NB: I preached a version of this sermon on January 15, 2019 (Baptism of Our Lord Year C) to the clergy of the north conference of the Metro Chicago Synod and our bishop at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois.
A couple of years ago I baptized someone by full immersion for the first, and so far only, time in my ministry. It was a young woman who had grown up on the edges of the church, and whose mother wished her to choose to be baptized on her own. So she participated in our small group for baptism candidates and I tried to answer her questions as best I could. When she was done, she had a scruple about being baptized at our little font.
Now there are scruples that we as pastors should not indulge, for the sake of the clarity of the ministry of grace. But honestly I don’t encounter those scruples very often. And in this case, rightly or wrongly, I was not prepared to stand on the sufficiency of baptism my pouring some water on the forehead. But this left a problem: we do not have a font that will accommodate full immersion.
So I called up our colleague at the joint Baptist-Methodist church here in town to ask if we could borrow their baptistry. I offered to preach or assist with the service in whatever way would be helpful in exchange for their help. They were, of course, quite gracious about this, and the pastor talked me through how to do it. You have to put a washcloth up over the candidate’s nose and mouth so they don’t get too much water up in there, and the candidate puts their hand up over yours, and you put your hand at their back and sort of tip them over like one of those drinking birds.
When the time came, we went to the baptistry. It had been filling since the night before and it must have been heated somewhere because it was not freezing cold, but it’s a big piece of equipment and while it was hardly the Jordan River, it was also not exactly antiseptic. This pastor was a real honest-to-God Baptist so he didn’t have any waders for me to borrow, which was fine. We borrowed a gown for the young woman. And after the renunciation and the profession of faith and the prayers over the water, we got in, and I put the cloth up over her face like I was kidnapping her, and pushed her backward while holding her up. And after the first plunge, she came up out of the water with this look of surprise and terror that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I wanted to apologize between dunks. “I baptize you in the name of the Father—I’m so sorry!—and of the Son—almost over!”
I’ve had some challenging baptisms, as we all have probably had—the three-year-old who kicks and screams and runs away, the two-year-old who grabs onto your neck skin and will NOT let go, the baby whose shrieking only finds higher and louder registers. But I’ve never been so close to genuine remorse for baptizing someone. I’ve never felt even a twinge of suspicion that I was doing something violent and brutish. And when I was clean and warm and dry again and it was well over, I felt grateful to this young woman for her scrupulous demand to be baptized in that way. I was grateful to have shared that moment of intensity and fear, that experience that felt so close to drowning, with someone seeking to be joined to the Body of Christ.
When I was working on a book about Luther’s seven “holy possessions” of the church, I did a tiny bit of research on baptismal rites in the ancient church. And I could not help but be struck by how dramatic and ecstatic these rites were—the intense prayer and fasting beforehand, the shedding of old garments and dressing in new ones, the pitched prayers over the water calling down the Holy Spirit. I could not help but be struck at how small we’ve allowed this rite to shrink. How much of an inconvenience or an embarrassment it can become, stashed away in a private hour or squeezed in reluctantly between the Hymn of the Day and the prayers of the church. How rote and formal the process of question and answer, how routine the process for replicating cells in the Body of Christ. More mechanical than mystical. All the significance is still there, in the words and the actions—you are being drowned and raised up to new life, you are putting off the old self and putting on Christ, you are being brought into the Ark of salvation, but let’s be sure to schedule it on a weekend Grandma can be there and let’s make sure it doesn’t run longer than seven minutes because we have a stewardship update today.
When we hear the story of Jesus’s baptism by John in Luke’s Gospel today, we can get something of a glimpse of what this act meant, at least to the early church if not to John the Baptist and his followers themselves. The people come to the river filled with expectation, and John deflects from himself to the One who will be revealed, who will baptize not with water but with Spirit and fire, who will winnow and gather and save and destroy.
And it’s here, in this moment of high Messianic expectation tinged with dread and hope, when “all the people” have been baptized, including Jesus, that the Spirit descends and singles him out as the Beloved, in whom God is well pleased. Jesus has been, it seems, anonymous until his baptism. This great and terrible and awesome communal revelation begins his ministry. It is, in a fairly literal sense, an apocalypse: a revelation from a divine source.
Now baptism among Christians is not just an endless repetition of the baptism of Jesus, any more than Holy Communion is an endless repetition of the Last Supper. But every baptism is, in fact, an apocalypse. It reveals God for us—the God who commands and promises, who is righteous and merciful, who makes us return to the dust and who calls us into being. It reveals us for God—we who need and flee from a Savior, we who resist and require hope, we who are alienated from our neighbor and yet called to love and liberate our neighbor. And every baptism is an eschatological event: it plants the new believer, one hour or one hundred years old, at the border of this age and the age to come, this world and the Kingdom of God. It is the farthest thing from a religious formality, an in-group boon that we do to tide a child over until Sunday School and confirmation classes.
In the ways that we preach, practice, prepare for, and celebrate baptism, I suspect we pastors are creating a whole picture of Christian life for our communities. I struggle with this myself. There are so many things that can present themselves as urgent priorities and exciting opportunities while we take the core acts and words of our faith for granted. While the world is ending in our midst each week. But the expectation is still there. The power from on high still descends, and the voice still calls us one with the Beloved. The only thing we can do is trust it. Amen.