"You are my Son; my love personified. You fill me with pride."
(A paraphrase by Nathan Nettleton)
I wonder who has seen or participated in some of the various practices of baptism we have in the Christian Church. They are very diverse in both the philosophy and theologies behind them and in the actual practices and modes of baptism. Most would have been a part of baptismal services in our tradition and here at Toorak. And some may have seen the practice of believers or what is sometimes called adult baptism. Perhaps the most dramatic form of baptism practiced today comes to us from the Orthodox tradition where the child in immersed three times in a tub of water in the name of Father Son and Holy Spirit.
Its not just the practices of baptism that are different; each tradition has a unique understanding of both the meaning and the purpose of baptising someone. The Roman Catholic tradition has placed a heavy emphasis on cleansing the infant from original sin, so has to make him or her fit for heaven. Many Catholic theologians have backed away from that understanding in recent years for obvious reasons. Others, in some evangelical traditions argue for full immersion of an adult as a sign that they are a follower of Jesus, who was immersed in the river Jordan as the reading this morning tells us.
Baptism in our cultural also has a kind of societal value. Many parents seek baptism for their children as a way of connecting with the traditions and with beliefs and even perhaps family loyalties that are not as relevant for them today as they were for past generations.
Which reminds me of a rather irreverent story that some may have heard before.
At a gathering of ministers, one of the ministers told of how he was having problems with possums in the bell tower. A number of the other clergy shared similar stories and how difficult it was to get rid of these pests. Some had tried exterminators; others had employed roofers to seal up all the holes in the roof - but to no avail. The possums would be gone for a time, but then they would return. But one of the minister spoke to the group and said, "Yes those possum can be a real problem, but I work out a simple and effective way to get rid of them. You see what I do is I baptised each one and I never see them again."
Oh dear I did said it was a bit irreverent.
Back to our theme. We draw however our inspiration and understanding about baptism from the scriptures and particularly from the story of Jesus baptism.
The Ancient Practice of Baptism
It is important to note that John the Baptizer and the early Christians didnt invent baptism it was already a part of the practices of the Jewish religion. If an outside want to become Jewish, a member of the Jewish community, they would need to fulfil a number of religious requirements. We know that that included circumcision for a male. But also they would be immersed to wash away their sins. It was associated with purification ritual which we can see in the theology of early Christian baptism.
The meaning of the word baptism itself is clear from the text and other sources. The word means to "immerse" or "dip under." In Marks gospel there is a reference to "baptizing" the dishes; obviously not a religious ritual, but an immersing of the dishes in water in order to wash them. Because of the etymology of the word baptize, some traditions have taken a literal approach and immerse the candidate for baptism into a body of water. And as you know that was my tradition for many years. I have baptized, by immersion, people in swimming pools, a river, once in the ocean and most often in a baptismal tank in a church. But even as a Baptist minister early in my ministry I recognized as valid and legitimate the practices of other Christian denominations.
It is true that there is a dynamic to baptism by immersion. It is moving to witness a person acting on their commitment to be a follower of Jesus. And I think we should always look for rituals that are both meaningful and authentic to the individual but also have a strong and vibrant connection to the community of faith and the world around us. But for me the heart of baptism and in fact the heart of Christian faith itself, is not in just the re-enactment of religious practices and ritual. Dont get me wrong we need good and strong rituals and practices, but all of them must be relevant and expressive of the life of the community of faith at a given time in history. And they also need to be practical. That is they are responsive to the living daily experience of life.
I recall reading of a baptism in the Ugandan desert where the pastor took a handful of dirt from the barren ground and allowed it to fall over the head and shoulders of the man who desired to follow Jesus. Even the great symbol of water was too precious to be used in baptism. Many years ago in my first ministry in a Baptist church, I baptized a woman, while she stood in front of the congregation, by placing a few drops of water on her head. She had only a few weeks to live and she wanted to be "immersed" in this Christian community and in the Christian faith. Were those two baptisms legitimate and authentic to the Spirit of God? Did they have power to shape and reshape these two peoples lives? I am convinced that the answer is a resounding YES!
Immersed in the New Way of Being
So my point is that when we speak of baptism, we are speaking of immersion, but it is not just the literal view that a person is immersed in water. They are in fact immersed in God. The words of Marks baptismal story are the words of love and connectedness. The Spirit like a diving bird descended on him and took hold of him ..This is my beloved Son I am proud of him.
For Jesus and John his cousin, this was a holy moment that marked the experience of being immersed in the new way of being; the way in which Jesus would lead his followers. It was an immersion in water, although there is some evidence that Jesus probably stood in the water and John poured the water over his head, which seems to be in ancient times the method of baptism. But as I have said its the immersion into the coming Kingdom of God that marks this moment, not just the physical act of baptism.
Immersion into Love
In our discussions on baptism and this story of Jesus baptism we often neglect the spoken words of God to this person Jesus. True, they are almost mystical in their form. God speaking in an audible voice is most likely meant to convey an intimacy between this man Jesus and the Gods immediate presence, rather than a literal voice from the sky. It is the language of intimacy; the communication between a loving father and a child a son. This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.
Some years ago I read a moving story told by John Powell the Catholic priest who was the author of Why I am Afraid to Love. He said:
It was the day my father died. In the small hospital room, I was supporting him in my arms, when my father slumped back, and I lowered his head gently onto the pillow. I told my mother, Its all over, Mom. Dad has died.
She startled me. I will never know why these were her first words to me after his death. My mother said: Oh, he was so proud of you. He loved you so much.
Somehow I knew, that these words were saying something very important to me. They were like a sudden shaft of light, like a startling thought I had never before absorbed. Yet there was a definite edge of pain, as though I was going to know my father better in death than I had ever known him in life.
Later, while a doctor was verifying death, I was leaning against the wall in the far corner of the room, crying softly. A nurse came over to me and put a comforting arm around me. I couldnt talk through my tears. I wanted to tell her: Im not crying because my father is dead. Im crying because my father never told me that he was proud of me. He never told me that he loved me. Of course, I was expected to know these things. I was expected to know the great part I played in his life and the great part I occupied of his heart, but he never told me.
And a voice from heaven says, "Son, I love you and I am proud of you!"
What if every baptism was an immersion into this kind of love? What if it was a "dipping under" "a diving into" and an "immersion into" Divine love? What if those gathered were touched and felt a sense of that love within the family among friends, and those present in the community of love that surrounds them? What if the infant or the adult, in the baptismal font or the tub, or the tank, or the swimming pool or the ocean hears in their inner being as they are "immersed" the words, "This is my beloved child in whom I am so pleased."?
Surely friends, that is the heart of what we are on about. And that our wonderful rituals (which I use in the most positive sense) our practices and our beliefs and theologies about baptism, are all shaped and reshaped by the encounter with Divine love.
Over the years I have become more and more confident that we encounter the love of God through the people around us, through our living and loving; through the world of nature and even through the whole universe.
Immersed into a love that will not let me go.
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
by George Matheson