What is the big deal about Baptism? Is it just a holy bath with some sacred words said over you by a preacher? What does it matter today, whether it happened to you when you were a baby or an adult? Does it matter if you were sprinkled, poured, or dunked in the river? How does it change your life? Does it erase “original sin”? What difference does Baptism make?
To answer these questions, we must understand how we got to baptism as we know it today. Baptism didn’t fall from heaven as in its current, well-defined form. What is baptism intended to do? What is the practical and spiritual benefit of being baptized? How does baptism change your life? Is baptism crucial to our salvation? Jesus told his disciples to go out and baptize people, but is it needed to get into eternity? Remember, back in the middle ages; people would wait until right before they were about to die to be baptized. They didn’t want to sin after their baptism and nullify the impact of baptism, preventing them from getting into heaven. Most of us are baptized as babies, and then we go about living and sinning. How did that notion change? When did that shift occur?
Do you understand what I’m saying: people of faith viewed baptism as something so sacred that it wiped away all our sins, something we did at the end of our lives to guarantee our entry into God’s presence to something we now do at the beginning of our lives, fully aware of our sinful nature. At some point in Christian history, theologians and people, not God, decided that Baptism became a symbolic act that addressed original sin, not our daily sins. And if we were managing our daily sins and asking Jesus for forgiveness in something such as the Lord’s prayer and our original sin was addressed by baptism, our likelihood of living a virtuous life and having a shot at heaven was better than average. Someone came up with that idea and invented it out of whole cloth. Jesus, Paul, or no one else in the Bible said to wait until you’re about to die to be baptized, baptize babies, or baptize people when they can decide for themselves. We made up the rules.
This theology of Baptism, whether the medieval wait-until-you-die method or the modern, do it when you’re a baby to address original sin, and the community of believers will raise you according to Christian standards, are nowhere to be found in the Bible. They are the work of theologians, written 300-plus years after the death of Jesus and John the Baptist, by regular people trying to write rule books for the early church. They tried to connect an ancient Jewish purification ritual to what evolved into an early Christian initiation rite, then create a practice that has remained unchanged for a thousand years. That was until the Protestant Reformation, and the first Baptists bought a swimming pool.
John was baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins, not purifying people for entrance into the temple. John wasn’t preparing people to become Christians or baptizing them in the name of the father, son, and Holy Spirit. What we read about, what John said, what Jesus experienced, and what we do are different expressions of similar practices.
Much human intervention went into creating what modern Christians call Baptism, what it means, what it represents, and how it plays a role in our faith. It’s a very subjective sacrament. We know this, and we see evidence of this because most denominations have different views on how they regard baptism when they baptize people, how they baptize if they baptize people more than once, does baptism erase original sin, and so on. Churches of all shapes and sizes share language, theology, and some commonalities in Holy Communion. It’s not the same with baptism. Most denominations have made their rules about baptism as they go along. First, they say, “We think this is what God wants us to do.” Then the next denomination comes along and makes different rules.
Baptism is a variable. Baptism’s meaning is subjective and, in our day, depends mainly on your denominational tradition. Besides, Jesus telling us to “go baptize” doesn’t explain what he means by baptism, his theology of baptism, when to baptize, and how to baptize. (Remember the debates about “John’s baptism” or “Jesus’” baptism, what were those differences?) Whether baptism is about original sin is never covered. We’ve filled in the blanks and hope we’re right. That’s a giant leap to infer meaning from Jesus’ understanding of a vast theological concept. Essentially, we’re trying to read the mind of God from a few words in a 2000-year-old text. Talk about presumption. (Maybe that’s our original sin, presuming to know the mind of God?) I prefer to err on the side of caution. I don’t want to guess what Jesus meant. I think that’s where Christians get into trouble. I want to go with what I know.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Baptism evolved from a Jewish purification ritual. People had to take a ritual bath to go to the temple. This had nothing to do with moral or ethical cleanliness (for the most part) but with becoming clean after all those things in daily life (sex, death, menstruation) that made a person unclean and unable to enter the temple grounds and participate in the ritual life of the Jewish community. Living life made you unclean. Doing ordinary things in ordinary ways leads to ritual uncleanliness. That’s not sin; that’s just living. So people would go to a ritual bath, enter on one side and come out the other clean. Then they go to the temple. This is what large portions of Deuteronomy are about. How to stay clean in life.
If you committed a moral transgression, that would have to be addressed with a sacrificial offering in the temple. If you needed to atone for murder or another violent crime, you had to be made pure to enter the temple first for the right offering for that specific sin and forgiveness to be sought. The water didn’t forgive you of the murder. Instead, it cleansed you of your daily impurities and got you to a place where you could enter the temple. Once in the temple, you could address a more in-depth sacrifice with the priest for the more severe offense you’ve committed.
What John does in the desert has nothing to do with temple worship. He’s baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins. It’s a new thing, independent of the sacrificial system in the temple (recognizing the corruption in the temple) and trying to renew the spiritual life of ordinary Jewish believers. He’s not starting a new church. There are no babies in pretty white outfits. It’s a simple proposition. John is a prophet. People trusted him to cleanse their souls more than they trusted the priests in the temple.
Jesus gave John’s actions validity. When he showed up at the Jordan, it changed the entire baptismal dynamic. This was to be more than an off-the-beaten-path symbolic step in the river. Instead, something bigger was happening. Once Jesus arrived, John realized that forgiveness was more significant than he had imagined. With Jesus on the scene, Baptism wasn’t ultimately about sin, the depth or depravity of sin, but the expansiveness of forgiveness. This is what Jesus brought to the riverside.
Whereas we usually focus our discussions of Baptism on sin and repenting, Jesus, here in Matthew 3, has two clear and distinct emphases: forgiveness from sin and being beloved. Far from stepping into the waters, the river, the swimming pool, and the font and being reminded of washing away the stain of original sin, we are reminded that baptism marks us as part of a community from the beginning of our time in God’s community we are forgiven (what I call original forgiveness-not your identity as a sinner), and that forgiveness is made manifest in being called “beloved” of God. In this way, Baptism is not a choice we make or a choice our families made for us as infants. Ultimately, baptism is a gift to us from God. It is a means of receiving God’s grace, freely entering our lives. I don’t think we need to make up an elaborate theological system as to how baptism works. Isn’t being told that through this one action, we are God’s forgiven beloved enough? Why do we need more? Why is our trust in God’s providence lacking?
What do we do about our original sin? Doesn’t it need to be addressed? Isn’t this what baptism is all about? Again, this is a question first posed by Saint Augustine and refined by later generations of Christians, one that Jesus never mentioned or discussed. To Jesus, sins were rather ordinary, a fact of life. Nobody was so broken that they couldn’t be put back together or redirected toward God. Instead, as we talked about last week, Jesus restored people to a right relationship with God. We didn’t understand that God had blessed us and the full implications of that blessing. God wants to be in a relationship with us. Our failure to comprehend God’s over-the-top willingness to love us-that’s the root cause of sin, not whether Eve ate an apple from a talking snake. (Besides, the word sin doesn’t appear in the Bible until the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 3.)
Blessings are God’s original trademark. Creation began not with condemnation and evil but with God proclaiming blessing over the entire world, exclaiming, “It’s all good.” Somewhere along the way, we stopped seeing God reaching out with blessing after blessing and began to focus solely on sin and judging others. At our baptism, God redirects our priorities. This is what we read in the Gospels and what we hear the voice of God reiterate as if proclaiming the blessings of Genesis again, “You are my beloved, and I am well pleased. Be blessed.”
The gospel is not a story of sin. It’s a love story. If you listen to the message from most churches, you’d think God is obsessed with sin. It’s the other way around. We’re obsessed with sin. God is consumed with love.
Sin is about division. Sin separates us from God. Everything Jesus does is about bringing people closer to God. God is inviting us to stand in the water together. In the waters of creation, recreated in the waters of Baptism, we are reminded that God did not create us to be originally sinful.
On the contrary, we were made in God’s good image. Sin is not at the heart of our being. Even in our most malformed moments, we are the body of Christ. Therefore, when God looks upon us, even the disaffiliated community of Christians called Methodists, God calls us beloved and blessed.
Jesus is about restoration, healing, and wholeness. Our brokenness can be mended. The dirt on our souls can be cleaned. By accepting the invitation to embrace a life of watery-infused, creation-inspired fullness, we can live holy lives, even on days with severe ups and downs.