As usual, our Tuesday morning lectionary study group got off track. We started into a conversation about the meaning of baptism, but 10 a.m. came and it was time to go, so we never got very far. One might wonder why, given the plentitude of books and essays on the subject, a bunch of old clergy, plus a couple of younger ones, would even bother. Given our propensity to wander, we may never get back to it. But I do have a few thoughts.
I think we get hung up on baptism as a cleansing from sin, or, more commonly, original sin. The whole doctrine of original sin is problematic in itself because there isn’t one. There are a bunch of competing doctrines that, to my mind, hang precariously with one hand to a few passages in scripture, and with the other in a firm grip on Augustine.
What we know is that water baths have always been powerful symbols of transition, whether one got wet or walked through them dry shod. The waters of creation separated us from the chaos of an unformed universe. Every time anyone in scripture crossed waters they left one way of life and entered another. Water baths in Jesus’ day offered transition from a gentile way of life to a Jewish way of life. They offered transition from ritual uncleanliness to purification for worship. Mini water baths of hands and dishes symbolized thanksgiving to God for the gifts of food. I’m sure there were many more.
Consider the importance of water baths as signs of transition in our own day. We bathe not just to be clean, but to prepare for the events ahead as we transition from one way of being to another. We wash up for dinner not for sanitary reasons only, but also to be presentable at the table. We bathe after leaving our daily routine so that we can be presented afresh at an important event. Last summer we spent a week rafting on a river. We looked pretty rough by the time we got home. We bathed not just to get clean, but to be ready to reenter the community of professionals. Many of the homeless with whom I once worked desired showers and clean clothes not just to be clean, but to be seen as worthy of fitting into the society from which they had been excluded.
Given all of that, I’m inclined to think of John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin as symbolizing a transition from a way of life outside the law to a new way of life according to the spirit of the law. Within that context, Jesus’ own baptism was not for the forgiveness of some immorality or misbehavior, but as a sign of turning from his former life of (apparently) rural contagion to his new life as God’s messiah. The earliest records of Christian baptism involve entire households, which I presume to mean everyone from slaves and infants to the oldest patriarchs and matriarchs, as a sign that the household in its entirety had entered into a new way of life.
We say that baptism is a sacrament, something beyond sign or symbol, because God is truly present in the act of baptism doing something that we cannot do for ourselves. How does that work? I don’t know, but my friend Ernie says “not very well,” by which he means that parents and Godparents of infants are often unprepared for what that will mean for them. He’s right. However, what God has said God will do, God will do, and therefore I take Christian baptism to be sacramental in every sense of the word, even if I don’t understand it, and it doesn’t appear to work very well.
In like manner, I wonder how many of John’s baptized went away rejoicing in their new found legitimacy before God only to resume a life filled with old ways that betrayed their good intentions? Well, it wasn’t magic. John wasn’t changing frogs into princes with a dousing of magical water. It was about the beginning of a new life, a birthing as it were, a new life to be entered as infants, not as full grown adults. That’s the way with water baths. They open a door into a new life, but they don’t give us that new life. That’s even true when I wash up to go out for the evening. I’m ready to go out, but I haven’t gone out yet; the evening is yet to be experienced.
The sacramental water bath of Christian baptism is like that. It is a very real spiritual rebirth into a new life that may, or may not, mature into fullness of spiritual adulthood. In the end, one is still marked as Christ’s own forever, even if one lives out their life as an irresponsible five year old. That, of course, appears very unfair to those of us who work hard to become spiritually mature. The best I can do is to refer you to the parable of the workers in the field who were all paid the same no matter how long or hard they worked. Which is not the same thing as saying that baptism gives one a license to be a life long slacker, but you already know that.