The meaning of baptism

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A Sermon by Dean Scotty McLennan

University Public Worship

Stanford Memorial Church

December 5, 2010

This morning's gospel lessoni gives us a colorful picture of a man called John the Baptist who’s apparently plunging people into the River Jordan as they confess their sins. We're told he does this for their repentance. Or as the Gospel of Mark puts it, John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He's drawing people from all over the countryside as well as from the great city of Jerusalem.ii All three synoptic gospel accounts tell us that John baptizes Jesus at the beginning of his ministry.iii Jesus then goes on to baptize other people,iv encourages his disciples to baptize,v and ultimately asks his disciples to go out throughout all nations and baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy

But what is this baptism in water, really, and what does it mean? The word in the original Greek of the New Testament simply means, "to dip."vii Expanded meanings in the original language include plunge, immerse or wash.viii As the New Catholic Encyclopedia explains, baptism has a long history: "In the ancient world the waters of the Ganges in India, Euphrates in Babylonia, and Nile in Egypt were used for sacred baths... A twofold effect was attributed to these baths: first a cleansing from ritual impurities, and, more rarely, moral impurities that, according to primitive notions, could be washed away like bodily dirt; second, a bestowal of immortality and an increase of vital strength...

From the middle of the 2d century B.C. until c. AD 300, there was a great deal of baptismal activity in Syria and Palestine, especially along the upper Jordan, among many different groups."ix John added his own special meaning to this age-old ritual, though: He proclaimed, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,"x and then insisted that baptism with water would lead to forgiveness of sins after one sincerely confessed and repented, in that way preparing one for entry into the kingdom of heaven.

Understandably, therefore, the early church struggled with the theology of why in the world Jesus would be baptized by John, since Jesus did not need to repent for any sins. Various theories were proposed early in the Christian era: that Jesus was simply fulfilling Hebrew Bible prophecies, or that he was being baptized in order to purify the water itself, or that he was personally representing the sins all of humanity, or that he was engaging in a reciprocal act with John (who he's then assumed to baptize immediately).xi

Regardless of the attempts to explain why Jesus had to be baptized, there's no doubt historically that "Baptism was practiced from the very beginning in the early Church as some sort of initiatory rite" into Christianity.xii It's taken for granted in the book of the Acts of the Disciples and in Paul's Epistles. "Because it was the sacrament that indicated entrance into the life of faith and the community of the church, baptism was also considered a means to inner enlightenment. In the Eastern [Orthodox] church, those who were initiated into the Christian mysteries by baptism were called the 'enlightened.'"xiii

Starting by the sixth century, the Roman Catholic Church began permitting the baptism of infants, which might seem strange, given the history of repenting for sins and becoming enlightened. The custom of baptizing newborns became quite popular by the eleventh century and was generally accepted by the thirteenth. In the fourteenth century the ritual became simplified from complete immersion of the body, as John the Baptist had modeled, to simply pouring water on the baby's head. However, after the Protestant reformation in the sixteenth century, a number of Protestant groups began insisting again on baptism only of adults and on full immersion in the water. In America, the best known of such group are called Baptists.

End of history lesson. What do we mean by baptism when we do it here a couple of times a year in the Stanford Memorial Church, usually for babies by pouring water over their heads? We always have a class for parents on the Saturday before their child's baptism. We give them a thirty-five-page baptism manual, which happens to have been prepared for the Lutheran Church. It describes a lot of different meanings for baptism, among them these: 1) Welcoming the child into the world and to the human race. 2) Acknowledging him or her as a child of God. 3) Being born again into a new spiritual life in Christ, washed and then sealed by the Holy Spirit of God. 4) Being figuratively clothed in a new robe, which covers one with God's forgiveness for sin throughout one's life. 5) Committing parents, god-parents, and the congregation as a faith community to nurture and support the child in his or her spiritual and moral development.xiv With all of the potential complexity, though, the bottom line, though, is that baptism is simply the rite of initiation into the Christian Church. That's why it's often called a "Christening."

In the Sacrament of Baptism that's celebrated the Sunday following the class here in Memorial Church during University Public Worship, we begin by asking whether the parents and god-parents (or sponsors) will be responsible for seeing that the person they present for baptism is brought up in the Christian faith and life. We follow with a series of questions, including whether the parents and sponsors put their own trust in God's grace and love. We note that in baptism we are reborn, we are led out from the bondage of sin, and we come to glorify the one eternal God. Then we baptize the tiny people presented, and sometimes include an older child or adult too, by pouring water over their heads and repeating the formula Jesus prescribes at the end of the Gospel of Matthew: to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Later we turn to the people of the congregation to welcome the newly baptized with these words: "Bless these your faithful people. Unite them in the peace of Christ and the company of the Holy Spirit."

So, has that clarified the meaning of baptism, or made it more complex? I think it's simple in terms of saying, "Now you're a Christian," but it's actually very complicated in all the layers of meaning involved. And believe me, over the centuries there have been many other layers added and debated, like the relationship of baptism to eternal life, what happens when an infant dies before he or she is baptized, and whether baptism in one Christian church is recognized in other Christian churches.

Going back to today's gospel story of John's baptizing by immersion in the river Jordan, the closest parallel experience for me was baptizing two girls who were well into their childhood, daughters of a college roommate, in a river in Vermont some years ago.xv The lessons there turned out to be simple: surprise and joy for them at a feeling of rebirth, re-commitment of their loving family to their daughters' spiritual well-being, and a sense of mutual re-engagement as a united community for all of their friends. I wrote about it in my first book, entitled Finding Your Religion. It was one of those hot late-July cricket-chirping days along the edge of hay field, with green mountains above and a crystal-clear stream below. Two dozen family members and friends had gathered, and it all seemed very relaxed. Some of us were in bathing suits and t-shirts. I began by asking the parents and godparents a number of questions about their commitment to the girls' spiritual and moral nurturance. I explained to the girls that this baptism was to welcome them into the family of God and dedicate them to the good of all humankind and to their own fullest growth. Then the three of us went down into the river. As they stood in the water, I gently tilted them backwards and then briefly dipped their heads under as they looked skyward. They had played in this river and gone swimming here a hundred times since they were babies, but today turned out to be completely different. People were watching them, there was a lot of buildup to the moment, and they were in someone else's control. What I found forever memorable was the look on each of their faces as their heads came up out of the river: They were stunned, wide-eyed, and utterly awake as they suddenly caught their breath. And then they were laughing uncontrollably. Laughing at their own surprise. Laughing at how different it felt from any other time they'd been in this river. Laughing as they looked at their parents and friends, who were smiling and clapping and laughing with them. They were utterly renewed at the moment, and they knew it. It felt as if something very special had happened.

That evening, after everyone had dried off, we lit a campfire to cook our supper and roast marshmallows for desert. Lots of stories were told. The adults drank wine and the children drank fruit juice. There were games and activities. At the end of the night before we tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags, everyone joined in singing folk songs -- on and on, soloing and harmonizing, loudly and softly. We felt a powerful sense of community, we knew something profound had changed in the lives of these two girls, and we felt committed to their spiritual well being in an entirely new way. Encircling it all was an ecstatic sense of joy for everyone present.

So, I'm not exactly sure what used to happen at the River Jordan around that man who wore clothing of camel's hair and ate locusts and wild honey. But there was a hearty band of us at a river in Vermont on a hot July day whose lives were transformed by that water ritual called baptism.


If, here, you have found freedom, take it with you into the world.

If you have found comfort, go and share it with others.

If you have dreamed dreams, help one another, that they may come true!

If you have known love, give some back to a bruised and hurting world.

Go in peace. AMEN.

Lauralyn Bellamy


i Matthew 3: 1-12

ii Mark 1: 4-5.

iii Mark 1: 9-11; Matthew 3: 13-17; Luke 3: 21-22.

iv John 3:22, 26.

v John 4:2.

vi Matthew 28:19.

vii Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1997), p. 91.

viii Lindsay Jones (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion, Second Edition (Detroit: Thomson, 2005), Vol. 2, p. 779.

ix New Catholic Encyclopedia (Detroit, MI: Thomson, 2003), Vol. 2, p. 56.

x Matthew 3:1.

xi New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006), Volume 1, p. 393

xii David Noel Freedman (ed.), The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), Vol. 1, p. 585.

xiii Jones (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion, p. 782.

xiv Daniel Erlander, Let the Children Come: A Baptism Manual for Parents and Sponsors (1996).

xv See story as recounted in Scotty McLennan, Finding Your Religion: When the Faith You Grew Up With Has Lost Its Meaning (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), pp. 187-189.

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