Baptism by Fire

baptism debate

Mark 1:9-11 NRSV

If you were to ask me what my favorite part church is, I would say that it the service of Christian baptism. I have always said that it is a good day when the preacher comes to church on Sunday with a Bible in one hand and a bathing suit and pair of dry underwear in the other.

Thus, I love this day on the Christian calendar that we call The Baptism of the Lord. Although I would much rather be getting wet this morning, and getting some of you even wetter, this day at least gives me the opportunity to reflect on the wonderful service of baptism.

Baptism is essentially about grace. Baptism is about new beginnings, fresh starts, and clean slates. Baptism is about dying to the old, broken self and rising to a new, better self. Baptism is about the confession, forgiveness and washing away of sins. It is about coming to know that there’s nothing in heaven or on earth that can ever separate us from the love of God. Baptism is about knowing God is with us, not away from us, for us, not against us. Thus, baptism is about living with a hope that is certain and eternal.

Baptism is about initiation into the Kingdom of God. Baptism is a commissioning to be the body of Christ in this world, the hands, legs, feet and mind of Jesus on this earth. There is a reason that baptism is often called a sacrament. Baptism is sacred. It is holy. It is grace, pure and unfettered.

There is perhaps nothing in the church that is more beautiful than baptism. How ironic is it then that some in the church have taken baptism and have created something very ugly. Throughout church history, baptism has created more controversy, schisms and arguments than perhaps any other ritual, service or rite.

Throughout my own ministry, I have seen people angrily walk out of church meetings over it. I have even seen people who have transferred their membership to another church over it. I know people who have written nasty emails, made harassing phone calls, and started vicious rumors—all over arguments about baptism. I know of churches that have even split over baptism.

I have had staff members threaten to resign if we changed our church’s bylaws to accept members who were baptized as infants or by sprinkling. In their eyes, they simply did not get wet enough to join God’s Kingdom. I have heard people argue that some were not old enough, mature enough, good enough, sincere enough, or even married enough to be baptized. A pastor friend of mine from Concord, North Carolina, was kicked out of the Baptist State Convention because a couple of folks he baptized were not straight enough. I even know people who have gotten upset, because the people being baptized in their church were not white enough.

The irony is that we have taken something beautiful that is essentially about God’s free and unfettered grace for all people, and created something incredibly ugly by placing restrictions, limitations and conditions on it. There have been more rules and regulations written in the bylaws of churches about baptism than any other service of the church.

Some churches believe that you can only baptize in a flowing creek or a river (the water has to be moving) because that was how Jesus was baptized. A stagnant pond, lake, and of course, a baptismal pool will simply not do. Some people believe you can only baptize when the church is gathered for a worship service. And most people believe that a baptism can only be performed by an ordained minister, who is, of course a male.

And once a person’s baptism has been accepted and approved, sanctioned by church officials as worthy of the grace of God, then one can use his or her baptism as an admission ticket to become a full-fledged member of the church. They can take communion, serve on a committee, become a voting member of the church board, and of course, one day, go to heaven.

Pastor Karoline Lewis once preached a sermon to her congregation emphasizing that baptism is not something that we do, but something that God does. She said that when we baptize someone in the name of God, we believe that it is God who is actually doing the baptizing. And she insinuated that when we make baptism something that we do, that we control, that we place limits and restrictions on, we pervert the very intentions God has for baptism, for God’s grace can never constrained.

After the sermon, a woman who was in her nineties approached her. “Karoline,” she said, “Is that really true?”

“What?” the pastor answered.

Hazel responded, “That God baptizes you.”

“Yes, it’s true. This is what we believe. Why?”

Hazel then told her pastor about her sister who was born several years before she was born. Her sister was born very ill in the home and never left the house because she was so sick. The family knew she would not live long. She lived about two months. Right before she died, Hazel says that her mother took her sister in her arms and lovingly baptized her.

When Hazel’s parents went to the pastor of their church where they had been lifelong members to plan the funeral, the pastor refused to hold the funeral in the sanctuary because he had not baptized the baby. The funeral was held in the basement of the church.

Hazel, almost a hundred years later, then asked her pastor, “Karoline, does this mean my sister is OK? Is she really OK?”

“Yes,” she said. “Your sister is OK.”

There was Hazel standing in front of her pastor, weeping for the sister she never knew, crying tears of relief and grace.

This is what happens, says Karoline, this is the ugly consequences restricting, placing limitations on the grace of God.

Of course, such restrictions and limitations on God’s grace is nothing new. The Jewish law was full of rules and regulations controlling who can and who cannot have access to God. Throughout history people of all cultures have sought to control and tame the grace of God.

This is why we need to be reminded of Jesus’ baptism. First of all, it was not in a controlled environment such as a baptismal pool or font in the confines of a religious hall, but out in the untamed, wide-open wilderness.

And we are told that when Jesus came up out of the water, that the heavens, according to some translations, were suddenly opened. Now there is a Greek word for open, but that word is not used in Mark 1:9. The word that is used means “ripped” or “torn” apart. The word describes a God who cannot take the separation any longer. God has had about all that God could stand and rips the heavens apart.

The question for us this morning is: who closed the heavens? Who placed the restrictions and limitations on God’s grace? Who placed the barriers between God and humanity? Who creates systems and structures to mediate God’s presence? Insist on rituals and formalities to regulate God’s grace, control the means of God’s love, not for the sake of good order (like we would like to think), but for the sake of our own power?

As a minister I cannot begin to tell you the amount of trouble I have gotten myself into over the years for baptizing people outside the controlled confines of the church’s bylaws. I have baptized people on days other than Sundays in places other than the church building. I have baptized people in rivers, in swimming pools, in small ponds, even in the Atlantic Ocean. I baptized one man with his head laid back in the basin of a sink at a nursing home, trusting that it is God, and not me, who is actually doing the baptizing. It is God, and not me, who rips the heavens apart to shower God’s people with grace.

For the same reason, I honor, respect and accept all baptisms—sprinkling, dunking, pouring, infant, adolescent and adult. And I believe baptisms can be performed by any Christian, clergy or laity, male or female. I do not believe people ever need to be re-baptized because some self-appointed or otherwise-appointed baptismal authority believes their baptism somehow did not “take,” failed to meet certain clerical requirements, or was not sincere enough or wet enough. There is but one Church, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.

With Karoline Lewis and other ministers who understand that expansive abundance of God’s grace, I welcome all people to the Lord’s Table, because, well, the last time I checked, it’s the Lord’s Table. While some ministers only extend the invitation to those who have been baptized a certain way, I cannot, nor can I imagine Jesus turning anyone away.

What are we going to do? Require baptismal ID cards to be presented to the deacons before receiving communion? Are we to say to those who have not been baptized or not sure they have been baptized: “Sorry, you sitting there in the pew wondering if you have been baptized or not. When the plate of bread and tray of juice come to you, don’t take anything. Just politely pass it to the more worthy person sitting next to you who has the official seal of approval? Because, here at First Self-Righteous Church, we believe it is better to hedge our bets on the side of human reason and control rather than God’s abundant and unfettered grace.”[i]

When we take something as beautiful as the service of baptism as it was performed in the wide-open wilderness, with God ripping apart the heavens to get to God’s Son, to get to God’s people, to reveal God’s love and grace to the world, and we turn it into something that is restrictive, legalistic, divisive and exclusive, some sort of qualifying test for membership, communion, and salvation, then we have missed the whole point of who God is and who we are called to be as God’s Church.

However, when we begin to understand that at our baptisms, whether we were a tiny infant or a grown adult, whether we were sprinkled, dunked or poured upon, whether by clergy or by laity, male or female—When we understand that God, the creator of all that is, ripped open the heavens to come close enough to us so we could feel God’s breath and hear God say: “I love you. I have always loved you. And there is nothing that can ever limit, restrict or constrain this love. There is nothing in heaven or on earth that will ever separate you from this love. I know all of your shortcomings and all of your sins, and I forgive you. I am with you, and I will always be with you. You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. You are my Church in this world”—When we understand this truth, this good news, then our baptisms become what they were always intended to be: pure, unfettered, abundant grace, and we can live with a hope that is as eternal as it is certain.

[i] Sermon inspired by: Karoline Lewis, Baptism of Our Lord, https://www.workingpreacher.org

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