When I was a young minister in my first placement, I had quite a difficult conversation with a visitor to the town. She started by talking to me about baptism. She wondered if I thought that baptism is important. I replied ‘Yes, I do’. This gave her the opening she wanted to announce with great enthusiasm that she had never been baptised. She was waiting for a word from the Lord direct to her telling her that she should be baptised. Until she had a direct word from God, she wasn’t going to be baptised.
What do you think about that? Should she have waited for a special word from God to her alone? My answer is this: She has already had a direct word from the Lord. This woman was sadly mistaken. In fact, she’s had quite a number of direct words!
For example, take these:
The Apostle Peter in his preaching said:
Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls. (Acts 2.38-39)
In the letter to the Galatians, St Paul writes:
As many of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.28-29)
Or hear the words of the Lord Jesus Christ:
All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28.18-20)
These are direct words from Scripture indicating that baptism is central to God’s purpose for us. We don’t need any other words.
But even if verses like these weren’t in the Bible, today’s Gospel story about the Baptism of Jesus would be more than enough for this woman to know she should not delay being baptised. Why is that so? Because Jesus didn’t delay his baptism, and we are his disciples.
Here’s the scene:
John is out in the bush by the Jordan River, and people are milling around. Many are eager to enter the cleansing waters of baptism. They are wanting to show they have repented, turned away from sin. There are people who were religiously ‘unclean’ for various reasons—perhaps because of their jobs, or because they had a disfigurement. And there are others who are already religiously ‘secure’. They were ‘in’ already, or so they thought. They came to be baptised too, but John had some choice words for them. We heard these words a few weeks ago during Advent. John said:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
There’s something going on here, and it’s not what we usually associate with ‘church’. The disreputable folk are going ‘down to the river to pray’ and getting baptised. The respectable members of society are being held back. What’s this about?
It’s good to understand one thing: the dynamics of first century life were a bit different to ours. People were concerned with their ‘honour’, and avoided anything that brought ‘shame’. It’s the Age of Oprah now, and we’ve largely left that behind. We’re encouraged now to ‘let it all out’. Things that once were too shameful to mention are now something to ‘tell all’ about, and make a dollar or three out of.
Part of a first-century Jew’s honour was to be a member of God’s chosen people, and not an unclean Gentile. The Jewish people were descendants of Abraham. They were chosen. They were ‘in’.
But John says to them,
Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’.
John says, You don’t understand. My baptism isn’t a religious ‘add-on’. Repentance means a lot more than you realise. You still need to turn to God. Doesn’t matter who you are; you can’t take God for granted.
John was welcoming the religious failures, and penalising the religious successes. John’s baptism was offensive; through it, John celebrated the repentance of the unclean.
But do you know who the biggest group of unclean people was? It was the Gentiles, the non-Jews. After all, they made up the majority of the world’s population!
It was common for a Gentile to desire to become a Jew. The high ethical standards of Judaism and the belief in one God, invisible and unseen, were very attractive to many Gentiles. Some became ‘God fearers’, like the centurion Cornelius in Acts 10. Others went all the way and converted to Judaism.
The practice arose of baptising these converts. (For us men, it was in addition to circumcision and not instead…) It seems that John the Baptist took this practice of baptising converts to the Jewish faith and told the Jews themselves they needed to be baptised.
On the edge of the crowd there’s a young man who no one notices. He decides to come to John and ask for baptism. And John says something new. It’s not, Welcome, sinner. Neither is it, You don’t understand. John says,
I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?
We see here that Jesus is the baptiser, not John. Christian baptism has replaced John’s baptism. They’re not the same thing! John’s baptism signified repentance; Christian baptism signifies a bath, a birth and a burial. It is into the Name of the Blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and it gives us a share in the life of God.
John knows that Jesus has nothing to repent of. John sees that next to Jesus, he is like a despised Gentile. But Jesus has other thoughts. He replies:
Let it be so now; for it is proper in this way for us to fulfil all righteousness.
Jesus is ‘fulfilling all righteousness’ by walking the way of God. He is taking the place of the people of God and repenting for them. The people of Israel need to confess their sins and turn to God; Jesus is taking their place here in the Jordan, and his baptism is an echo of his death.
But wait, there’s more! John was borrowing from the practice of baptising Gentiles. In his baptism, Jesus was also including the Gentiles. He was being baptised for all of us: Gentiles who wish to become part of God’s people, and Jews who repent of their sin.
There was no ‘honour’ in what Jesus did that day. There was ‘shame’, the shame of identifying with sinners. Some of those sinners were disreputable, some respectable; some clean, some unclean; some were Jews, some Gentiles; Jesus identified with us all. He was baptised for us.
Christian baptism is baptism into Christ. Whatever age it occurs, it’s the entry point to the life of identification with Christ. So when Jesus doesn’t care about his honour, why should we? If Jesus takes his place with people on the edges, why don’t we?
Baptism is much more than a ‘religious add-on’. It’s the beginning of life with Christ, in Christ and for Christ. It belongs to everyone, no matter who they are. It belongs to people who come to faith in adult life. It belongs to newborn babies. It belongs to those with profound intellectual disabilities and to people who have succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease. No one should be left out just because they are too young or too old or are unable to voice their faith.
So you can see why that woman I told you about was sadly mistaken. Jesus was baptised for us—in fact, he underwent the shame of John’s baptism for us. How on earth can we devalue baptism and all it means? What ‘special word’ do we need?
Christian Baptism signifies these three things: a bath; a birth; and a burial. We need all three:
- we need to be bathed, cleansed from sin so that we might follow Jesus;
- we need the new birth so that we can be part of God’s family;
- we need to die to sin with Jesus Christ and be buried safely out of its reach, so that we may rise again with him.
No one need deny themselves the sign of baptism, or be denied the sign of baptism.
2011 has dawned. Let’s make it a year in which the full meaning of baptism comes richly and vibrantly alive in our lives, and in the life of this whole church family. Amen.