Baptism is weird.
And that’s as it should be. Because there really is not a logical way to do what it is we strive to do in baptism. In baptism, we are doing something physically to suggest a change in our inner, spiritual reality. According to Christian belief, the body and spirit are connected, to be sure. So there should be a physical indication of our spiritual renewal and commitment. Still, there is no way to show publicly the transformation we hope to realize through baptism. So we grasp at metaphors: anointing, cleansing, dying and rising. We are sprinkled or poured over or dunked. And that somehow connects us more deeply to God and puts our lives on a different path.
For Jesus, his baptism is considered the inauguration of his ministry. Immediately afterward he is “led by the Spirit into the wilderness” to be tempted, and then begins the teaching and healing and other miracles we read about in the Gospels.
For those of us who practice believer’s baptism, getting wet in front of people is a public sign that we are committing ourselves to try to live according to the example and teachings of Jesus. For real. Forever. There probably won’t be an immediate change in our lives the day after baptism, but we have a clearer goal, a firmer commitment, for the long-term trajectory of our lives.
In some traditions, including Mennonites, baptism also inaugurates us into membership in the church. It is not only, or even primarily, an event of individual experience and significance. It is a time for the community to welcome a new member. It is a time for church members who have already been baptized to commit to love and support the newly baptized person as the church seeks to follow Jesus together.
Baptism is all of that. It’s a lot. The spiritual and physical. The individual and the communal. Entering into something new. Making a life-long commitment.
How could baptism not be strange? And awkward. And argued about. And, ultimately, no matter how you do it, inadequate.
Because the water—whether it’s in a brass bowl, or a baptistery, or a cattle trough in our sanctuary, or a swimming pool, or a lake, or the Jordan River—the water is not magic. It’s just water. Amazing, beautiful, life-giving—but not magic.
It’s not the water that does the work. And—here’s the good news—it’s ultimately not even us who do the work.
Whether you feel it or not, baptism is a time for the Spirit to alight on you. Whether you hear it or not, baptism is an opportunity for the voice of God to speak over you: “My beloved.”
It is this Spirit, these sacred words, that strengthen Jesus for his temptations in the wilderness and his ministry that follows. It is this Spirit and these sacred words that enliven and support us in our efforts to follow the way of Jesus in this world.
This post is excerpted from a sermon I preached in 2020.
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