Remembering Our Baptism

Romans 6:1-10

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

On July 19, 2003—fourteen years ago this past summer—Sonya and I stood before God, our family, and friends, and declared our love for one another. We promised to love, honor, and obey…wait, not that last one, one another for as long as we both shall live. We then signed a piece of paper and sent it to the county courthouse, who in exchange sent us another piece of paper. The transaction was indeed beautiful.

But let me ask you this, do you think that Sonya and I loved one another more on July 18th or 20th? I’m going to guess that it really didn’t change that much. We didn’t get married and file the paperwork so that we could or would love one another. No, we did those things because we love one another. The paperwork made it legal, and the marriage ceremony wasn’t even necessary. We could have gone to the courthouse and just filed the necessary paperwork. So why go through the effort of putting on a wedding? Why search for the right dress, the right cake, the right photographer, and the right church if none of it is really necessary?

A wedding ceremony is about making a public declaration of our love for all to hear. Having our friends and family there and having a religious ceremony is our way of saying that we are glad that you are a part of our life, and we recognize that we will need you and we will need the grace of God to make this thing work.

And of course we got together for a party with lots of food and cake. It was a time to celebrate, after all!

I think of baptism in much the same way. In a few hours we will be dunking five candidates into the chilly waters of Todd Lake. I don’t think that the baptism candidates are going to love Jesus more after the act simply because they were baptized, and I sure wouldn’t want to say that they weren’t going to heaven before the baptism. But baptism is like a wedding, a marriage to our Lord and his church. And in our baptism we are making a public statement that we plan to love, honor, and yes, obey God for as long as we both shall live…and then some!

Today we will be continuing our sermon series on Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days by looking at the ritual of baptism. This series will hopefully cause us to slow down and ask why we do the things that we do and celebrate the things that we celebrate, because we really shouldn’t just be going through the motions here. We tend to hold baptism services every other year or so around here, which means it isn’t the most commonly practiced ritual in our church, but it is a ritual nonetheless. So why do we dunk people in lakes every so often?

As I alluded in my opening, I think of baptism as a symbol or a sign. It is a symbol to everyone else that you have made a commitment to follow Jesus and to participate in the life of the church. But not everyone would agree with me. For instance, if baptism is a symbol that you have decided to follow Jesus, then an infant can’t make that decision. So we can see that the stage of life when a church practices baptism says something about what they believe baptism means. For instance, the United Methodist say “baptism, as a means of grace, signifies God’s initiative in the process of salvation.” In Methodism, the decision to baptize a child is a way of inviting God to work in the life of the child. It is a blessing, and a symbol of the parents’ decision, not the child’s. It is a way of claiming this child, marking it for Christ. There’s beauty in that, and even though I see baptism differently, I still recognize the value in that ceremony.

Now the Catholic Church sees baptism differently from even other churches that practice infant baptism. Catholics also see baptism as a way to enter membership in the church, but would also state that baptism is necessary to remove the blemish of original sin from an infant. From the very helpful website Catholicism for Dummies, “To the Catholic Church, original sin isn’t a personal sin of the unborn, but a sin transmitted from generation to generation by birth. All men and women are born with original sin, and only Baptism can wash it away. Baptism can be regarded as a vaccine against sin.”

Original Sin is the concept that Adam’s sin is hereditary and has been passed down from one generation to the next for all of human existence.

This is why when a Catholic family has a baby and the child is not going to live, there is often a rush to have it baptized. The Catholic Church does not have an official policy on what happens when an unborn baby dies, but they want to be safe and wash away that original sin.

Is baptism a symbol of a personal decision to follow Jesus? Is it a way to claim a child for God? Or is it the necessary method of removing the stain of Original Sin and other sin? My point isn’t to argue for the public symbol interpretation, though that is what I believe in, but to point out that what we believe happens at baptism is the main driving force in when a church practices baptism.

What I want to affirm about churches that participate in infant baptism is the practice of confirmation. See, I don’t believe that water saves people. That’s Jesus’s job. But confirmation in these traditions is a chance for the young man or woman to stand up and make a public profession of their faith. In churches that practice infant baptism, confirmation is the symbol to the watching world that a person has decided to follow Jesus. And as Paul reminds us in Romans 10:9, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Since we in the Mennonite Church tend to see baptism as a symbol, we really don’t get too hung up on how baptism is performed. We tend to emphasize three different methods of baptism: sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. The first two can be done anywhere with very little as far as special equipment. Sprinkling is just taking a little water and spritzing the baptismal candidate. Pouring takes a little more water, usually a few teaspoons full. We often have someone pour water into another person’s hands and they wash it over the head of the person receiving baptism. You can do this anywhere, anytime. As long as you have a little water, you can have a baptism.

Immersion is a little more complicated, because you need enough water to cover the person’s entire body.

I’ve seen some interesting baptisteries in my day. Old bathtubs, livestock watering troughs, and large, walk-in tubs can be used inside churches. Often we see immersion done outdoors in swimming pools, rivers, lakes, and at the beach.

Since everything is symbolic, it shouldn’t surprise you that these different methods can each symbolize a different aspect of the faith. Sprinkling is a reminder of the Jewish sacrificial system where the blood of an animal was sprinkled on the altar. Leviticus 7:2 says, “at the spot where the burnt offering is slaughtered, they shall slaughter the guilt offering, and its blood shall be dashed against all sides of the altar.” The New Testament authors picked up on this idea and attributed it to Jesus. Hebrews 10:22 says, “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”

The act of pouring draws us back to the anointing of priests and leaders in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, God poured out his Spirit on the church (Acts 2). (See Michele Hershberger’s God’s Story, Our Story).

But since we are going to be immersing our baptismal candidates today, I want to spend the most time on this practice, its origins and meaning.

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 6:3-4, “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Paul connects baptism to the death and resurrection of Jesus. When we immerse people in baptismal waters, they are experiencing a death, a death to the ways of this world. Our old selves were crucified with Christ and our new selves emerge out of that water. We are, if you will, born again.

And as you might imagine, there is debate about just how this should be done, because we Christians need to debate everything. Many denominations baptize by immersion by dunking a person backwards, just like you are laying a body in a grave. Then you bring them up, sitting them up as you might imagine the resurrected Jesus rising on that first Easter Sunday. But our friends in the Church of the Brethren dunk the candidates forward three times. Three times makes sense, once in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Some denominations dunk three times backwards.

So why do our brethren from the Brethren Church dunk forward? I had to do some digging to understand this, or at least to find a convincing explanation. The Brethren baptize forward because this imitates the way Jesus died on the cross. When Jesus breathed his last he would have fallen forward. Granted, he still would have risen forward, so maybe they should dunk people forward, turn them over in the water, and then raise them out of the water face first???

I have much love for the Brethren and they see this as a symbol, so they aren’t going to deny a person membership if they are baptized backwards.

When I immerse someone, I choose to baptize them backwards one time as I repeat the phrase, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…” Jesus commands this Trinitarian liturgy in the Great Commission of Matthew 28. I only do it once as I repeat the three names of God because God is three in one. And I do it backwards because it is just easier (and I like to get water up people’s noses).

One thing that hope to do as we explore the Rites, Rituals, and Holy Days of the Church is to get back to the origins of these practices. Nothing could be more “New Testament” than baptism. Some have even gone so far as to say that baptism is to the Church what circumcision is to Judaism. The first time we read about baptism in the Bible is when Jesus’s cousin, John, is baptizing people. Let’s jump around a bit in Matthew chapter 3, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (v.1-2). “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (5-6).

So John, a man who dresses in camel hair and eats large insects, comes on the scene, inviting people to be baptized, and they just did it. They came from Jerusalem and all Judea to do this thing that nobody had done before. I imagine it working out like this:

“Hey Bill. Wanna go with me to the river and have a baptism today?”

“Sure, Bob. But what’s a baptism?”

“I don’t know, but I think it’s like a cannoli. I hear it’s wild.”

No, people didn’t come from miles away for something that they were totally unfamiliar with. Without doubt, John’s baptism is slightly different than the Hebrew practice, but not altogether different. John seems to reappropriate a traditional Hebrew practice, giving it a slightly different meaning and purpose.

Remember that the Law, the Torah, was filled with commands and protocols for ceremonial washing. There are two main types of ceremonial washings in the Hebrew Bible: a hand washing, which was done with a simple cup, and a full immersion in a bath called a mikveh.

Some of the situations that require hand washing we might say is just practicing good hygiene. After going to the bathroom, before eating, or after touching something that is unclean, an Orthodox Jew is to wash their hands or else they are considered ceremonially unclean. Remember that Jesus’s disciples were criticized for not washing their hands before they ate. A priest is also required to wash their hands before reciting certain prayers in the Jewish synagogues. This is symbolic, a way of cleansing and purifying one’s self before a religious act.

Other acts require a full-body immersion in the mikveh. Mikveh is a Hebrew word that refers to any gathering of water, and usually a Hebrew mikveh is filled with “living water,” which is to say that it must be filled by a spring or a river. After menstruation women are required to be fully immersed in the mikveh, as are both men and women after they have certain relations. If you touch a dead body, you must wash in the mikveh before you are considered clean. And it isn’t just people who are considered unclean. The Torah is also very specific about clean and unclean food; we call these kosher and non-kosher. Kosher simply means “fit” or “appropriate.” Modern Jews are required to wash new cooking utensils, pots, and pans, in a mikveh before using them in their kosher kitchens.

While handwashing is generally appropriate for most acts in the Jewish Temple and Synagogues, on high holy days, like Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the priests were required to immerse themselves in a mikveh (Lev. 16). This isn’t because they are dirty, or even ceremonially unclean, but because they are unholy. This washing is symbolic of grace and forgiveness, it is a purification ritual before entering into God’s presence.

There is one additional practice requiring full immersion that came into the Jewish tradition before Jesus’s time that I want to address. When a Gentile wished to convert to Judaism they were required to participate in a full-body wash in a mikveh, in a naturally-occurring gathering of water. You won’t find this in the Old Testament, but it is in the Talmud, which is a collection of teachings from Rabbis, kind of like a commentary. The Talmud tells us, “When a gentile is willing to enter the covenant…He must be circumcised and be baptized and bring a sacrifice…The gentile that is made a proselyte and the slave that is made free, behold he is like a child new born.”

The Talmud actually bases this practice on God’s commandment for the Hebrew people to wash their selves before they received the Torah in the wilderness after leaving Egypt.

So it doesn’t take much of a jump to come to the conclusion that John took this practice of ritual washing of all converts in the mikveh and repurposed it as a way for people to mark their entrance into the kingdom of God.

As we close this morning, I just want us to stop and think again about our own baptisms. And if you haven’t been baptized before and you want to be, I know a guy who does that sort of thingJ. This ritual is repeated often in the church, and I think it gives us a chance to reflect on our own baptismal vows and what it means to be baptized.

Every year, on July 19, Sonya and I take time to reflect and remember the vows we made to one another. I encourage you to take time to reflect and remember the vows we have made to God and his church in our baptism.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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