This past Friday was Epiphany, the western Christian commemoration of the revelation of God in Jesus, connected with the visit of the Magi to the infant. In eastern Christianity, the commemoration is called Theophany, and the day honors the revelation of the Holy Trinity in Jesus, connected with his baptism in the river Jordan. Our scripture this morning in church was the account of Jesus' baptism.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:13-17).
Probably as long as I live, I'll associate the words "as he came up from the water" with relatives of my childhood (great-aunts, especially), who insisted that baptism must be adult, full-immersion baptism in order to be valid. This is a position that some churches do hold. In my great-aunts' view, "come up from the water" meant that John submerged Jesus (as opposed to pouring water on his head as they stood in the river, as depicted in the Andrea de Verrocchio painting above).
This verse in Colossians also comes to mind:
…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)
This was another proof text: when we’re buried, we’re not buried with a little dirt on our heads. We’re buried all the way under!
As a kid, I didn't feel comfortable with that argument but didn’t know why. I had a beginning interest in religion but had only studied a little bit via Sunday school. By the time I was in college, my parents and I had joined the local United Methodist congregation, and I was relieved when our pastor pointed out that the thief on the cross was not baptized by any mode and yet was promised salvation.
When I was in seminary, I learned more about Colossians, where we read a little later:
[W]hy 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).
While I wouldn’t at all call baptism a “human command,” the epistle's 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. There finally was an answer with which I was comfortable: fulfilling religious requirements by the letter is never as important as opening our hearts to God for God’s powers (Gal. 5:16-26, 6:14-15).
But my older relatives are long passed away. I’m not sure I would’ve argued doctrine with them anyway, for they were quite set in their views, and I’m not at all a debater by nature. Praise the Lord for faithful people of our childhood who, though possibly exasperating, you'd loved to visit one more time…