Baptized for belonging

The folks who do the weather reporting and keep the records on such matters say that the year just ended was the wettest since they have been keeping records here in South Dakota. Of course South Dakota is a big state and we don’t always have the same weather across all of our territory. The most rain fell at the other end of the state, but still, where we live moisture has been generous. Our lawns stayed green without being watered all of last summer. The forest is feeling healthy when you walk around the hills. The reservoirs are full and the creek is running with plenty of water. And we’ve had a reasonable amount of snow so far this winter with the forecast calling for more.

I’ve lived most of my life in places that might be considered to be semi-arid. The closest we lived to a real desert was Boise, Idaho, where we lived for ten years. Boise has an annual rainfall of about 11 inches, which isn’t much, but it has the advantage of being close to some powerful rivers and a heritage of irrigation and systems of water management. The hills were we have made our home for nearly a quarter of a century have no natural lakes, but are dotted with reservoirs that store water and give us opportunities for recreation.

Water is essential for life and the people who settled into the countries of the Middle East have been aware of water and the simple fact that it is a precious and limited resource for as long as they can remember. In the time of Jesus, people had learned to live in the region by keeping track of the natural springs, digging a few important wells, crafting vessels to carry water and learning to treat water with care. The few streams that flowed in the arid country we often as small as a trickle, muddy and shallow.

All of this is to say that when Jesus was baptized John in the river Jordan, there is no record of how the baptism took place. It is assumed that Jesus was immersed in the water. That would have been the tradition. Rituals of cleansing often involved large jugs of water so that the bath would be enough to cover the body of the one being cleansed. The Jordan has some deep areas and pools where it would be practical for those going to be baptized by John to be completely covered by the water. But the bible records no discussion about the method of baptism or the process used. The Christian tradition of three immersions in the name of the three persons of the trinity would not have been in place. Jesus was the second person of the trinity and the concept of the Holy Spirit was not at all well developed in the theology of the time.

Jesus and John and those who witnessed the event understood that the action was symbolic. A ritual cleansing isn’t the same thing as a thorough scrubbing. It is a symbol of leaving behind unwanted characteristics and commitments and assuming a new relationship with God. The language used by John was “repent,” which means to go in a new direction. Those baptized did so as a sign that they intended to leave behind their old ways and head out in a new direction.

The baptism of Jesus is recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke. John doesn’t directly describe the baptism. Matthew, whose Gospel we read today reports that John was reluctant to perform the ceremony for Jesus. Perhaps he thought that the symbolism was all wrong. He had been calling on people to repent and then baptizing them as a sign that they had made the commitment to repentance. John saw no need for Jesus to repent. He suggested that instead, Jesus should be the one doing the baptizing and John the one to receive it. Jesus dismisses his protests, saying, “Let it be so now.”

In a sense, the church has been arguing about baptism ever since. People struggle with symbols. They want to make the symbol into the thing that it symbolizes. They don’t see the distinction that was at the heart of the conversation between John and Jesus. John understands who Jesus is. He knows that Jesus is not a person who has sinned by ignoring the needs of others or failing to demonstrate compassion or falling into idolatry or forgetting God’s love of the people. Jesus does not need to repent and start over with a new life.

It is not unlike the precious infants that parents bring to the church for baptism. These children are not filled with sin. They are not estranged from God. They do not need the actions of the minister or of the church in order to get into heaven. God loves them before they are baptized. The baptism is rather a symbol of their acceptance into the community of the church.

Jesus, too, participated in a symbol of his entrance into human life. He accepted all of what it means to be human, pain and sorrow and suffering as well as joy an hope and love. Fully human, he emerged from the water to be reminded that he had not cast off his special relationship with God. His baptism demonstrated that he was both fully human and fully divine. The baptism didn’t change the nature of Jesus. It didn’t change his relationship with the Creator. It revealed more of Jesus’ identity to those who witnessed it. The story remains with us to remind us of this identity.

We, who have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, are not materially changed by this symbolic act. We are not less likely to make mistakes. We are not more loved by God. We are baptized for belonging. By our baptism we are welcomed into the community of the church. And we acknowledge that faith is not something we do alone. We need others. We need to belong.

The water is a symbol of that belonging.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!