When I was in seminary, I was told that every passage of Scripture could point to baptism or communion. Any text could and should move the congregation towards one of these two sacraments. One student objected, “If every sermon is directed towards communion or baptism, aren’t you sort of preaching the same sermon every week?” The professor smiled proudly. “Precisely,” he responded. “You’re telling the same story. Every. Single. Week. Death and resurrection, every week. If you can preach towards the sacraments, you know you will have preached Christ.”
So, I set out into the world of preaching and pastoring, and I was going to parse all of the Greek verbs and I was going to preach towards the table or the font every week. Preaching to the table went pretty well. I served at churches that observed communion every week right after the sermon. It was easy, and even helpful to tie my sermons, sometimes loosely, sometimes tightly, to the act of communion. The rounded loaf next to the vintage-looking bottle of wine…it was seamless.
Baptism—did not go as well.
Partly, this is because I met people. I met people like Erin, who was baptized as an infant in a Catholic Church to avoid a fight with her grandma. Her parent’s religious ambiguity was no match for Grandma’s piety, and so Father Perkins baptized her. She moved in middle school and got involved with the local Lutheran church in her community. During the Junior High retreat one summer, Erin gave her life to the Lord and she is pretty sure that there was some sort of baptism involved. Then, in college, she attended a mega-church in the Los Angeles area. Her church offered beach baptisms, and the marketing team promoted them well with graphics and videos. So, she was baptized again.
And then I met Carl, who grew up in a fundamentalist church that guarded baptism like a Rottweiler over a bone. The minister was wary of any baptism that he didn’t preside over. Any mention of baptism came in Hellfire sermons growled through gritted teeth. Carl had stayed as far away from baptism as he could. When I casually mentioned baptism in conversation, he leaned back. His face got grim. I knew where his story was going before he even began.
Modern pews are filled with people who have traveled a long way to get there. They’ve traveled from and through multiple denominations and experiences which color their perception of the church and its practices. I have never been a part of a church that does an adequate job of using the imagery and language of baptism. I have never been a part of a church that regularly lets the waters of baptism inspire their imaginations. I don’t mean that as an indictment. I’ve been on leadership at those churches! I’ve tried!
Baptism is simply a tough nut to crack. It is exclusive and often inhospitable. Its layered meaning is almost too rich. It is controversial and comes with invisible strings attached to old wounds that do not like being uncovered. For all of those reasons and several others, it is difficult to incorporate baptism into worship.
But it is still a sacrament, which is an incredibly audacious claim: The Omni-Everything God bares a part of Himself and unearths a part of us through baptism that simply wouldn’t be bared or unearthed without it.
That’s why I’m not willing to give up on it.
Sometime during college, I fell in love with communion and it became indispensable for me. It has become sustaining in that mysterious sort of way that the sacraments were intended to be. I want that for baptism, too. The water has that same mysterious ability to communicate God’s grace that the bread and wine have. I believe this as fact. I want to believe it in my bones.
Baptism is a sticky wicket for a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve mentioned.
Primarily though, baptism was liturgically and personally irrelevant to me because I didn’t really know what it meant. I could write an essay on it, but that is different than knowing what it means. You may be familiar with Scripture, but to know Scripture means that when a circumstance has flipped your world and your heart begins to race, you immediately go to the twenty-third Psalm.
Two things happened which helped me begin to know baptism. (Or, perhaps, they are still happening.)
The first thing was that I found my baptism certificate. It is dated about one month from the day I was born. It declares with an unfair audacity that I am committed to “confess the faith of Christ crucified until my life’s end.” And, it says: “For you, child, Jesus Christ came into the world. For you he lived and for you he died before you knew anything of it.” I found this piece of paper precisely when I needed my faith to be about something other than me. Baptism is the perfect response to the fear that creeps up and whispers in our ears that we are not enough, that we don’t have enough faith, that we aren’t good enough for God. Baptism ought to be our go-to line, our Psalm 23, when we hear that voice. Baptism reminds us that, in fact, our faith is primarily not about us. Finding this piece of paper was a reminder to me that it was God who began a work in me, and it was God who would be faithful to complete it.
The second thing was when I began to say to myself, over and over, “You are baptized today.” It started as an experiment. What would happen if I just made a habit of repeating this phrase to myself? To today, the experiment isn’t over, and I am starting to hear that phrase as better and better news. At this point, it feels like I am saying, “You’re going to be alright.”
You, too, are baptized today.
You’re going to be alright.
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