Remember your baptism?
If you don’t, it says a lot about your theological orientation.
Most people in the Christian world, including more than a billion Catholics, experience baptism as tiny, pre-cognitive infants. They squirm and often scream in a priest’s arms as water is poured gently on their heads. When the sacrament is finished, they fall sleep, as innocent as they were before they were sprinkled. This pre-conscious experience is also common to millions of infants born to Orthodox, Anglican, and main line Protestant families.
There are no eyewitnesses left, but I am sure I was baptized sometime in 1946, probably in the United Church of Morrisville.
My Presbyterian mother and Methodist father were not practicing theologians, but they knew the baptism of a fragile infant should not wait.
That was also the case when my spouse was born to Catholic parents in Havana. I doubt either set of parents really believed unbaptized babies go to Hell or Limbo if they die, but all four parents lived in church dominated communities. An unsprinkled kid would look awfully nonconformist.
Billions of us slept or wept through our baptisms, perfectly sinless. The seasoned sinners involved in the rite were the clergy, parents, and Godparents who winked at the irony of accepting Jesus and renouncing Satan on behalf of a blameless baby. The drama behind every infant baptism may be less extreme than the closing scene of The Godfather, when Don Michael Corleone recites words of faith for his tiny nephew while his orders to whack his many enemies are executed out of sight of the baptismal party. But in every case, it is the adults who have an urgent need to renounce sin and Satan, not the innocent babe.
It’s hard to explain how the church evolved to the point of baptizing the innocent when the rite was originally intended for the guilty. John the Baptist made this clear by calling baptismal candidates a “brood of vipers,” (Luke 3:7), and by offering the rite as an opportunity for sinners to repent.
That original intention for baptism must be one of the reasons John was so unnerved when Jesus, whom he believed to be sinless, came to him and asked to be baptized. In Matthew, John demurs, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus answered, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:14-15)
Unlike every other adult who seeks baptism, Jesus came to the rite without sin. But like every adult, Jesus used the ceremony to announce a change in lifestyle. He was leaving behind his life as a Nazareth carpenter and beginning a new messianic mission. What better place to announce his new life than in a watering hole filled with sinners eager to turn away from sin? And what better audience to watch slack jawed as heaven opens, a dove descends, and God’s voice speaks: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22). It’s the Bible’s brass age way of shouting, “Look, up in the sky, it’s heaven, it’s a bird, it’s the Son of God!”
Most everyone agrees that the John baptized only adults seeking redemption and there is no biblical evidence that infants were ever baptized.
Many scholars also believe that John baptized by immersion – a good Baptist term that means full body dunking – in part because the Jordan River was deep enough to do it.
Others surmise John asked people to stand waist-deep in the water as he sprinkled their heads. That’s the form many artists imagine when they depict Jesus’ baptism. To stand with dignity in water is certainly more esthetically attractive than the image of a drenched person splashing and gasping for air as dripping strands of hair clog their nostrils. (Baptists know all about that.)
But, truth be told, the Bible is silent about the specific form of John’s baptism leaves us wondering if it involved full or partial immersion. John may even have sprinkled heads as converts stood comfortably on the dry bank. But I doubt it.
Across the centuries, churches reached different conclusions about the manner of baptism and who should do the baptizing. Just to be wonkish about it, the basic forms of baptism are aspersion, the sprinkling of water on the head; affusion, the pouring of water on the head; and immersion, by which Baptists (among others) mean full body dunking.
Baptists and their Anabaptist relatives are not the only groups that practice full body dunking. Submersion (of infants) is practiced by Orthodox and in the Ambrosian rite of western Catholics.
But the Baptist style of adult believers baptism is distinctive and attention getting. Many non-dunkers are amused that otherwise sane people would submit to the soggy rite:
MINISTER (forcing a wretched man’s head beneath the water): Do you believe?
MAN: (Choking and sputtering) Y –
MINISTER (dunking the man again): Do you BELIEVE?
MAN: (Choking and sputtering): YES!
MINISTER (dunking the man again): WHAT do you believe?
MAN: (Gasping for air): I believe you’re gonna DROWN me …
The rite of believer’s baptism has been portrayed hundreds of times in cinema but rarely accompanied by such beautiful music and inadvertently dead-on theology as the Coen brothers’ 2000 classic O Brother, Where Art Thou. Delmar, one of three escaped jail birds in Depression era Alabama, sees a baptismal service in the river and is pushed by powerful forces, perhaps the Holy Spirit, to join in:
Everett: Well, I guess hard times flush the chumps. Everybody's lookin' for answers... Where the hell's he goin'?
[Delmar runs out to be baptized]
Pete: Well I'll be a sonofabitch. Delmar's been saved.
Delmar: Well that's it, boys. I've been redeemed. The preacher's done warshed away all my sins and transmissions. It's the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting's my reward.
Everett: Delmar, what are you talking about? We've got bigger fish to fry.
Delmar: The preacher says all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.
Everett: I thought you said you was innocent of those charges?
Delmar: Well I was lyin'. And the preacher says that that sin's been warshed away too. Neither God nor man's got nothin' on me now. C'mon in boys, the water is fine.
As I said earlier, I was baptized as an infant sometime in the late summer or early fall of 1946. Then in 1966, while fighting the Cold War at an Air Force base in England, I was convinced by the relentless testimony of Southern Baptist friends that my baptism didn’t count because back then I was too young to “know the Lord.”
I think at 20 I was almost as sinless as I was in 1946 (if you don’t count bad intentions and dirty thinking) but I succumbed to the pressure to get dunked Baptist style.
Air Force chapels don’t have baptismal pools so the congregation gathered in the Baptist Church in Woodbridge, Suffolk, for some serial baptizing. It was a frigid November 6, and the water in the pool was no warmer than icy Martlesham Creek that flowed nearby. A small paraffin heater was ignited and tilted precariously toward the water but I could see it wasn’t warming anything. As I stood among the candidates for baptism I thought I could see ice forming along the edges of the pool. When I went under, the witnesses to my baptism turned their heads and winced.
As it turned out, I was never in danger of downing. The freezing water paralyzed my diaphragm.
Nearly half a century later, I must question whether it is necessary for believers to be re-baptized to assert their faith – to, as Jesus put it, “fulfill all righteousness.” To be baptized a second time suggests you don’t believe the Holy Spirit was present the first time. Of course the Holy Spirit was present then, just as the Spirit is present at every breath you take.
It’s not that I think my second baptism was unnecessary, like a redundant vaccination, or that it was in any way offensive to the Holy Spirit. I just think I could have made the same testimony in other ways.
In the 1990s, as a member of the staff of the World Council of Churches, I attended a dialogue in Costa Rica between Orthodox and Pentecostal Christians. There were several Pentecostal pastors from Nicaragua and one of the Orthodox bishops asked them whether they re-baptized their Roman Catholic converts. Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, one of the pastors replied, “No, not if a priest baptized them when they were babies because the Holy Spirit was there.”
The Pentecostal pastors said they had reached that conclusion through a prayerful reading of Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, the World Council of Churches’ celebrated Lima document published in 1982 and republished scores of times afterwards.
Among the document’s comments about baptism is this:
The Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of people before, in and after their baptism. It is the same Spirit who revealed Jesus as the Son (Mark 1:10-11) and who empowered and united the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2). God bestows upon all baptized persons the anointing and the promise of the Holy Spirit, marks them with a seal and implants in their hearts the first installment of their inheritance as sons and daughters of God. The Holy Spirit nurtures the life of faith in their hearts until the final deliverance when they will enter into its full possession, to the praise of the glory of God (II Cor. 1:21-22; Eph. 1:13-14).
I had decided to get re-baptized in 1966 in order to make a public testimony of faith that I couldn’t have made in 1946. I did it in the spirit of the Southern Baptist message that was codified years later in The Baptist Faith and Message, adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention on June 14, 2000:
For the majority of Baptists, Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Savior, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to the believer's faith in the final resurrection of the dead.
Looking back on a baptismal event in 1946, through which I may have slept or wailed but certainly do not recall, I am persuaded that same testimony of faith was made. I could well have chosen to restate that testimony in 1966 and could and should reiterate it in 2013. But additional baptisms are not necessary to do it.
When Jesus came to John to be baptized, God made visible what has been invisible in the billions of baptisms that have taken place since: Heaven opens and the Holy Spirit descends.
We may not see it with our eyes as the witnesses did when Jesus was baptized.
But Jesus’ baptism is an eternal reminder that whenever any one is baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the miracle is sufficient for all time.