What’s a baptism?

Bible Text: Mark 1:4-11 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

Many of you have likely heard of or know the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He wrote incredible texts on discipleship, prayer and theology. He was a professor of systematic theology at the University of Berlin before being ordained as a Lutheran pastor. Two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address in which he attacked Hitler and warned Germany against slipping into an idolatrous cult. He was cut off the air in the middle of a sentence. He became vehemently opposed to Hitler’s behaviour and participated in Nazi resistance. As a result he was arrested in April 1943 by Gestapo and imprisoned for one and half years before being transferred to a concentration camp. On April 9th, 1945, just two weeks before Allied forces liberated the camp he was executed. But as he was led to his death he said to one of the prison guards, “For some this is the end, but for me it is the beginning.” Bonhoeffer was so confident in the acts of baptism that he knew he had already died and been reborn. I question whether I would have such faith. In all honesty it has been awhile since I thought about the theology of baptism or the reasons for baptism. However, as I read Bonhoeffer’s remarks I was moved to truly delve into what baptism means. And baptism is complicated. I truly believe we take it for granted and perhaps we sometimes misuse the act of baptism. If you will indulge me, I think a sermon on baptism is in order, if not for you, then for me. To help us build up confidence in our own baptisms. Baptism is one of two sacraments within our tradition, it is fundamental to our practices and faith. However, we often use baptism more of a rite of passage than a transformed life. Yet, even for Jesus baptism signified a change and a new beginning.
For Mark, the baptism of Jesus is an origin story. Mark does not start his gospel with stories of Jesus’ birth or childhood but immediately begins with Jesus’ baptism. That is because, for Mark, it is the baptism that begins Jesus’ ministry. It is not the birth story that has importance but the re-birth story that is most influential in the life and work and ministry of Christ. For Mark this origin is deeply rooted within the convenantal promises of the God of Israel. A new Elijah, John, stands outside Jerusalem in the wilderness, preaching baptism for the forgiveness of sins. People are drawn to him, if not for confidence but for curiosity. Jesus arrives on the scene and is anointed with God’s presence and blessing to begin a ministry of proclaiming the kingdom of God in this world. When we are baptized we are anointed with God’s presence and blessing. In his baptism Jesus is confirmed as the one who will bring forth the Holy Spirit. Jesus not only announces but also bears in his person and through his actions the very presence of God. Through Jesus’ baptism heaven and earth are joined.
Jesus’ baptism changed the face of baptism forever. John’s baptism had two components, repentance and forgiveness. Our very own baptismal words reflect renouncing evil and turning from sin but also forgiving our old life so that we may begin anew. Jesus himself is clear that to be baptized is to lead a new way of living. However, when Jesus is baptized there is another component, that of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit became a part of the regular practices of the early church. When the crowds saw and understood the disciples they asked Peter how they should respond to this witness and he said that they should repent, be baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
As we know there are clear distinctions within denominations about baptism. The issue of infant baptism versus believer’s baptism has divided churches. Clearly as early as our Acts passage there were different views of baptism. The Presbyterian church is very comfortable with infant baptism and here are a few reasons why. Throughout the book of Acts there are references to entire households being baptized. Often a parent in the family would convert to Christianity and one of the Apostles would come and baptize not only that parent but the spouse and children as well. Baptism always follows faith either the faith of the person being baptized or the faith of the parents. There are also passages in the New Testament that compare baptism to the rite of circumcision, by which infant boys are made a part of the people of the covenant. Despite the divisions about when one should be baptized we can all agree that baptism is always done in faith and that children who are learning the faith are indeed part of God’s people.
Related is the reality that baptism is also not an individual act. In baptism we become part of the people of God. We are baptized into the one body. In baptism we become part of the Christ’s body. We are baptized into something- into a family, adopted and loved. The Living Faith states, that “baptism assures us that we belong to God. In life and in death our greatest comfort is that we belong to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.” This is the point Bonhoeffer was making. Perhaps it is a bit obtuse or morose but this is the freedom we talk about over Christmas and Easter. That we die in baptism, with Christ, but we also rise up to new life in Christ.
In today’s Gospel reading when we look at the meaning of Jesus’ baptism we realize that we are baptized into something greater than ourselves. That there should be a noted change that takes place at baptism. Michael Rogness, a homeletic professor at Luther Seminary says, “We often speak of baptism as a “means of grace” that is, one of the ways that God’s grace comes to us. Physically it’s only a small splash of water, but it marks the beginning of a whole new life- of forgiveness, of the presence of God’s Spirit, of our union with Jesus and our becoming part of the world-wide Christian church.”
I’m betting that so many of us were baptized either as children or so long ago that we barely remember. It appears as though our lives haven’t changed all that much. Presbyterians don’t do re-baptisms but we do, do reaffirmations. If you were baptized long ago re-affirm your commitment with Christ, re-affirm the transformation into new life. Maybe our new year’s resolutions have failed but the good news is that through baptism we are invited to constantly re-affirm who we are in Christ. If you have not been baptized, well, we do have a membership Sunday coming up and it is never to late. And when Jesus was baptized he was reminded that he was beloved by God. This is our reminder that we, too, are beloved of God and known by name. Have confidence in your baptism. Amen