What is your story of baptism? Were you baptized? When? What do you remember? What does your baptism mean to you? Think about these things, because I’m going to invite some sharing about this a little later.
We have had a series recently of dedications for infants in our congregation. In several of these dedications I have mentioned that the reason that we bless and dedicate our infants to growing in faith is that we Mennos don’t baptize children. Instead, we reserve that particular rite for adults who make a choice to follow Jesus. We hope and pray that our children will choose to follow Jesus live into their calling and God’s children, including making a commitment to Christian life through baptism. Anabaptists, in fact derived their name from their radical practice of rebaptizing adults who had already been baptized as children, rejecting that first baptism as invalid.
For those men and women, rebaptism, or refusing to baptize their children was an act of treason! Baptizing a baby not only made them members of the church, it also entered them as members and citzens of their nation or kingdom. To be baptized as an adult believer was (and is) to name one’s allegiance in Christ as king over all others.
Here we have a story of the baptism of Jesus himself. This is one of the reasons that those first Anabaptists claimed adult baptism as true baptism. In this story, one who is coming is proclaimed by John in the wilderness. A crowd of people is baptized. Jesus is one of them. He prays – presumably with all the others. The spirit descends in bodily form as a dove and voice is heard from heaven: You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased. Or, some ancient authorities read, ‘today I have begotten you.’
This is the day that Jesus begins. This is his day of ‘yes’. This is the day that he steps into the public and becomes known. It is a pivotal moment in his life and ministry – pivotal in that there was a turning from an old way into a new one. He left behind private life and accept a ministry of preaching and healing and teaching, a call upon him.
For those Anabaptists, our ancestors of faith, baptism was one of the central elements of faithfulness. A believer accepted the gift of God’s grace and love by leaving stepping in/through the water of baptism into new life. Begotten or born anew. Our ancestors talked of not one but three baptisms, and Mennonite theology today continues to think about baptism in a threefold way. The baptism of Spirit, the baptism of water and the baptism of blood.
Water is just water. But the water is also a sign. In Mennonite theology we do not have sacraments (Weldon might argue with me on this) but baptism, like the bread an cup in the Lord’s supper, like the ritual of marriage or ordination, is a sign of a spiritual action on God’s part. An outward sign of an inward and spiritual truth. We say the words, “I baptize you with water, may God baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” We expect and invite the blessing and proclamation by God that we too are God’s beloved, that we are born anew in baptism.
Now, water is just water. But it is the means by which we make this step of faith. Water is the necessary outward witness. It is the thing that is the same in every case of baptism. There is no baptism by jello, or by hairspray, or by tomato juice. Jesus was immersed in the Jordan and we use that same sign. Water is what cleanses, what washes away. Water refreshes and brings new life.
And just as Jesus was in a gathered community when he was baptized, we make our water baptism in the presence of our gathered community. Baptism is not individual or personal. Baptism is a pledge before one’s family of faith that witnesses to what God is doing. It is also like marriage in this way – a commitment made in a particular community to be supported and to be accountable in our faith journey.
The baptism of blood is perhaps the part of this triune way of talking about baptism that has the least meaning for us today. For the first Anabaptists, it was very truly, a commitment in their baptism to the real possibility of arrest, persecution and death for claiming Christly lordship. Many of our ancestors suffered real persecutions and their commitment to a way of peace and the lordship of Christ meant a life of hiding, running and fear. This is still true for our brothers and sister in many parts of the world – Indonesia and some parts of Africa, for example.
But we are also called to a commitment to Christ over empire – even (and maybe especially) American empire. Our baptism calls us to accountability for how we engage in our culture. The ‘baptism of blood’ is the baptism that engages us with our world, it is the baptism we live into.
For Jesus, of course, his baptism was the first public step in a ministry that did lead to his death. Next week we hear Jesus first ‘sermon’ recorded in the Gospels – his quotation of Isaiah as the one who brings justice, sets prisoners free and gives sight to the blind. These acts of love, his radical hospitality to all, the way people were compelled to follow, threatened establishment and empire so much that he was killed for it. Our baptisms are modeled after his.
Well, now I’ve talked about what baptism means in a theological sense. I am very curious what it means in a personal sense. I am curious about what your baptism means to you. I invite your testimony and your witness to the power of God present in your baptism.