Friday, 13 April 2012

What does baptism mean?

Being baptised is, in a sense, being made - officially - a Christian. It's the rite of initiation which grants membership to the church. Some early Christian writers saw it as granting entrance not just to a particular church, but actually granting citizenship to the kingdom of God. So you might think of baptism being a Christian citizenship ceremony, which makes official what is recognised: that the person's allegiance is now to God through his Son, Jesus Christ. Just as a person could be a permanent resident of Australia without being a citizen, it is possible to be a Christian without being baptised. But just as citizenship confers particular benefits and responsibilities (voting, jury duty), baptism confers the benefits of being publicly recognised as a Christian.

Baptism has a whole lot of other, deeper, meanings as well. It is a sign that the person is linking themselves to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. They are "dying" to a lifetime of sin and selfishness, and being "resurrected" to a life of love of God and service for him, an act which is only possible because of Jesus' death and resurrection. Another way of looking at baptism is to think of it being a bath, but not one that washes off dirt: instead, baptism symbolically washes away the person's sins. In the early church, the time of baptism was seen as the time when a person received the Holy Spirit. From then on, God's Spirit lived in the baptised person, protecting them from evil and guiding them to live rightly. The baptism was seen to be granting "enlightenment" because once the Holy Spirit was living in a person, he would give them understanding and wisdom that an unbaptised person would not have. Baptism was also described as "dyeing" because the person was completely changed - made new - by the process of being wet, just as a piece of cloth wet in dye is completely different when it comes out from the dye.

In my case, I am being baptised by a retired pastor of the Baptist denomination, in accordance with the rites of the Baptist group of churches. Some denominations recognise other's baptisms, and some do not. For example, I don't think the Catholic Church recognises any other denomination's baptismal rites as being meaningful (or at least they didn't until very recently). However, a Baptist baptism would be recognised by the Anglican or Uniting denominations.

Some denominations insist that a proper baptism occurs a certain way. For example, many Open/Christian Brethren and Baptist churches would only allow membership to people baptised by immersion (that is, one's entire body gets wet in the process), unless some sort of sickness prevents the person from getting well and truly dunked. This insistence is partly because these churches believe that immersion was the original way that baptism was done. It is also because of the symbolism involved in identifying with Jesus' death (when one goes completely under the water) and new life (when one is then brought up out of the water). The apostle Paul wrote about this in his letter to the Romans:
"Or don't you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin - because anyone who has died has been set free from sin."

The Anglicans and Presbyterians generally baptise by sprinkling or pouring water over the person, rather than by immersion, and I have seen both done in Uniting churches. In my case, the baptism I had (by sprinkling) in the Uniting church would not be considered enough to allow my membership in most Baptist churches - which could be a problem if Jeff wants to be employed as their pastor!

Many immersion-only churches also generally insist on baptism only being performed on people who actively profess to believe in salvation through Jesus Christ, rather than (as for the Anglicans, Catholics and Presbyterians, for example) allowing the baptism of infants, who are usually babies of Christian parents. I wasn't a real believer at the time of my baptism, which to my mind makes that baptism worthless. If you think about my citizenship analogy, my baptism was kind of like someone else making me a citizen of a country that (at that time) I'd never been to and had no real interest in.

On Sunday, I am going to be baptised by immersion in the Swan River. Jeff and John will pray for me and my friend Shelley and my kids will read some passages about baptism from the Bible. I'll "make my confession" (give a short talk on why I am being baptised). I will also recite the Apostles' Creed, a simple outline of what I believe as a Christian, which was first used during early Christian baptisms in a question and answer format. Once in the water, I will kneel down and John will bow my head forward into the waters three times (symbolic of the three persons of the Godhead; Father, Son and Holy Spirit). We'll also sing two songs, "Amazing Grace" and "It's what the Lord has done in me". I happen to be doing a research paper on baptism in the first three centuries AD at the moment for college so the liturgy (procedure) for my baptism is somewhat influenced by early baptismal practices!


Mrs. Edwards said...

I've been thinking about your baptism all day, knowing it was probably over by the time I woke up and thanked God for you, precious sister in Christ.

Glory to God!

Sharon said...

Thank you! At one stage I introduced Chris to Shelley (and vice versa) and said, the only thing that would make this moment any better was if Amy was here and all three of you were here today... so I was thinking of you too, my friend! (Mind you, not while I was in the water...)