Some Confusion Over Baptism
January 11, 2015 Acts 19: 1-7 Mark 1: 9-11
Rev. Catherine Purves
Baptism is a confusing thing. Ironically, it is the one Sacrament that unites all Christians, but it is also something that divides us because of our different understandings of the Sacrament. To those who were not raised in the church, baptism must seem like a strange and rather archaic ritual. For people who can simply turn on a tap to have all of the water they want or need, the significance of water as a powerful biblical symbol is not necessarily evident. Even those of us who have grown up with baptism as a familiar Sacrament may not know why we baptize infants, or why some insist on total immersion, or why Jesus himself was baptized, or why the baptism of John the Baptist was different from the baptism practiced in the early church. And you may have other important questions, like, “Is baptism necessary for salvation?” or “Would we ever re-baptize someone?” There was and is some confusion over baptism.
With all of these potential questions about baptism, where do we begin? It’s usually helpful to begin at the beginning. And that takes us back to the day when “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan,” as Mark said. Now Mark has nothing to say about the conception or birth of Jesus, nothing to say about shepherds or wise men or angels or King Herod, nothing to say about the flight to Egypt or the return to Nazareth or Jesus’ childhood. The beginning, for Mark, was when Jesus came to John and was baptized.
This was both a crucial and a problematic event for the early church. Mark admits that John was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This was to prepare people for what God was about to do, for the coming of the Messiah. Why, then, should Jesus himself be baptized since he was without sin and since he was the Messiah?
It seems as if, for Mark, the baptism of Jesus takes the place of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke and the poetic description of the Word becoming flesh in John. In his baptism, Jesus was taking on our sinful nature. He was living into the fact that he was one of us, even though he was also the Son of God. He was baptized, not for his sins, but for our sins as God incarnate.
In Jesus we are being reconciled with God. The Gospel of John traces the beginnings of that reconciliation all the way back to creation. Matthew and Luke describe God and man coming together, being reconciled, in the birth of a newborn baby. Mark sees that reconciliation revealed when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. His baptism and our baptism are linked. In that sense, the tearing apart of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit, and the declaration of Jesus’ sonship is now something that we share with him because Jesus is truly one of us. If he is our brother in baptism, then God is our Father.
That is still somewhat confusing, and I’ll need to say more about that. But it’s confusing, in part, because we are not used to seeing the whole of Jesus’ life as an act of reconciliation and salvation. When we focus only on the cross, Jesus’ final act of solidarity with us, then we miss so much of what God has done for us in the life and not just the death of Jesus. From the day of his birth, or as Mark would have it, from the day of his baptism, we see that Jesus was restoring our relationship with the Father through all that he said and did, and, most importantly, through who he was as both a human being and as the Son of God, fully human, fully divine.
That is still pretty confusing, and so it is understandable that in the early church the confusion over baptism persisted. What was the point of baptizing believers? What was supposed to happen when people were baptized? How was Jesus’ command to baptize different from John’s call to repent and be baptized? We read in Acts about some confusion that existed in Ephesus and elsewhere concerning baptism. There were people who had been baptized by John and who thought that baptism was all about repentance. For John, it’s true, baptism was a cleansing ritual, a rite of purification and preparation, to be accompanied by a repenting of past sins and a commitment to live a new life.
From this kind of understanding of baptism, we might assume that you could be baptized more than once, that a full-body bath would be more appropriate, that only adults could receive baptism, and that your decision to amend your life was of primary importance. This was the kind of baptism that those twelve disciples in Ephesus had received. This was the misunderstanding that Paul felt he must correct.
Our baptism is different from John’s baptism. Our baptism is connected to Jesus’ baptism. That is, it is the way that we participate in his baptism. He was baptized for us, and now we are baptized in him. He chose us first through his willingness to be baptized, and now we receive new life from him through our baptism. Significantly, we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And through our baptism we are folded into the relationship that Jesus had with his Father and with the Spirit. This changes how and why we baptize.
We are not, then. baptized because we repent. We baptize infants who cannot repent, just as, in the early church, they baptized whole households. We are not baptized because we have decided to believe. Baptism celebrates God’s choice for us in Jesus Christ, not our decision to believe. We are not baptized so that we can be saved. Because our reconciliation with God is in and through Jesus alone, the act of baptism is not necessary for salvation. Baptism is a celebration of salvation not a condition for salvation. And since in our baptism we are united with Christ in the power of the Spirit, this is not an act that we, in our church, would ever repeat. A lot of our confusion about baptism may be because we are confusing John’s baptism with a Christian baptism that is fundamentally linked to Christ’s baptism.
If we go back and look again at Jesus’ baptism, some of our confusion may be resolved. If our baptism is a participation in his baptism, then what happened to him is the complement to what happens to us in baptism. Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. In that act, he took on all that it meant to be human; that included our sin and our broken relationship with God. When we are baptized, Jesus takes our sin and our broken relationship with God into himself, and we participate instead in his relationship with the Father.
When he rose from the water, the Holy Spirit descended upon him. When we are baptized, the Holy Spirit descends upon us as God acts to claim and transform our lives. When the disciples in Ephesus knew nothing of the Holy Spirit, Paul knew that there was something wrong with their baptism.
Finally, at Jesus’ baptism, the voice of God declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” When we are baptized, that same voice declares that in Christ we are God’s sons and daughters, we are loved, we are reconciled with God through Christ.
Let’s try not to be too confused over baptism. It was and is an act of God for us. As such, it is something that we can celebrate with real joy. We may not fully understand it, because Sacraments are acts that enable us to participate in a mystery. But we can see that John’s baptism for repentance was, like John himself, a forerunner of something far greater. The Christian Sacrament of baptism draws us into the reality and the power of God’s grace which has accomplished our salvation in Jesus Christ and which continues to work in our lives through the presence of the Holy Spirit. That’s not really confusing. It is simply overwhelmingly good news!