As I am writing this post, I am getting ready to perform my first baptisms this coming Sunday. If everything goes well, I will be baptizing four babies and one adult as well as bringing several people into membership. It looks like it will be a pretty special day in the life of this Church and for me personally. But all of this preparation has made me contemplate the mystery of Baptism.
Article XVII of the Book of Discipline states that Baptism is “not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth.” The Book of Resolutions has a lengthy section adopted in 1996 called “By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism” that goes into great detail about the theological understanding of baptism, its necessity, and what it means to the believer and to the church.
But at its heart, Baptism is still a mystery.
We are baptized because Jesus was baptized. On that, every Christian can agree. But that is just about the only point upon which we all agree. Some denominations, such as the Baptists, only baptize adults or people of an age where they can make a conscientious decision to be Christians. Others, like the Roman Catholics, require the baptism of infants so that they may be cleansed of “original sin” and can be sanctified before mortal death. Some denominations insist that true baptism only occurs when a person is fully immersed in water. Others feel that a light sprinkling is sufficient. Some denominations require special water to be used. Still others feel that any water will suffice.
And still the mystery goes on.
John Wesley held firm to an Anglican understanding of baptism which held that “in baptism a child was cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated into the covenant with God, admitted into the church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew.” At the same time, he acknowledged that baptism was “neither essential to nor sufficient for salvation” but was the “ordinary means” by which God used to give us the benefits of Christ’s workings in our lives.
I don’t know about you, but that still doesn’t really make it any easier for me to understand.
The truth is that Baptism is one of the two sacraments recognized by the United Methodist Church, the other being Holy Communion. Sacraments by definition are outward signs of an inward state and are meant to be the best way that we can openly show what is happening on a deeply spiritual level. They are, in essence, always a mystery.
I remember when I was baptized. I was nervous and I didn’t know what to expect. I was called forward by my pastor and went through the ritual aspects of the baptism and eventually sat back down in my pew. And nothing at all happened. I wasn’t happier; I wasn’t more free; I wasn’t more generous, or less selfish. Life didn’t become easier or any less frustrating. I was simply a little wetter at the end than I was at the beginning.
What I later realized is that nothing is supposed to change when you are baptized. As Wesley says, baptism is “a part of the lifelong process of salvation.” It is an opportunity for the Christian community, what we call the Church, to formally recognize God’s work in your life through Christ. It is a community celebration of the cosmic kind and a point of contact between Heaven and Earth. It’s a mile marker along the highway of faith, but it is not the starting point or the end of the road.
It is a special time in the life of the believer and of the community at large. It can be a deeply spiritual moment, sometimes even more meaningful for the congregation than for the participant. It is often a time of celebration for families and renews the generational ties of a family to a particular Church or denomination. It can be all of these things, and more.
But, it’s still a mystery to me. Praise be to the God of Mystery, and for all of those who have passed this Faith on to us so that we may celebrate it’s mystery together.