.
A common practice in infant baptisms: once the baptism is completed, the infant is carried around the worship place so that everyone who's in the congregation can see their newest partner in Christ. Fair warning though: not all babies like to do this. Some of them don't see a room filled with a new family; they see a roomful of strangers. wwwWAAAAAAAHHHH..... Other babies take to it in great spirit.
Immersion baptisms have some drawbacks. I saw a man be submerged, and when he came up his toupee was hanging over his ear. (What was he thinking??) Another man had this hairdo that was super-slicked down (he must've been in training for being a TV evangelist...). When he came back up, not a hair was out of place. Then, there's the woman who insisted on not having an immersion baptism. Odd, for she was being baptized by a Baptist church known for its mass immersions. She explained that she always keeps her appearance in tip-top shape and she didn't want to be seen with ruined makeup and a wet 'do. (I don't think she quite got this Christian stuff straight yet...)
When too much attention is given to baptism as an event at a particular point in time, the ongoing dimension of baptism may get shifted to the background. The Spirit's work is a constant, moment-by-moment thing, and Jesus' work was already a success long before you were even born. The baptized can be sure that they are still baptized after all these years, not just when they were infants or on the day of their adult baptism.
Study Questions on Baptism
If you have been baptized : do you know the day? (If it's something you can look up, do it, even if it takes a little digging.) If so, do you celebrate this 'spiritual birthday', and how?
What do you think of when you see water used in baptism?
For churchgoers : At your church, do the parents and godparents understand what baptism is? What their duties are? Does your church have information resources to teach them (booklets, videos, web sites, classes, and/or a member who has the responsibility to teach this)?
back to the Top
QUOTES ON BAPTISM
"Behind this act of Christ in the present" [ie, baptism] "stands his whole ministry from the incarnation to the cross and resurrection. It is this work which he continues when, invisibly present in the Spirit, he receives new members into his church and makes them members in his body."
--- Gustaf Aulèn, *The Faith Of the Christian Church*, p.336
"..we believe that the confession of Christ also extends to an understanding of the transformation (sanctification) of the believer which is rooted in the converting reality of justification. Hence, while acknowledging that Christians are simultaneously saints and sinners (simul justus et peccator ), we also assert unequivocally that there is an inextricable link and relationship between who one is, namely a baptized and adopted child of God, and what one does, namely living and acting in conformity to the will of God."
--- from "A Harare Message", as found in *Theology and the Black Experience*, ed. A. Pero and A. Moyo (Augsburg), p.266
"In our baptism, God has turned to us so that we might turn to him. Daily we turn, responding to what God is doing in us. We respond to the Spirit's urging within our lives. In fact, the response itself (faith) is part of the Spirit's work in us.... The Spirit is not optional equipment for Christians.... The Holy Spirit permeates the Christian's existence, begins the Christian's pilgrimage, and leads us daily, tugging at our lives until they be fully turned toward God. There is no conversion, repentance, good work, or good life which is not a gift of the Spirit."
--- William Willimon, in *Remember Who You Are*, p.79
"The eyes of the flesh see water, but the eyes of faith behold the Spirit"
--- John Chrysostom