The contempt so many Christians have for baptism seems strange. Properly understood, it is the most foundational act in the life of every Christian, and the “gateway” to the rest of life for all eternity, the new birth. But there are two basic, and opposite, views of baptism in Christian theology.
The one is that baptism is my witness to my faith in Jesus. When I feel I am saved, I will request baptism to tell the world of it.
The other is that, even if I am helpless and unable to intellectually or emotionally comprehend anything about Jesus, God in his infinite grace acts to make me his child and heir to the salvation he has achieved for me.
The first option, espoused primarily by the churches of the more radical Protestant Reformation and their descendants, obviously requires an adult decision. The second can be received by adults but is offered to all humans, from birth onward. It is the sacramental choice, that which conveys the grace of God to me, to bestow upon me what I am absolutely unable to give myself.
This sacramental act is the remedy for fallen mankind, drowning the unredeemable Adam and reviving the self in new birth to life in the family of God. While it is clear I continue to sin, its power to destroy me is gone. I am marked with the sign of the cross and raised with Christ in a resurrection like his. At the same time, the chrism oil ordains me to be a priest and king or queen (see 1 Peter 2:9) in the ranks of the “laos,” the family of God, and gives me the responsibility to be a steward, a manager, of the earth which is the Lord’s, to care for that little portion of creation assigned to my watch, and to care for it according to the will of the Lord who owns it.
In Epiphany, the season we are now in, we remember the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. It is a valid question to ask how this relates to our own baptism. The baptism offered by John the Baptist, from whom Jesus requests his own baptism, predates the saving acts of Christ. His is a baptism limited to being a symbolic cleansing of sin for repentant Jews.
John has perceived that his cousin Jesus is the promised Messiah. Quite logically then, when Jesus appears before him and asks to be baptized, John tells him that he doesn’t need it, since Jesus is without sin. But Jesus is using this baptism for another purpose.
It becomes clear when Jesus arises out of the baptismal waters. The Holy Spirit descends upon him as he does so. It is his chrismation, his anointing, his ordination, to his ministry, which begins at this point.
The common aspect of this between Jesus and the rest of us is not forgiveness of sins, which we need and he doesn’t need. It is in the anointing, each of us for our unique ministries, including Jesus. His is to be the Christ, which means “the anointed one.” He is the high priest and king of all creation, whereas our priesthood and monarchy is attained only through being baptized into the Body of Christ.
Nevertheless, we are baptized. In the grace and mercy of God, we poor sinners have been marked with the indelible sign of God’s unchanging love, washed by the Lamb, the old man drowned and given the new birth in resurrected and eternal life, begun not at the point of death but at the moment of baptism.
It is in that new birth that we serve as God;s stewards on earth. The water of baptism and the oil of our anointing to our royal priesthood merge in the one act of God. You are the baptized, anointed and signed child of God in new birth from the day the water and oil were poured on you and for every day thereafter until past the time when there will be time.
When this information is not easily and routinely shared within the Christian community, it is such a pity. What twist of human ego takes this and makes it into something I do, a witness to my experience of “being saved,” when God alone has done the job and deserves the glory?
Baptism is a curse for those who would hide from God, an indelible mark they can deny, ignore, or resent, but can never remove. But for those whose faith is frail, whose sins disturb, whose self-image is poor, for all of feeble flawed humanity, what a tremendous comfort and consolation. “You are my child, indelibly marked forever, with the sign of my love, in good times and bad, in tragedy and triumph, in the darkness of your sin, in the brightness of your hope.”