I should have understood the question. It’s my kind. Question that is. The kind I like to ask. A question which roots down to the point. And maybe makes the receiver mildly uncomfortable, like there’s a right answer and you don’t want to answer it wrongly.
Now I’ve got it. And I pause too long, considering. The chance is gone.
The Baptism of our Lord | Matthew 3:13-17
It’s a simple question, isn’t it? Why Baptism? Why we do this thing where we gather around water and we make our vows and then we get wet. And if we have some oil with us, we anoint in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
We get wet and then we’re in. We’re good. Safe.
But this young man was asking such a simple question. Just a passing thought, really, for me. “Why baptism?” Well, why indeed?
I could stammer on about theological reasons. Then shift to doctrinal and traditional practices. Perhaps shift to the practical. Ultimately settling on the Scriptural references to it, and long after putting the guy to sleep, I’d come around to something that sounds like an answer.
But I realize that in that pause–in that space between his question and my lips actually forming words, my internal argument has already finished and I had nothing to say.
Such a simple question “Why Baptism?” is. Terrifyingly simple.
Tradition Never Asks Why.
As I sputtered and began to form words, which were not so much a cogent argument and more a time filler, I raced to find an answer. A real one. Not the shameful excuses we give for not actually dealing with our sacraments.
If you’re like me, I was baptized as an infant. So were my parents. Baptism was a tradition. An expectation. Maybe even a rite of passage. It was an action. A step. A thing to be done.
And I imagine we gathered around the font and my Dad dripped some water on my head on a Sunday morning. Just like I’ve done with my two children. Water, splashed upon their heads, oil rubbed against their foreheads. Hair dripping, wiped by a cloth. Smelling of olive.
Parents to children, a tradition passed down and recreated. Over and over.
But why? Do we even know? Do we hear the call to transformation or do we simply think of membership and belonging?
Here’s a quote:
“The vast majority of people who’ve ever been baptized by our people are our own offspring. We’ve never been very evangelistic in terms of people who weren’t those to whom we gave birth.”
That’s Dr. Al Mohler of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. A Southern Baptist! It could just as easily be said of the Episcopal Church. We baptize our own. Do we even need to know why?
Maybe Because Jesus Was Baptized Works For Some.
That’s mostly for the insiders. The ones who, like Jesus, were already in. Knew what’s up. Go to church or Temple. Pray with others. Give.
The writer of Matthew gives this great question to John so we might hear an answer to that very question we all have about Jesus’s baptism:
“I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
John turns it back on Jesus saying nah, we have this backward!
John makes the same mistakes with Jesus that we make with baptism itself. He’s thinking about the process and the theology and the commitment and the structure. He’s so focused on the details, that he misses out on the really simple answer.
Jesus’s Baptism isn’t about Jesus. It isn’t an entrance rite. He doesn’t get to go to heaven because he got baptized (or avoid hell). It isn’t really about his salvation at all.
Baptism isn’t about us. It’s about God.
Jesus doesn’t walk into this wild, flowing river with a strange man, going all the way under the water, come up, catch his breath, and then walk home. That isn’t how the story goes. The river water is only half of the story. And it isn’t the most dramatic part.
That comes after he gets wet.
When the sky opens and a voice booms like thunder and the Holy Spirit comes down upon him like a peace dove.
Now that’s what we in the Episcopal Church call an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace! Voices and birds!
But that isn’t the whole answer either. It’s the whole thing. Because the Spirit coming upon Jesus reveals what we normally can’t see. It shows us what we otherwise wouldn’t know.
The dove, the Spirit, the baptism itself, is proof that God is already at work in you.
Baptism is the Sign.
The sign of God’s presence. Of God’s work. That we are the very means by which God’s justice and peace is made. And our service is to that mission.
We don’t baptize so that we are allowed to do the work of God.
We baptize because we are already doing the work.
It is the revealing of God’s grace. It’s the offer of hope and new life; transformation and opportunity; generosity and love. We baptize because the story actually isn’t about us at all. It isn’t for us and for our children, but for the whole world.
We don’t get to horde the love of God for our kids. We extend the opportunity to other people and on behalf of all God’s children. Not for coercion, conversion, aggression, supremacy, control, order. Or for identity, tribalism, or our distinct community.
It is God’s love for all people.
Full stop. It’s about God, not the church. Love, not membership. Hope, not canon law.
What I failed to tell the man sitting across the desk from me, asking why we do this baptism thing, is that. That Baptism is a sign. Our opportunity to see God at work in another person. In an infant, a child, a teen, a young person, adult. In a family.
That God’s love and hope is already there. We’re just excited to see it.