Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11
I’d like to share a story with you from Dr. Laurence Stookey’s book on baptism.
Early in this century, a baby born in England, Lucille by name, was taken by her maternal grandmother to the local Wesleyan chapel to be baptized. Lucy’s father, a sturdy Anglican, was skeptical about the whole proceeding since the Church of England does not regard Methodist clergy as being in the apostolic succession. So he took Lucy to the Anglican parish church where she was baptized again. Now Lucy’s mother was a convert to the Salvation Army and didn’t think much of either the Wesleyans or the Anglicans. So she took Lucy to the local citadel for presentation under the banner of blood and fire – the Salvationist counterpart to baptism.
In time the family emigrated to the Midwestern United States. The community they moved in to had neither an Episcopal Church nor an Army Citadel; so the family attended the Methodist Church. As a teenager, Lucy joined a class of those preparing to take the vows of church membership. Now it happened that the pastor was one of those mavericks who looks upon the practices of his own denomination with disapproval, and regards the baptism of infants as a misguided tradition. He therefore decreed that all in the class had to be ‘truly baptized’ at the font on the day of their vows. Lucy’s mother discovered what was afoot and said, “Absolutely not. Three times is enough for anyone.” But Lucy was a good psychologist and knew that once her mother was seated in church, she would not make a scene. When the rest of the group when to the font, so did Lucy! [Baptism #4]
Now it came to pass that some years later Lucy fell in love with, and married, a Southern Baptist – but not without extracting from him a pledge that she need not be baptized yet again. He agreed that she was quite sufficiently initiated into the church, and all was well – until they moved to a community where they attended a Baptist Church that was in need of a pianist. Lucy loved to play, and seemed to be a providential gift to the congregation. But, ruled the deacons solemnly and steadfastly, unimmersed hands may not play the Lord’s songs for us. And so, for the fifth time, Lucy was initiated into Christ’s church. [Source: Stocky, Laurence Hull. Baptism: Christ’s Act in the Church, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982.]
This is such a great story because it shows so many different ways of baptism, from sprinkling to pouring, from dedication to immersion – all bases are covered. There is a lot of symbolism that surrounds each of these methods. Water has a very rich symbolism in Christianity. It represents an outpouring of God’s grace. When the Israelites were grumbling about their conditions in the wilderness, Moses struck a rock and water poured out of it calling the people to remember their God. Jesus spent time around the sea of Galilee. He visited with the woman at the well and referred to himself as living water. When someone is baptized we note that that person is born of water and the Spirit, referring to the water of the womb that shelters us until birth. It is no wonder we turn to water through the sacrament of baptism.
When someone is baptized by immersion, often the symbolism is to die and rise with Christ. As you go down into the water you are your sinful self, but as you rise, you are a new creature in Christ. All sin is washed away and you are made truly clean. When someone is baptized by pouring, the person usually stands in water and has a shell of water poured over the person’s head to represent the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In the Methodist tradition we typically use sprinkling as the method for baptism, where water is sprinkled over the baby’s head which represents the outpouring of God’s grace.
Why is it important to undergo baptism? If the purpose is to wash away sin, then why did Jesus need to be baptized? Jesus was the one person who was without sin, yet he insisted on being baptized by John, even when John pointed out the irony of performing this action. In Matthew 3:14, John said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus responded by saying that this step of baptism is necessary for the fulfillment of righteousness. It appears Jesus was setting an example for us to follow yet there is more to Jesus’ baptism than this.
We are told that as Jesus came up out of the water the Holy Spirit descended upon him and the voice of God was heard saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Here for the first time we see all three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is a unity and a harmony that gives us a glimpse of the holy mystery of three persons in one being – God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For the first time we are given an assurance that Jesus is no ordinary prophet or priest. God is telling us that Jesus the Christ is the promised one, God’s son, sent to the world for the forgiveness of sins.
So if Jesus was baptized in order to set an example for us, shouldn’t we be baptized in the same manner that he was? That seems logical, particularly when we look at our other sacrament of Holy Communion where we reenact Jesus’ actions during his last time together with his disciples before his crucifixion, along with all the other times Jesus broke bread. If that is the case, than how exactly was Jesus baptized? Was it by immersion, where he was dipped in the water and brought back up? Was it pouring, where John would have taken a shell like this and poured water over Jesus’ head? Would it have been sprinkling like we do with babies?
For the longest time I had always thought Jesus was baptized by immersion. I grew up in a denomination where immersion was the only acceptable form of baptism. I would think they had the same notion – that Jesus was baptized by immersion therefore we should follow his example. But take a look at some of these paintings I found. Some of these date back to the 1400’s. I was quite surprised to see the method these artists believed Jesus underwent for his baptism. What method are they depicting here? It seems every artist I checked had the same impression – Jesus was baptized by pouring.
This story brings to life a lot of assumptions we may have concerning the way we do things in church. Baptism is one of the 2 sacraments of our denomination. As such, it is an extremely important activity for us. Baptism is a gift from God. But what exactly does it mean? This special and unique outpouring of God’s grace is a time for all of us as a church to take part and celebrate God’s love for all.
Baptism is an initiation that draws us into the body of Christ – a welcoming of one of God’s beloved into the family of God. We use sign-acts to fully experience the fullness of God’s grace. We invoke the Holy Spirit through the words of our liturgy, the remembrance of God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, the pouring and blessing over the water, the anointing with water, and the blessing through the laying on of hands. As United Methodists we recognize this special outpouring of God’s grace as one to be experienced as soon as possible; hence we routinely baptize babies with family members speaking on behalf of their children. Through confirmation, our children answer for themselves and reaffirm the promises made on their behalf as children.
Where a lot of churches get hung up is on the method of baptism. Do we use immersion? If so, should the person go into the water face down or backwards? Do we use sprinkling and baptize babies or do we practice ‘believer’s baptism requiring folks to answer for themselves? What about pouring?
There are biblical references to support all of these types of baptism. In our scripture lesson for today, John was calling people to repentance and baptizing adults as a symbol of their commitment to God. Jesus also was baptized as an adult. However there are scriptural references for baptizing whole families, including children. During the dry season in Palestine, the Jordan River was very shallow. As this was a popular baptismal location, it would be impossible to do immersion baptisms during this time. It was thought that perhaps pouring was used.
I bring this out to make a point of how easy it is to get caught up in the minutia of details that probably are not as important as we make them out to be. Groups of Christians have split off to form denominations over issues such as this. Yet Christ came to this world not as one that would see us in constant conflict with one another but one who brought peace and harmony and an overarching message of love to a world desperately in need of love. The method of Christ’s baptism pales in importance to the overall events of this baptism scene that is depicted in the gospels. The moment Jesus comes out of the water is what is most astounding. Suddenly the heavens open, a dove descends and a voice booms from above, “You are my son in whom I am well pleased.”
Some of us trip most heartily on the details to the point where we forget the meaning. Baptism is our initiation into Christ’s holy church. The use of water reminds us of our initial birth and also of creation and how water covered the earth. The words stated, either to the adult or the parents of an infant being baptized, ask for specific responses. Do you repent of your sin? Do you accept the freedom to resist evil? Do you confess Jesus as your Savior? For parents, they are asked about their willingness to teach their child about God’s grace through instruction and example. As a body of Christ, the congregation is also asked to renew our commitment to God’s calling in our lives. We agree to provide spiritual guidance to the newly baptized so that all may continue to grow and mature to be more like Christ. This is no little task – we are taking responsibility to love one another as Christ first loved us.
Baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. We cannot earn God’s grace – it is given to us freely. We experience God’s grace through baptism using water and liturgy as sign-acts to recommit our lives to Jesus Christ. I would like to close with a message you will hear repeated on Confirmation Sunday to be held here in the spring. “Remember your baptism and be thankful. May the power of the Holy Spirit work within you, that being born of water and the Spirit, you may be a faithful witness and a faithful disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.