I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.
[This is the second of four reflections on this scripture where Jesus gives his disciples their final instructions before he ascends into heaven.]
After Jesus is crucified he returns and gives his disciples some final instructions. He tells them to go and “disciple” people by baptizing and teaching them. Today I’m going to look at his first instruction – to baptize people.
The first words that Jesus speaks in the Book of Matthew are at the time of his baptism. Jesus began his ministry by being baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. John the Baptist was an outspoken prophet called for people to repent (change their ways) because the Kingdom of God was near. He also called for people to be baptized as a sign of their intent to reform their lives. John’s baptism, which involved the immersion of the physical body in water, was a symbol of the cleansing of the inner being in preparation for a fresh start. Baptism at that time was about leaving the past behind, with all of its baggage, and starting a new life of obedience to God. I already wrote quite a bit about John the Baptist and the practice of baptism on Day 103.
When you look at both this passage and the ministry of John the Baptist, it seems like maybe baptism is another practice that has been corrupted over the years by Christendom.
First, this scripture tells us that Jesus wanted his followers to baptize people. I want to be a follower of Jesus, but how many people have I baptized? None, of course, because I am not a pastor. I am not allowed to baptize people. Only authorized pastors and priests are allowed to baptize people. The church prohibits me from doing what Jesus said I should do. Back in John the Baptist day you were baptized into the Kingdom of God. Today you get baptized into “the church”. Baptism has become a church initiation rite and ordained clergy are the gatekeepers to the church. Of course Jesus wasn’t big on religious gatekeepers. (See Day 198). He was a “power to the people” kind of guy. And anyone can baptize. It’s not like it requires any special skill to dunk somebody and say the words.
Second, because baptism is about being accepted into the church, it’s not really a symbol of repentance anymore. Most denominations baptize you as an infant so you really don’t have much to repent about at that point in your life. Further, you are sent into the world with no recollection of your baptism. Some, like the Baptists, wait until you are about 12 or so. In either case people are baptized before puberty and young adulthood were all of the real problems begin. You are baptized in advance of your most sinful years.
Third, many adults think they are not “good enough” to come to church. They feel ashamed. They feel like the people in the church are all holy and they are too much of a hot mess to step into the building. Maybe if all of us ordinary disciples were allowed to get out there baptize people they would come to church, because baptism washes away all that shame. The current situation is a vicious cycle. People are too ashamed to come to church, but they have to come to church and (probably) have to be quizzed by a scary clergy-person before they can get cleansed. It’s kind of a roadblock. It would be better if they could be baptized by someone who they know and trust.
And then, of course, there is the issue of re-baptism for all those people who, like me, screw up and need another baptism to wipe the slate clean because they were baptized as infants and have no recollection whatsoever of the first one. And re-baptism is, of course, forbidden. I already told the story about how I was re-baptized on Day 233. My husband, who is a pastor, refused to do it but one day everything came together and we were both re-baptized when we were on vacation.
Today’s blog includes my husband John Hudson’s current thoughts on the issue of re-baptism. He’s a retired Methodist pastor who tried for years to convince me that I didn’t need to be re-baptized (to no avail).
I read Susan’s blog about being baptized as an adult. Yes, I did tell her that the policy was that if you were baptized as a baby that was it. So it was a time until by the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit not only Susan but I received baptism as an adult. For me, now that I think of it, although I appreciate the blessing of baptism as a baby that happened by the act of my parents, it is clear that for me that was not an experiential event. Even if it was said in a liturgy, “Remember your baptism” at a service, I did not have any conscious remembrance of that event. While at Granville UMC I presided over adult baptisms in Lake Michigan and there is quite a difference in the feel and experience. The baptized adult knows he or she has been baptized and can remember his or her baptism.
In the history of the early church adult baptism was the norm. Infant baptism came later as a way of ushering the new born into the community of the church without allowing free will and experience to operate. On top of that the story was that the newborn would go to hell if something did happen in those first months and years in times when child mortality rates were very high. It all became part of the institution and was carried on without question until the Radical Reformation and the Anabaptists, stood for adult baptism even for those who had been baptized as infants. Others who followed this tradition include the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Christian Church (the Disciples of Christ). There may be others as well.
I no longer pastor a church but have always baptized infants as well as adults. It is a time of blessing and I pray that all baptisms lead to a full experience. As I have found out, there is not a sufficient recognition of that full experience, if and when it happens. I doubt that churches that promote infant baptism will change, but I think anyone who feels the need to be newly baptized including by immersion needs to have that option. Just for further thought, here are the words of Karl Barth, one of the great Reformed theologians of the 20th century on this subject:
“The real reason for the persistent adherence to infant baptism is quite simply the fact that without it the church would suddenly be in a remarkably embarrassing position. Every individual would then have to decide whether he wanted to be a Christian. But how many Christians would there be in that case? The whole concept of a national church (or national religion) would be shaken. That must not happen; and so one proposes argument upon argument for infant baptism and yet cannot speak convincingly because fundamentally he has a bad conscience. The introduction of adult baptism in itself would of course not reform the church which needs reforming. The adherence to infant baptism is only one — a very important one — of many symptoms that the church is not alive and bold, that it is afraid to walk on the water like Peter to meet the Lord, that it therefore does not seek a sure foundation but only deceptive props.”
As you can see, my husband’s opinion about baptism continues to evolve. I think the entire church needs to take another look at this. You see, the problem is that we don’t always live happily ever after, even after we “give our lives to Jesus”. Things go wrong and sometimes we need a fresh start. Sometimes more than once. I remember in that movie “The Apostle” the Robert Duvall character needs to start over so he re-baptizes himself in a lake. I’ve felt like that. When everything falls out from under you and you are ready to begin again, re-baptism seems appropriate. Whenever you really need to turn things around or initiate a new life phase. Like when you start a new ministry, or are preparing for marriage, or when you emerge from a period of grieving, or when you become an empty nester, or when you give up an addiction, or when you turn 70 or 50 or even 30, or when you retire, or when you move to a new city, or when you’ve had a revelatory spiritual experience or something. It seems like there could be more than one of these turning points in one’s life.
My current pastor works around this by saying that you should remember your baptism every time you take a shower, or every time you take a bath. Every time you go into the water it can be a sign of a new life. Just like Robert Duvall you can emerge from your daily shower renewed and ready for a fresh start.
Nevertheless I think there is a missed opportunity here for the Kingdom of God. If Jesus says we should baptize, I think we should all be able to do it. He never imposes any limitations. The Bible doesn’t limit the number of baptisms. There’s no shortage of water. And when it comes to the philosophy of Jesus, he says we must forgive seventy times seven times. I think he would probably say we should be allowed to get that many baptisms if that’s what it takes to keep us on track. Seventy time seven baptisms. And why would God object to re-baptism? There’s no limit to God’s grace and mercy and the number of fresh starts that he is willing to give us. So why do we set limits where God does not?
What does this scripture say to you?