In the newspaper this past week, there was an article about a trend in the celebration of baptism by some evangelical churches. The trend consists of a new degree of trendiness assigned to baptism. Apparently, some evangelical churches have abandoned their traditional rituals for baptism and opted to hold baptisms at the beach, or in hot tubs, or in other trendy settings. The goal of this trend is to make baptism (for adults and adolescents) a memorable experience.
As most of the adults being baptized in this manner are younger adults, the trend is very much a reflection of pop-culture’s obsession with scripting repetitive events to have the largest possible viewership on social media platforms. While much of this new trend is driven by the desire to attract the attention of an audience, I wonder if there might be something more profound involved, as well.
Today, baptism is most often understood as a quaint token ritual that confers magical benefits. Many parents are eager to have their children baptized, even though the parents have no intention of fulfilling the promises they make at their child’s baptism. It is more than a little disturbing when a practice that purports to be a lifelong commitment is forgotten in little less than an hour. For this reason, I wonder if the new trend in evangelical churches is, at its heart, an expression of a longing for something permanent and trustworthy.
The Gospels don’t provide much information about John the Baptizer and his ritual of baptism, but we know from extra-biblical sources that the type of ritual washing done by John was no token practice. The Manual of Discipline composed by the ascetic community at Qumran said that the unworthy were not to be admitted to Qumran’s ritual washing because the water could not cleanse sin from one who had not already repented fully.
Luke’s Gospel says that John proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Lk. 3:3) This means that John expected his prospective disciples to reform their lives before stepping into the water. The Gospel emphasizes the necessity of a radical change of one’s thinking by paraphrasing a prophecy about making a straight path for God’s approach.
There is a great deal to recommend the “token gesture” version of baptism in which going through the ritual confers some magical, unseen benefit. This version of baptism appeals to the values of consumerism; it’s easy to perform and requires no long-term commitment. It’s much like an acquaintance of mine.
A fellow of my acquaintance is often invited to dinner by those who know him. At the end of every meal at the restaurants he frequents with his companions, he is surprised to discover that he has forgotten to bring his wallet; apparently, the wallet is permanently anchored to the desk in his home office. His predictable forgetfulness extends even to the invitations he receives; it is not uncommon for him to commit to a dinner engagement that never intends to attend. He is the friend that my friends and I wish we had; we wish we had him as a friend because he is never reliable and, consequently, never really a friend. You probably know someone like that. If you are that person, I’ll tell you something you might not know: the people whom you know wish you would be a true friend and show up when you promise to do so.
John the Baptizer invited his hearers to a renewed relationship with God. Christian Baptism is that relationship. Baptism is a commitment to be reliable, to show up, to be a true friend to one’s fellow believers and a faithful disciple of Jesus. The result of being faithful to one’s baptismal vows is that God’s Grace supports the on-going renewal of one’s life that is the foundation and prerequisite for baptism. The result of being unfaithful to one’s baptismal vows is an inevitable degeneration of one’s life into greater and greater infidelity.
John the Baptizer invited all people to reform their lives, initiate a renewed relationship with God, and to signify their repentance by a ritual washing. The order of events in John’s proclamation is instructive: the baptismal ritual is the result of repentance and reform rather than the cause.
In simple terms, John the Baptizer invites you and me to avoid being the ones who leave God and God’s People wishing for our company. If we want to be in a permanent and trustworthy relationship with God, we must begin by reforming our lives permanently. It’s easy to initiate that sort of reform and transformation in one’s life. One has only to be considerate toward other church members and trustworthy toward relatives and acquaintances. The benefits that result from this sort of behavior are immediately perceptible: one has the experience of trusting in what is permanent and transformative.
If you long for an experience that is enduring and trustworthy, the Scriptures invite you to look to what is already present in your life: your baptismal vows. In Baptism, you promised complete allegiance to God and complete trustworthiness to other people. Those promises are easy to keep; it is necessary only to repent and reform one’s life. Isn’t it time for a little repentance?