Baptism – an overview

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Baptism is a sacrament, a ritual in which God is present with us in the elements of our everyday life. Baptism is not something that we do, but something that we receive. It is a symbol of God’s Covenant with us, God’s relationship of steadfast love and committed faithfulness, sort of like a marriage. Baptism is a symbol expressing many aspects of God’s grace.

God, our Source. We are “born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3.5) The water of Baptism is the water of God’s womb. We receive our life and identity from God. God says to each of us, as God said to Jesus at his baptism, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased” (Mt. 3.17). As with the waters of chaos at Creation, God’s water breaks and God gives us new birth as people of the Spirit (1 Pet. 1.3-5). We are born again (always) as beloved children of God, and God joyfully claims us as God’s Own (Mk. 1.11). We are made in the image of God — not that we physically “look” like God, since God is not visible, but as a living image, an appearance of God, a manifestation of God’s essence. That essence is love. Baptism proclaims that we are creatures of love, that love is the essence of who we are and why we live, that we belong to God, that we are divine, godly creatures, and that God delights in us.

Christ, our healing. God says, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your sin” (Ezek. 32.25). In the Exodus story God led the slaves out of Egypt through the waters of Red Sea to freedom. Baptism is all about liberation from what oppresses us. It’s our human nature that we are afraid to trust God’s love, and so we become slaves to our self-centeredness. We call this self-centered fear “sin.” God forgives our self-centeredness, and all the sins that flow from it, and God also sets us free from it. God saves us from our sin and leads us to freedom. Baptism is an image of the Red Sea, the way of liberation. The water of Baptism is the bath that washes away all our sin, the free-flowing grace of God that forgives us completely, setting us free to live by God’s Spirit instead of our fears.

Jesus met people where they were hurting and healed them. He washed people’s feet; he shared their tears; he gave them drink; he nourished their souls and saw them as new, “reborn” people. The water of Baptism is the life-giving balm that soothes our wounds, the drink that renews our life, the river that bears us along through life’s suffering, the flowing force that sets us free, the promise that Christ is always with us.

Dying and rising. “We have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Life-Giver, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6.4). Baptism is a drowning. In the earliest centuries the congregation sang funeral songs while the person being baptized went down into a tomb-shaped pool… and was pronounced dead… —and then arose, a new person, with a new name! Baptism is a call to entrust our whole selves and our will to God. We repent; we surrender our life to God. We die: we give up our spirit, with nothing more to hang onto. And we are raised with Christ to new life, free from all the “Old Stuff,” born anew. We are transformed. We live in new ways, led not by our own will but by God’s Spirit. The water of Baptism is the water of drowning and re-birth.

The gift of the Holy Spirit. “No one enters the Realm of God without being born of water and Spirit (John 3.5). As we water a plant and it bears fruit, God pours God’s Spirit into us so that we bear the fruit of divine love. The water of Baptism is a symbol of God’s Spirit within us. It signifies that we are ordained by God to a holy task: to spread God’s love. The Spirit enables us to do this, just as the Spirit descended on Jesus at his Baptism. Just as our bodies are mostly water, we ourselves are mostly love: the love of God is in us from the beginning, ready to flow out into the world. The Spirit empowers us to live out the Gospel, to live lives of gratitude, trust, compassion, and justice. The water of Baptism is an invitation to allow God to pour love out on us and in us and through us into the world.

The Body of Christ. “In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12.13). “Christ” is our theological term for the embodiment of God’s love. Jesus embodied the love of God, the physical presence of God’s love. In the resurrection God brought Christ to us again — but not as an individual: Christ is now a community. The Church is the Body of Christ, the physical entity that embodies God’s presence. As different rivers pour into the same sea and become part of one body of water, baptism symbolizes our lives all becoming part of Christ. God includes each of our lives as part of God’s salvation of the world. The water of Baptism is the river that bears us into the Church, the Body of Christ.

For this reason Baptism is usually not performed privately, but in gathered worship. It is the sacrament of the community. The church acknowledges the person’s membership in the Body of Christ and covenants to provide for them a loving community where they can experience their belovedness, discover their gifts, and practice following the Way of Jesus.

Many parents wish for their children to be baptized “so they will grow up Christian,” or at least “have a good spiritual foundation.” Baptism itself has little to do with this. Baptism is the symbol of the life-long relationship between the individual and the community —and that has everything to do with this. It’s the ongoing relationship with the community that gives a person a nourishing spiritual environment, and gives the parents the support and resources to provide for their children. The parents, not the church, are their children’s primary spiritual teachers. Baptism affirms the covenant between the church and the parents to help them “raise their children Christian” or at least “provide a good spiritual foundation.” Baptism is the doorway to the feast, but the real meal is what the child will experience in the love, teaching, worship, forgiveness, mentoring, companionship and shared life of the church community over years. When you bring your child for baptism you are entering into this expectation, this relationship, this covenant.

The Baptismal Vows: “Thank you; Yes.”

Baptism is a sacrament in which we experience the grace of God through water and the Word. In Baptism God promises: “I, your Creator, have made you. You are my image, and you are my beloved child. In Christ I will be with you in grace and truth and healing, and I will save you. I have sent you for a sacred purpose, and my Holy Spirit is within you to do this. I make you part of the Body of Christ, part of my healing of the world.”

This is God’s Covenant with us. God is always faithful to the Covenant, but we often slip and fall. We need continually to enter again into the Covenant, and to ask for God’s help. We don’t “re-baptize,” because baptism is a symbol of God’s action—and God got it right the first time. God’s faithfulness is absolute and constant. But we always need to renew our faithfulness to the Covenant.

To renew our Baptismal vows does not mean that we pronounce ourselves faithful, or believe ourselves to be particularly worthy of God’s approval. It means that we are willing to let God love us. It means that we are willing to let God hold us accountable to this abundant grace; that we are willing to let God change us, and make us into new people for God’s sake; and that we are here to serve God, ready to be sent into the world to love. The Baptismal vows are not a test or proof of our faith, but an invitation to deeper faith.

The Vows —United Methodist version

— We confess our need for the saving, healing grace of God.

— We renounce the spiritual forces of evil, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin.

— We accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

— We confess Jesus Christ as our Savior, put our whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as our Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races.

— According to the grace given us, we pledge to remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representative in the world.

— And, for parents of a child being baptized: We pledge to nurture the child in Christ’s holy church, that by our teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life.

We confess our need for grace
We are all broken, incomplete, and bent out of shape. None of us has it all together. Baptism is an open doorway to a feast for which we all are hungry. This vow is our way of getting over ourselves and the illusion of our power and control, and saying, with gratitude, humility and an open and willing heart, “Yes, God, I need your grace. I would starve without it.”

We renounce our sin
Yeah, I know. Sin is a heavy word. But it’s a real thing. Sin isn’t being bad or disobedient. It’s our inability to trust perfectly. As humans with free will there’s an element of distrust, fear and self-centeredness built into our egos. It’s not a bad thing: it keeps us from walking into danger. But it prevents us from being able to trust God perfectly. Our fear, distrust and self-centeredness that we call “sin” makes us susceptible the illusion that we’re separate from God and Creation and others—so much so that it seems right and natural and even a good thing to do things that actually tear the fabric of our relationship with God, wound our place in Creation and human community, and betray our own holiness, wholeness, and belovedness, just to protect ourselves. It’s not that we do bad things but that we can’t actually see clearly what’s good and what isn’t. So sin isn’t something you do, like breaking a rule. It’s just the way we are, like not being able to fly. Because of that state we’re in, we tend to do evil things. And society tends to evoke and heighten our fear, distrust and self-centeredness. We need a lot of help to choose a different path. This vow is a way of being honest and saying “I have this tendency in me. I know its powers are all around me. Therefore I renounce evil and the fear that generates it, and I ask God’s help to choose a different path, the path of love and grace.”

We resist evil and injustice
Christian faith is not just about our little private tea party with God. Following Jesus is about entering into God’s desire for the whole of Creation, including the transformation of human culture. Jesus spoke of it as entering the Empire of God (“Kingdom of God,” is a common translation). Jesus’ ministry worked on multiple levels: as he healed people’s bodies he also healed the wounds of society. He stood against unjust power systems and hierarchies with the power of love and grace. Like the prophets, Jesus was not as concerned with individuals “doing bad things” as much as he was concerned with systemic evil, patterns of power baked into our societies that wound the wholeness and holiness of every person. Baptism compels us to join Jesus in resisting evil and injustice. It also reminds us we don’t have to be superheroes to do this: we “accept the freedom and power God give us” to do this. And it reminds us that we resist evil “in all the forms it presents itself…” That includes systemic evil like racism and white supremacy, but equally insidious is the injustice within ourselves. In fact it’s usually our own evil we have to deal with before we can make much progress against social evils.

We confess Jesus as healer and guide
This is the part that gets abused a lot. We’re accustomed to the image of the proselytizer demanding, in an accusatory way, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” As if you’re in big trouble if you don’t. Yikes. Forget that. This vow is not the secret code to becoming a Christian insider. It’s a humble, hopeful statement of what gives us life and directs our living. Jesus has embodied God’s love in ways that have given me life. Jesus has revealed God’s healing for my brokenness. Jesus has modeled God’s grace, forgiveness, love and mercy that has drawn me close to God and shown me my own divine nature— saving me from the life-distorting power of my ego and its fears and desires. In this way Jesus is my “savior.” I’d be sunk without him. And Jesus teaches me, guides me, and helps me choose the Way of Grace in great and small occasions. And I take his guidance seriously. I let the Spirit he imparts motivate me. He’s my guide, my leader, the “boss of me,” or, in old fashioned language, my “lord,” to whom I devote my loyalty and trust. So I gladly confess Jesus the embodiment of God’s Love, or “Christ,” as my “lord and savior.” It’s not the secret password, or the “right answer;” it’s an outburst of gratitude and trust.

We commit to a life of faith
Here it becomes clear this is not just a secret deal between you and God: this is about being part of the Body of Christ, and part of God’s transformation of the world. Whether we’re baptizing a child or an adult it’s not hit-and-run: baptism includes the person in the life of the church. Our faith is lived in out in community, and in the ecosystem of God’s Creation and human history. In everything we do, public and private, large and small, we are Christ’s “representatives in the world.” We are now, in Luther’s words, “little Christs.” We belong to God’s plan for human society, and for all Creation, and for the transformation of the world through love. The liturgy in the hymnal says we are “incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation.” And we do this in community. We couldn’t do that alone. We commit to being part of the church and its witness, because the church needs us, and we need them. We accept that the church is imperfect, but like our family, we belong to it and serve to help make it better. Like God does for us in Jesus, we promise to be present.

Thank you. Yes.

In baptism God says, “I give you the power to live just like Jesus, in fact to be part of Jesus. Do you want to?” And in the vows we say, “Thank you. Yes.” And the church joins in and says, “We’ll help you.”