Baptism: Bane or Blessing

 

Baptism is one of my favorite rituals of the church. It is like a ceremonial rite of passage for an infant (in most traditions). The sight of parents entrusting their little ones to God is heart warming. The unexpected response of the babies can be quite entertaining. Even the baptismal clothing, sometimes passed from one generation to the next, is ceremonial.

 

I love when the pastors and the congregation surround the baby/child in love, welcome him or her into the community and pledge to help form them into God’s best intention for them.

 

What truly upsets my heart about baptism is the theology that has risen up around it that, in my experience, robs it of its splendor and its original intention. By original intention I mean how Jesus’ baptism is a model for what ours can be.

 

Two of the predominant theologies about baptism are both related to sin and death. One says that we were born in sin and that baptism cleanses and saves us from that sin (and from destruction). I learned, as a child, that unbaptized babies would go to hell. So much for 80% of all the babies ever born on this planet. The other main teaching regarding baptism is that, as we dip into the water, we are entering into Christ’s death and resurrection. Again, this is death and sin related, very abstract, and not related to Jesus experience of baptism at all. And I cannot connect it with the baptism of a real live baby who is six weeks old, or even a twelve year old.

 

This born-in-sin theology comes straight from St Augustine in the fourth century. He introduced the original sin idea and, if you ever read his autobiography, it becomes understandable how he got there. His life before his conversion and his mistreatment of his 15 year common-law wife, sending her back to Africa alone, without their son, because his mother had found a wealthy adolescent girl for him to marry, is fraught with confusion about himself and women. His acquiescence to his mother’s dominance all his life seems to speak of his disordered relationship with her and her strict theology. But that is another essay. In this case, I think his theology is autobiographical!

 

Yes, I do believe in sin BUT I do not believe the shame-based theology that we ARE sin. I believe that sin is anything that separates us from intimacy with our loving God. So some forms of work can be sin; not accepting love because we cling to unworthiness can be sin; unforgiveness of self and others can be sin; staying in an abusive marriage rather than leaving can be sin.

 

My view of baptism (and I’m aware that no one is asking me and few are listening!) is that it comes directly from God, it is totally based on love, that it is solely a blessing and a way for God to embrace us and then mark us as his beloved sons and daughters forever. The mark, a touch with oil on our foreheads, is a sign that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are present in this moment. And always a family and a community gather around us, promising to accompany us on our life’s journey. Baptism is God’s way of publicly greeting us, inviting us into this life with him and promising to walk with our families.

 

I base this on two scriptural passages that express my experience and a conversation I had with a wise pastor. I start with Genesis 1: Creation. God created us in God’s image—male and female. And God saw that it was very good. The fall from grace came later but we were created without sin, in God’s image. The second scripture is Christ’s baptism. At Jesus’ baptism the heavens opened, a dove came down as the Spirit upon Jesus, and God said “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” In another version, “This my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” Jesus baptism of God’s Spirit surpassed and replaced John’s baptism (even by John’s admission). So a wise pastor friend asked the question, if we need baptism because we were born in sin, why was Jesus baptized? Good question…

 

What if Baptism is our first personal and intimate blessing from God, his way to love us, to mark us with that love, and show his delight in us too. What if it is just the first of many blessings God showers on us, others being our unique gifts, our friends, our ways of handling loss and disappointments, our intimate partners, our passion for the world, our sense of calling, our gift of faith. What if, at baptism, we also bless and mark the foreheads of the parents and god-parents of the child, placing our hands on them and holding them in love, showering God’s love upon them?

 

So try this: Insert your own name in this declaration from God and see how it feels to you. “_______, you are my beloved son/daughter, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” Breathtaking!

 

What if, as my pastor friend suggested, the church or its representative or a group of friends was present to us at each major transition, to bless us in God’s name again, to mark us with God’s love, to delight in us. I’ve had a wonderful experience of a community blessing its members when I participated in a centering prayer group for five years. We were what I would call a “blessing group.” Whenever one of us was going through a moment that cried out for blessing, we blessed that person by laying hands on them, waving a blessing wand over them, praying for them and then singing the Amen song. We blessed people who were traveling, facing serious illness, experiencing a death in their family, or the death of relationship, entering new jobs or leaving jobs, and we even blessed people’s new homes or apartments. We went to the space and blessed every room, using candles and bells to invite love into that space. Then we ate and celebrated together. It was the most important thing we did as a group, in my experience.

 

What if we all created these blessing times in our lives and among our own families and friends? What a difference it would make!

 

ÓJanet O. Hagberg, 2015. All rights reserved.

Jesus’ baptism accounts are in Luke 3:21-22, Mark 1:8-11 and Matthew 3:15-17. Scroll down to see the two responses to my essay from pastors with different perspectives.

 

 

Reflections on this essay

What does baptism mean to you?

How do you embrace the fact that you were created in God’s image?

How have you most felt God’s mark of love and blessing on your life?

What blessing do you wish from God for whatever life experience you are facing now?

 

 

Two responses to this essay from people with different perspectives

 

This response is from Rev. Kelly Chatman, the pastor of an inner city multi-racial church in Minneapolis.

 

My reflection on baptism goes a little different than your essay.   While I am less invested in the idea of sin as God needing humanity to atone for our sins I think of sin as a social/corporate reality.  Baptism is and was a call into a community of faith that stood and stands against the empire.  Baptism is the ritual washing into the body of Christ less about our individual need for sin and atonement and into the reality and relationship with God and away from empire.  Baptism, being God’s beloved is to live into a reality where we know our true selves as children of God and this (sin) is to say there is no middle ground.  We live in relationship with God or empire.  We love God and ourselves or empire.  The grace which comes in baptism is we loose this battle with ourselves and God daily, and yet God forgives us.

 

I am open to your deconstruction of baptism and sin because I agree that God does not “need” us to wallow in how bad we are.  I do however believe God has investment in us living into how good we can be as co-creators and caring for one another rather than exploiting one another.

 

When I think about sin I think about the civil rights movement and how this was a manifestation of beloved community and folks living into their baptism.  I also do not think of baptism as a focus on judgment.  I think of baptism calling us into a deeper reality, a new way of seeing myself and the world.  I also thank God for my baptism because it calls me to be in relationship and responsible for people I might not otherwise feel response-able for/to.  With G/L/BB/T it was important to me to imagine that I share the same baptismal liberation with those who are outcast and I therefore am accountable to treat and advocate for them as God’s beloved, just as I am, no better, no worse.

 

Lastly, the example of baptism with centering prayer communicates to me a more mystical and intimate community experience of the depth of baptism.  I am drawn more to where I experience baptism in tension and struggle.   I think this is partially due to being Black and urban and unsettled with the presence of injustice, poverty and racism.  I feel that sense of fulfillment when I see a child in the neighborhood smile, when an outsider displays enough trust to join the church and when a person of power and privilege commits to be a part of Redeemer Church.

 

 

 

This response is from Rev. Mike McNichols, a pastor, author and a Fuller Seminary professor in Southern California.

 

I agree that the baptism of Jesus is key to getting a grip on the significance of baptism. John was baptizing Jews, calling them to repentance and submission to God’s rule and reign. Yes, it was a recognition of Israel’s damaged relationship with God, but it was an invitation to come home (so to speak).

 

When Jesus was baptized by John, John resisted. But Jesus claimed that it was to be done in order to fulfill all righteousness. My interpretation of Jesus’ claim is that in his baptism, he was identifying with all of Israel (and, by extension, the world). He fulfilled all righteousness (as in putting things right) in that identification, coming alongside the human race as brother rather than as condemner. It is then that God speaks, declaring Jesus to be his beloved son.

 

It may be that the most significant aspect of baptism is that we are now baptized into the baptism of Jesus, not as a qualifier or cleanser, but rather in a way that we now come alongside him, sharing the blessing of the Father as beloved sons and daughters.

 

That’s my take on it.

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