Some of you know that I come from a long line of pastors and preachers. Some of you have even heard about my uncle and the time he got caught naked in the river, but it's a story worth hearing again. When my uncle was a young man, fresh out of seminary, his first call was to serve several Methodist churches, far out in the country. He was given a house to live in, but the churches he served were not wealthy and the house lacked some of modern amenities – like running water.
On Sunday morning, as he drove from church to church to church, my uncle got into the habit of stopping at one lonely bridge to wash up. One day, he stopped for a quick jump in the river. He dunked under as usual and when he came up, he was surprised to see a man with a gun sitting on the riverbank.
“Hi” my uncle said.
“Hi yourself. Whatcha doing in my river?” the man with the gun asked.
“Well, sir, I’m taking a bath.”
The two talked a while, and after a time the man laid down his gun (much to the relief, I am sure, of my still-naked uncle) and said “You a preacher, huh? Well, baptize me, then.”
My uncle refused (and lived to tell about it, evidently). Forty years later, when he told that story to me, he shook his head with regret. “I should have done it, but that wasn’t how they taught me to do it. They taught me that it had to me in a church, with the community there to witness it. I still wish I would have baptized him. Who knows what good it might have done?”
What does it mean, anyway, baptism? What is it for? For the man with the gun (whatever his name was), it was a greeting, a way to seal a relationship that could have gone sour and didn’t. For a young preacher it was a rite of the church, to be conferred only in a certain time, place and way. It was not at all everyday, not at all to be confused with the washing up that he was doing there in the river.
What about for you?
I’m willing to bet that baptism has as many meanings as there are people sitting here.
For some people, baptism is hell insurance. I heard of a woman who encouraged her children to quickly baptize their infant before the new family took an airplane trip for this reason. “What if there is an accident, and that baby dies unbaptized?” she worried. My own dear ancestors, the same people who gave birth to the uncle who was so reluctant to baptize the stranger at the river, were products of a missionary movement that joyfully counted baptisms as proof of work well done, as proof of souls saved.
Here is one thing I can tell you about which I have not doubt or question. The souls of little newborn babies, all of them, baptized or not, go to be with God and God welcomes them, all of them, with open arms, baptized or not. So let’s not talk about baptism as hell insurance. If somewhere, in some dusty corner of your subconscious, there is lurking that idea that baptism is protection against the potential dangers of the afterlife feel free to sweep that corner clean.
For some people, maybe those on the far opposite end of the spectrum, baptism is a social ritual – not so much a religious rite at all, but a chance to dress up Baby in grandpa’s christening gown, to take some pictures and to have a nice party afterward. You have experienced this kind of baptism some time in your life, I am sure. Perhaps as a witness to a baptism you have made promises, certain promises that you meant to keep about helping the child to be baptized grow in the Christian faith, and then perhaps you felt let down when you could not keep those promises, when the child did not appear again.
Well, you can never know how baptism will affect a family or an individual. I know of a child who was baptized as an infant, and never returned to church again until, at 11, he was old enough to walk himself. Then he went once, out of boredom, one cold winter day when he couldn’t find anyone to play with. Now he never misses a Sunday. (Thanks More Cows!) You may have chances to keep those promises in ways you never imagined, for the babies-grown-into-children we bless here in baptism. Or maybe we’ll have a chance to keep those promises with other children, whose baptism we did not witness, but whose education and formation is in our care just the same.
All I’m saying is, God has a way of bringing people into the care of the church, even if they, or those acting on their behalf, did not intend it to be so. Still, baptism is more than a social ritual.
For some, baptism is like adoption into the family of faith. This is getting closer. Babies do not choose to be adopted, that choice is made for them. This is one reason, those who like the adoption model say, that we baptize infants. The baptized one is received into a new family, hopefully to be loved and cared for there, just like an adopted one is loved and cared for by a new family. A new family now surrounds the baptized person, ready to love and care for that one. Just like in families, though, sometimes churches do not or cannot live up to their end of the covenant. Sometimes, the church wounds those in whom trust is placed, just like a family sometimes wounds. More than one person here has felt that sting of being hurt by a church in whose care they had been placed, or placed themselves. When I think of the pain in those stories, the adoption idea breaks down for me.
What it is baptism? It’s not exactly adoption. It’s more than a social ritual. It sure as heck is not insurance against a fiery afterlife. Maybe it would help to ask what it was for Jesus, who showed us what to do.
For the Jews of Jesus’ time and acquaintance baptism was washing up. The Greek word for baptism "baptizo" literally means "to wash." The Jews were constantly baptizing people and things. If something or someone was unclean they would baptize it. If someone died on a bed it would be unclean by contact with a dead body. So they would ritually wash it or baptize it. When the Pharisees criticize Jesus for not washing his hands they literally asked why Jesus doesn't "baptize" his hands. (Thanks Lindy!)
That is what John was doing at the river Jordan. He was ritually washing people. They came confessing their sins and repenting and he was washing them to ritually demonstrate the change taking place within them. This is another meaning of baptism, one that many of us carry with us still today – that baptism is about washing clean from sin, about repentance from the evil that lives within us.
That’s why John is so confused and troubled when Jesus appears. Because he sees in his cousin a person already free from the heavy burdens that weigh us down, Because he sees in Jesus a person already clean, a person who did not need washing up.
But Jesus stepped through the crowd on the bank and on into the water anyway. The water was cold and muddy and Jesus stepped in. This is not a story about getting clean (whatever John may have thought), about being adopted, about social ritual, about hell. It’s a story most of all about words spoken as Jesus standing dripping in the muddy waters. It’s mostly about God breaking though the ordinariness of life – breaking through two men, cousins, standing in water, performing a ritual that had been performed countless times before and feeling, and KNOWING that God was present there.
Baptism is one of two sacraments we celebrate in the UCC (the other is communion). There are lots of ways to describe sacraments, but one way is to say that they are the visible sign of an invisible God. They are the way God makes herself known. They are how, in our everyday lives, in the simplicity of the most basic elements – juice, bread, water, the faces of those we love and the hands of strangers – God is known.
In the novel, Gilead, two young preacher’s sons decide one afternoon to baptize the litter of kittens produced by a barn cat. Years later one of them, now an old man, remembers it like this:
Their grim old crooked tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another. We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some f the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism and that worried us a great deal. So finally I asked my father in the most offhand way imaginable what exactly would happen to a cat if one were to say, baptize it. He replied that the sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. That wasn’t really an answer to my question. We did respect the sacraments, but we thought the world of those cats…I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind…There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that.”Do you ask what baptism is for? If it’s not hell insurance, not adoption, not social ritual, not even getting washed clean, what then? Baptism is a sacrament – a chance for God to break into our everyday lives for a moment, a chance for God’s voice to be heard loud and clear above the hubbub of the crowd, a chance to feel fully and completely feel the love that surrounds each beloved child of God. Baptism doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that.