Sunday, January 10, 2010

Baptism of the Lord Sunday

Today was the first Sunday after Epiphany, commemorating the Baptism of the Lord. Our church had a wonderful service, at the end of which a little boy (five or six years old) was baptized. The pastor stood the boy on a pew so that the congregation could sing to him “Child of Blessing, Child of Promise.” The baptismal service tied in well with the sermon, wherein our pastor connected the love of God for Jesus (announced at Jesus’ baptism: "this is my beloved son") with God’s love for us through Christ, and our love for one another.

Years ago, on a trip to gain ideas for church ministries, I attended a service at a megachurch. The service featured a baptism, but the ceremony felt rushed. I sensed that the senior pastor hadn’t met the family and relied upon information from his assistants in order to know the child’s name. Perhaps baptism isn’t always handled that this in large churches, and perhaps I’m being unfair, but I felt like the baptism was inserted into a service that was otherwise aimed at keeping people celebrating and upbeat, the way you’d take a few minutes during a concert to discuss the acoustics.

What a impoverished approach to baptism, though! Baptism is literally a once in a lifetime event. It’s not even something people “do” for you, but a great thing God does. Baptism is a sign of God’s grace--his love for you that precedes your awareness of God.

Unfortunately, many people misunderstand baptism: they think that baptism is a christening service, or if you’re baptized as a baby but later have an experience of new or renewed faith, then maybe it’s good to be baptized again. But baptism isn’t something that you have to “recharge” later! You may have to “recharge” your faith in the sense of regaining a sense of God’s presence, but God’s love does not have to be reinvigorated.

Needless to say, there are all kinds of arguments about the way baptism should be done. I’ve a host of memories of now-deceased kinfolk with whom I associate this verse in Colossians:

…when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead (2:12).

My relatives, who belonged to a denomination that practiced only adult baptism-by-immersion, insisted that this text proves the necessity for immersion. After all, when we’re buried, we’re not buried with a little dirt on our heads. We’re buried all the way under!

I disliked that argument but didn’t know why. I was relieved when a Methodist pastor pointed out that the thief on the cross was not baptized by any means and yet was promised salvation. I read a little further in Colossians and read this:

Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed the appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence (2:20b-23).

I wouldn’t call baptism a “human command.” But the author worries (in this and the whole section 2:8-23) that we need to hold to Christ alone and not upon any rituals and practices, important as some of them may be. Fulfilling religious requirements is never as important as opening our hearts to God's love and power(Gal. 5:16-26, 6:14-15). The megachurch service that I attended aimed at opening people’s hearts to God, but in a way that (I thought) missed the chance to teach people what the sacrament means in terms of God’s prevenient and justifying grace. My dear relatives, on the other hand, thought God would withhold his love until we used the appropriate amount of water. But that idea missed the free and undeserved quality of God's love that makes us, too, God's beloved.

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