12. January 2020

Baptism – Not washing with water

Service Type:

‘…Not the removal of dirt from the body…’ (1 Peter 3, 21)

Apart from one brief episode recorded in Luke’s Gospel, as far as Jesus is concerned, we ‘fast forward’ thirty years from the story of His birth to the beginning of His ministry; His being baptised by John. Jesus’ initiation into ministry has been adopted by the Christian Church as the rite of initiation into the Christian life itself. Hence, regardless of the difference of approach, even of understanding, in respect of baptism that has emerged over the centuries within the Church – albeit a real and means of hurt for many – baptism remains the means according to which a person is initiated into the Christian Church.

But as any Free Mason amongst us will know, rites of initiation, however weird and wonderful they might be, of themselves are nothing more than an ‘outward show’. Paul, writing to the Romans, went to great lengths to ‘deconstruct’ circumcision – the Jewish rite of initiation for male children – demanding that what was required of anyone who would be a Christian was what he termed ‘circumcision of the heart’; evidence from within the person that their becoming a Christian made an actual difference to the way they conducted themselves in terms of what they said and did to such an extent that what was now different about them was apparent, noticeable and obvious to others.

The First Letter of Peter, a portion of which we heard read earlier, is thought by some to be a summary of a sermon preached at a Baptismal service, with for its text – ‘Baptism is not the removal of dirt from the body, but the appeal made to God from a good conscience’ – in effect, it is the realization that to be baptized is to do the right thing, and in being baptized one pledges before God, and the world as represented by the congregation present, to continue to do the right thing, so help you God. To do what God requires of you as a faithful follower of Jesus, thereby allying yourself with Him in His death – for it is through His death on the Cross that one can be reconciled to God – that one might be united with Him in His resurrection, such that one is able to face down anything that would otherwise come between Christ and those who have owned His name in baptism…

‘Thus the vocation of the baptized person is a simple thing: it is to live from day to day, whatever the day brings, in this extraordinary unity, in this reconciliation with all people and all things, in this knowledge that death has no more power, in this truth of the resurrection. It does not really matter exactly what a Christian does from day to day. What matters is that whatever one does is done in honour of one’s own life, given to one by God and restored to one in Christ, and in honour of the life into which all humans and all things are called.

But more than that, baptism as a word does not translate into English. It is a transliteration of the Greek word – translators were nothing of not diplomatic when having to transcribe potential theological controversies. Total immersion is one mode of baptism, and for me at least helps me to make sense of what baptism requires of us. So for instance, Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples…Go into all the world & make disciples…’totally immersing them in the Father, the Son & the Holy Spirit’…Christmas – the incarnation – reminds us that in Jesus God totally immersed Himself in the world…Pentecost reminds us that in and through the Holy Spirit God is totally immersed into the world primarily though not necessarily exclusively within the life of the Church. Accordingly, we are called as the people of God to totally immerse ourselves in the world in order that the world might be totally transformed in and though the power filled love of the actively present God. As we move into 2020; it may be that we have to challenge ourselves, whatever our age or circumstance, as to just how far we are prepared to go in our service for Christ and His Church.

Are we prepared to totally immerse ourselves in its affairs or are we content to remain on the edge of things, merely dipping our toe from time, if only to take the prevailing temperature? “You know it’s a real salvation when Baptists use cold water.”