There was a man who wandered into a church one Sunday morning right as the closing hymn was being sung. The pastor was in his baptismal robe, standing in the baptistery ready to immerse anybody that came forward. This wanderer went forward. The pastor asked the wanderer, “Sir, are you ready to meet Jesus?” The man responded, “Yes, I am.” So the pastor grabbed the wanderer, put him under the water for a couple of seconds, brought him back up and said, “Do you believe?” The man said, “Hmm…No.” The pastor dunked him back down in the water again for about 10 seconds, brought him back up and asked again, “Now, do you believe?” The man said, “No.” The pastor put him back in the water, held him down for about 30 seconds this time, brought him back up and asked, “NOW, do you believe, son?” The man replied, “Yes, pastor I BELIEVE you’re trying to DROWN me.”
And people wonder why Methodists approve of sprinkling.
I reiterate the rule to guide us: “Here we enter a fellowship; sometimes we will agree to differ; always we will resolve to love and unite to serve.” – E. Stanley Jones.
As I have been preparing for this series, I had to ask myself a few questions. First, “Are you sure you want to do this?” When I decided that yes, this was something I thought was important enough to address at length, the question I then had to ask myself was, “If I’m going to spend a week on each of the primary modes of baptism, which one should I start with? What progression do I want to take, in terms of the quantity of water used in each: from the most water (immersion) to the least (sprinkling) or vice versa? Or should I start with the mode most frequently used in the baptism of y’all?” Well I decided to start with the mode that was most popular among those who rated them in the survey from a couple of weeks ago, and that result was immersion. To use a water analogy, I figured I would get my feet wet with immersion and work my way to the deep end of sprinkling. Maybe that sounds a bit backwards, but I’ve been a backwards kind of guy at times, anyway.
So let’s talk today about immersion. Very few Christians have difficulty with immersion as a valid mode of baptism. There is a whole tradition within the Church universal, known as Eastern Orthodoxy, which immerses even infants when performing baptisms. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters will sometimes immerse adult converts to Catholicism. And most Protestant denominations and non-denominations who consider themselves evangelical use immersion on believers as the ONLY appropriate mode of baptism. This is true of Baptists, Church(es) of Christ, Pentecostals of all sorts, and so on. And yes, even we United Methodists, despite the reputation that we are afraid of water, will use immersion as the mode of baptizing persons who have not been baptized before, if that is their choice.
There is obvious Scriptural support for immersion. Most admit that Jesus was immersed when baptized by John, although others have said, “Not necessarily.” Some have suggested that when Matthew 3:16 says that Jesus came “straightway out of the water” after he was baptized means that he was standing in the water the whole time and that John took water and generously sprinkled or poured it over Jesus head. My guess is that many of you don’t see that as a likely interpretation, but acknowledge that there are many who do and that’s why you’ll often see artwork depicting John with a shell pouring water over Jesus head in the midst of the river.
A more common approach from the strongest advocates of immersion has to do with the original language of the New Testament text, which was Koine Greek. In this common form of Greek in the ancient world, the word for baptism was ‘βαπτίζω’ (pronounced something like ‘bap-tee-zow’), and the most common definition of this word βαπτίζω means “to dip, to immerse, or to submerge.”
Therefore, what is often heard in some faith traditions is that the only appropriate mode of baptism is that which sticks as close to the literal meaning of the Greek term βαπτίζω as possible. And certainly most of us have access to enough water to be able to immerse a baptismal candidate. So it goes that for many Methodists who don’t immerse but could have done so, we will have been deemed unfaithful to the practice as laid out in Scripture, or at least for the language it was written in. But where this way of argumentation takes the wrong approach, in my view, is that it focuses more on the method of how the water is applied rather than on the purpose of the action. For even when the term βαπτίζω is used, there is a purpose behind it, and that purpose is “to cleanse…to wash…to bathe.” When we think about purpose and put it in these terms of “cleansing, washing, and bathing,” then we know that there are potentially a number of ways that this can be done faithfully. Stepping out of the realm of sacrament and baptism for just a moment, what comes to your mind when you hear those terms associated with “cleansing”? What method is most effective? Perhaps for some it is to take a bath; for others to take a shower; still for others using a wet cloth and scrubbing would get the job done most effectively. So, back to baptism, when we talk about being washed from sin and born of the Spirit (both inherent ideas in the theology of baptism), immersion is certainly a great way to convey this, but so are other methods. I’ll save those for the next couple of weeks.
By now, you might be beginning to think about me, “You sound like a Methodist who’s afraid of water. You’re not giving immersion its full due.” Perhaps you’re right, but what I’ve been trying to show up to this point is that the argument that immersion is the only valid mode of baptism is not as rock solid as some would have us believe. We as United Methodists believe other modes may convey the purpose and meaning of baptism as well as immersion. Ironically, United Methodists are not as concerned with the “method” of how the water is applied in baptism as we are with the purpose of the action.
And what is the purpose? The primary purpose of baptism is to proclaim an identity, rather than an experience. As baptism is the sacrament of identity, it is first about WHO we are; but even more so, WHOSE we are and with WHOM we are united (that is, Christ). When this is put together with the notion of “cleansing,” we can see why the appropriate response of the people of God to the grace given in baptism says:
We your people stand before you,
Water-washed and Spirit-born.
By your grace, our lives we offer.
Re-create us; God, transform! (UM Hymnal, 605)
The question of how (or what mode to use) is secondary, though it’s good to know the symbolism conveyed in each potential mode. Each portrays rich biblical imagery about the purpose of baptism.
And this passage from Romans (6:1-11) conveys the very richness of immersion. If I seem to have been taking down some of the arguments for immersion up to this point, now I want to raise up what is truly great about this mode of baptism. Immersion is beautiful, as going under the water and being brought back up portrays the bodily death and resurrection of Jesus. And since Paul says that we are baptized into Christ’s death, immersion portrays this union with Christ very well. That union with Christ means that what is true of the Messiah is true of us. This is our identity as being united with Christ. What is true of Christ is true of us. As verse 5 says, “If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his.”
In addition to portraying our union with Christ’s story, Paul is also subtly alluding to an earlier story, that of the Exodus. The gist of this passage with regard to the Christian community is that we should no longer being slaves to what? Sin! That’s right. We have tasted and known the grace of God through the waters of baptism, just as the Israelites had been delivered through the waters of the Red Sea. And what a marvelous grace and deliverance that was, for the Israelites in the Exodus, for Jesus in the resurrection, and for us in baptism. What Paul is saying is that grace, that deliverance, that claiming of God over our lives in baptism is so wonderful that we are to live the rest of our lives trusting in the grace of God that brought us out of the land of Egypt, away from slavery to sin, and into the land of promise, the relationship and union with Christ.
Now here’s where things get sticky and we begin to see things differently about this holy act. Many other denominations and traditions will refer to this act of baptism as an “ordinance,” whereas we Methodists and several other traditions refer to baptism as a “sacrament.” Of course, some make no real distinction between the two, but the main difference is in the approach. For many, the act as “ordinance” means that it is Christians obeying and doing what Christ commanded, or “ordered” us to do, by “baptizing” newly made disciples. And for those who see this as the work of humans, there’s no problem with doing it again and again and again. In many of those traditions, you can get baptized as many times as you want really. This shouldn’t the case for we who see this as a sacrament; that is, not the work of humans but the action of God in Christ. The purpose of baptism is not to acknowledge a decision, but to welcome God’s gracious action in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. To put it differently: you may have heard that baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward faith or decision. But if we approach baptism as God’s activity, then it is an outward and visible sign of an inward GRACE. That God gives grace to us before we even know it means that it is not about our choice, much less a desired feeling. The grace is of the variety that cleanses from sin and gives us our identity.
We believe that the One who does the baptizing is God. And again Paul says, when we are baptized, we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. That only occurred once. So to repeat a baptism or to “re-baptize,” from my perspective, is to proclaim one or both of these notions: 1. That God’s action was insufficient; and/or 2. that it’s possible to crucify Christ again. (That is not to say that when people have re-baptized, they have intended to communicate this as such; that just seems to be the implications IF we believe that baptism is indeed the action of God uniting us with Christ in his death and resurrection.) As Paul says, “He died to sin once and for all with his death.” And our baptism, whenever that was, is a union with Christ in his death and resurrection. If we have been united with Christ in baptism, we have been claimed by God’s grace and we know that God’s mighty acts of deliverance do not fail.
Trying to bring us now to the practical level of where this passage leads us: the question is often posed, “What about sin after I’ve been baptized? What if I’ve wasted the grace or have acted as though I’m back in Egypt?” To that, I’d say that at times we get cases of what I might call “spiritual amnesia,” where we forget our identity as the children of God, or we forget or lose track of God’s claiming us as God’s own. In coming back to our senses, we don’t redo the act, we don’t literally go back to Egypt, and so on. Rather, what is needed is a reminder, a remembrance of our identity. That’s what Israel did every year in telling the story of the Exodus at Passover. Celebrating the annual feast and retelling the story was the annual cure for the spiritual amnesia that they were so prone to develop, as are we. For us, that remembrance of baptism is that our “old self” was crucified with Christ when we first entered the waters of baptism. As N.T. Wright put it, “Once you are baptized, of course, you can try to shirk or shrug off your new responsibilities. You can pretend you don’t after all have a new status…But what you can’t do is get unbaptized again. Don’t even think of trying to go back to Egypt.”
So as the beloved of God, being immersed in God’s redeeming love, raised and delivered from slavery to sin, let us live for God in Christ, living out and remembering our baptism through the power of Christ’s resurrection. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.