On Baptism

“It is said that when Martin Luther would slip into one of his darker places (which happened a lot, the dude was totally bipolar), he would comfort himself by saying, ‘Martin, be calm, you are baptized.’ I suspect his comfort came not from recalling the moment of baptism itself, or in relying on baptism as a sort of magic charm, but in remembering what his baptism signified: his identity as a beloved child of God.”~Rachel Held Evans in Searching for Sunday

This Sunday, we will receive our newest Confirmation class, which includes two baptisms. In our Confirmation class, we spend a good amount of time talking about the significance of their own baptisms: whether it was as a baby, as a child, or if they were going to be baptized on Confirmation Sunday. While I could write pages on the significance of baptism, in brief, here are three aspects: it’s about God’s first move towards us, it’s about our response, and it’s about community.

Baptism is, first and foremost, indicative of God’s first move towards us. It is a sign that God chooses us before we can even choose God. This is especially evident when we baptize babies. Babies are not able to make a profession of faith for themselves, and yet God is moving and working in this action. When we baptize an infant, the choir proclaims through song: “God claims you!” When we are baptized as infants, children, teenagers, or adults, the same truth holds: God is claiming us as his own, as dearly loved children adopted into his family. In baptism, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.

Yet, even as baptism signifies God’s first move towards us, we also find in its symbolic action the place for human response, whether it is by the person herself or by someone on her behalf. When babies are baptized, the parents respond on their behalf. When a child or adult is old enough to make a profession of faith for herself or himself, s/he indicates a willingness to respond to God’s invitation and turn towards God. Baptism is about repentance: turning from sin and turning towards God. It is about choosing to die to sin and to be raised to new life in Christ. In some sense, when we are baptized, we are putting to death our old selves. As Martin Luther said, in baptism, we drown our sinful self. An Argentinian pastor named Juan Carlos Ortiz is known for making a startling baptismal statement: “I kill you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and I make you born into the kingdom of God to serve and please him.” That’s pretty intense, but that proclamation truly emphasizes the end of one life, the sinful and selfish one, to begin a new one as a son or daughter of God, serving God’s kingdom. For those who are baptized as infants or young children, the Confirmation process presents the opportunity for them to make their own response to God that their parents made on their behalf upon their baptism.

baptism-stained-glassBaptism is about death and resurrection: not just Jesus’, but our own. Baptism is a symbolic action, a sacrament, which communicates God’s grace to us in a special way. In baptism, God declares to us that there is nothing that can separate us from his love, and we declare to God that we are placing our lives in his hands, which means we turn from sin and turn towards his transforming grace. In baptism, God declares that we, as vulnerable, sinful people, are exposed before evil and death, but that they are powerless against the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Finally, baptism is about community. When we baptize someone, we do it in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Just as the Godhead, by nature, is communal, when we are invited into the household of God, we are invited into a community of faith, the Body of Christ. In fact, baptism does not make sense without the intention of living in community. It isn’t just a cultural rite of passage: it marks entrance into the covenant community of the people of God. When we baptize, babies especially, without the intention of raising or nurturing them in the community of faith, then we are failing to understand this key piece of what baptism is about. It’s no accident that the whole congregation participates in and makes promises to the person being baptized. And here’s the other piece: we do not get to choose who gets to be baptized. For anyone who wants to earnestly turn to Christ and be baptized, there is nothing to prevent them from being welcomed into the household of God; even the people we may not like, or the people we don’t understand, or the people we wish we didn’t have to be around. Baptism breaks down our dividing walls. When we are baptized, we gain a new family, and we don’t get to choose who gets to be a part of it.

Whether we are baptized as babies, children, or adults, or whether we are poured, sprinkled or immersed, baptism is a gift from God that claims us as God’s own, moves us to respond, and calls us into a new community. Remember your baptism and be thankful!