Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT)
Baptism is a major focal point of the initiation into God’s church. For the next few days I’d like to camp there with some of the lessons a preacher learns as he takes part in this sacrament.
Now, the first lesson is that, if you use the word “sacrament” my brothers and sisters in some church brands may stop listening there. In many denominations baptism is an “ordinance” – that which Jesus commanded as a sign that salvation had arrived for the individual believer. To others, my denomination included, it is that initiation too, but it is also a “sacrament” – an act conveying grace.
For some of us (me included) baptism is both; it is sacred conveyor of grace and it is a response of faith and obedience. As with Luther – that is where I stand, God help me, I cannot think otherwise.
One thing baptism should NOT be is a distraction away from worship. It has been that in church life throughout history, as people have argued and scrapped over the meaning, substance and form it takes.
Now there’s an initiation into church life, eh? I had such a distraction early on.
My first experience in baptizing was in Chalmette, Louisiana, just outside New Orleans. I was the brand new pastor…having started just a few weeks prior. Brother John, confined to a wheelchair, in his 90’s, responded to the invitation to accept Christ. We baptized John the next week by immersion (entire body under the water), after careful preparations to accommodate his special needs. We should have paid some attention to the needs of John’s baptizer. I was a rookie pastor; what did I know?
As the service began I entered the baptismal pool. When I was in for a few seconds I had an unusual sensation that started at my feet; it seems the waders I had on were quite old, and there were cracks in both legs. John may have been scheduled for immersion, but the preacher’s pants underneath those waders were in for a soaking!
And, why, oh why, did they not tell us in seminary to wear short-sleeved shirts when you’re going to baptize? When I put Brother John under, my hands, arms, and the shirt sleeves went under too. As I pulled him back up, I had an awful sinking feeling: this was going to change the course of the rest of today’s worship service!
And it did.
As I conducted the rest of worship, remembering Brother John’s baptism clouded out everything else. Every time I took a step there was a squish, squish as waterlogged socks objected. And when I preached, whenever I made a sweeping gesture with one of my soaked sleeves, I baptized the first three rows of members by sprinkling!
Baptism should be remembered – and celebrated – and lived out. Perhaps not by a soaked preacher’s sloshing – but in ways I learned from Brother John.
For the life of me, after 33 years, I can’t recall Brother John’s last name, but I remember the look on a 92 year-old man’s face when he came out of that water. It was the burden of decades of guilt released by the cleansing flow. It was the kind of genuine joy everyone seeks, but can’t quite catch…until Jesus catches you.
We have an annual service of remembering our baptismal vows. During the liturgy the minister says to those who come near the baptismal font, Remember your baptism and be grateful!
It’s more than a warm fuzzy feeling; it’s a challenge to live-up to those vows.
For You, Today…
How are you doing with those vows? Today would be a good day to remember YOUR baptism, be grateful and rejoice!