The Kiss of Baptism


William Loader


Baptism has been taking a rest from controversy in the church. It looks on as people now struggle over sexuality. But not so long ago baptism was in the spotlight. Is it just that our concerns with sexuality have eclipsed it?


Controversies over baptism reach back at least as far as John the Baptist. Israel’s faith promised forgiveness of sins and had its temple rituals to help people express their worship and renew their relationship with God. John appeared in the outback calling people to a new ritual. It was something quite radical and called for total submission to God and a change of life.


Water had always been seen as a way of representing God’s action. “Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow”. A symbolic washing or immersion in a bath had become a favourite way of submitting oneself to God’s cleansing and renewal. Archaeology is now uncovering many immersion pools built for purposes of religious purity and many stone jars which people commonly believed could keep water free from any contamination.


John’s innovation was to call for a once and for all change and a once and for all immersion in the Jordan River at his hands. It earned him the nickname, “The Baptiser” or “Baptist”, because normally people performed the ritual for themselves. John wanted to emphasise that this was God’s doing by taking it into his own hands and doing it to others. It was also a way of looking forward to a day when God would immerse the world with divine presence – for some, a joy; for others something to fear, according to John, more like being immersed in fire.


It should not surprise us that Jesus also used water in similar ways. The Gospel of John has him wash his disciples feet and even hints that after his own baptism by John Jesus, himself, went on to baptise people. Certainly the early church picked up this practice. As John called people to seal their decision to change by submitting to baptism, so the apostles called people to change and be baptised. Now it was in the name of Jesus and represented entry in the community of faith where new life in the Spirit was enabling people to go on changing and being renewed.


Water has always been a rich symbol. It washes, it brings new life from dry ground, it refreshes. In many faiths water represents God’s goodness. In Christian faith this goodness has a distinctive shape. We look to Jesus to see how the water of God’s goodness flowed. In his life, death and resurrection we see new life and hope. People like Paul came to understand the act of baptism as representing Christ’s death and burial and then his rising to new life. Such rituals were not unknown. To respond to God’s goodness means becoming part of Christ’s story. And so baptism became a rich symbol of an event in which we are invited to take our place. We are baptised into Christ or into his death. We celebrate our belonging to the stream of God’s goodness by submitting ourselves to an act in which we are immersed in it and rise renewed.


Naturally where people had no deep baths or were far from rivers or the sea they made do with less water, as we mostly do, today, in our churches. But the celebration of belonging is just as real. First individuals and then whole families, even whole communities, responded to God’s goodness in this way. This would have included children, infants and babes in arms, though history has not preserved details of these expansions. It may have already happened when whole households were baptised in the time of Paul, but it was inevitable. The church’s embracing of baptism as something which included all was well established before even the New Testament reached its agreed shape. Wherever the stream flows in the communities of faith and wherever people want to celebrate that goodness which will thus surround them and their children, baptism is one of faith’s most precious rituals.


Our inventive minister used his skills as a fitter and turner to construct a baptismal immersion tank, replete with electric element to take the chill off the water. It worked marvellously.


In our makeshift worship centre we would use a table top set on the tank for our eucharist - interesting symbolism. One Sunday of baptisms we reached the point where the immersions would take place. The table was lifted – but alas, the element had been on too long. Steam indicated that what we had to offer was hot water. Fortunately, however, it was bearable. The baptised emerged to new life – looking slightly pink!

The days of pain and stress about baptism came about in Australia in part because many people had lost touch with the meaning of baptism. To some it looked like baptism was nothing more than one of the “done things” in society. It was just a ritual, often something private, done for the family. Thus “christening” was how you became a Christian and sealed your home in heaven, even though for most it meant nothing or little. Lofty words about being born again of water and the Spirit and becoming a child of God seemed like church mumbo jumbo.


Evangelists found themselves most of the time having to try to convert “the christened”. Something had gone terribly wrong. One reaction was to reject Infant Baptism altogether and to call people to adult baptism where it would mean something and would symbolise their response of faith. This is a respected response in some parts of the Christian church but some argued it should become the norm for all.


People were lighting these bush fires at a time when many who valued baptism and understood its central place in the church’s tradition were looking at baptism afresh. Churches from across a wide ecumenical spectrum meeting at Lima in 1982, for instance, called for a renewed focus on baptism’s meaning and challenged the churches to address the careless management of the sacrament.


At the same time society was rapidly changing to a point where now baptism has ceased to be a social norm in the broader Australian community. Most who now seek such baptism either understand it as something very special or are willing to learn. In addition, by the 1980s people were much better informed about human development and what shapes and changes people. The notion that already in infancy divine love mediated through a loving community and parents counts now seemed obvious. Baptism of infants now made sense much more readily.

My minister for 15 years when I was growing up was jovial and gregarious. We shared him half time with the hospital, where as chaplain he seemed to have to come to know half the population of Auckland, if not the world. Reminiscing was inevitable, sometimes at length, sometimes mid-service. Welcoming the parents and taking the baby into his arms for baptism one Sunday he commenced his reminiscence. Indeed he had married them and their relatives and buried most of the older generation and visited their sick in hospital and …  It was jolly and engaging. After some time – it could easily have been ten minutes – he returned the baby to the parents. A first year student of theology, alert to praxis, I realised, as did many others, that he had forgotten to baptise the baby! He was even more jolly when I whispered the truth to him during the hymn and soon he had made amends. Disorder has a way of saving its day - sometimes.

People were also becoming less naïve about change. While dramatic change and conversion happens, it is still only one step in an ongoing process. Even some who had embraced adult baptism for themselves found they could look back on their own immaturity at that moment. While some wanted it done again, others came to see the sacrament in a new way.


Salvation was also recovering its biblical meaning. God and Christ moved back into focus; escaping hell and getting into heaven seemed shallow beside seeing salvation as life in relationship with God in Christ in which people engaged in an ongoing process of transformation and renewal. This, in turn, undermined notions that baptism was a ticket to heaven. Already Paul had sought to counter such thoughts when he playfully reminded the Corinthians that being “baptised” in the sea with Moses did not prevent the Israelites perishing in the wilderness (1 Cor 10). Baptism is no more a ticket to heaven than a wedding is a guarantee of a good marriage.


Growing cross-cultural awareness also exposed the narrow individualism which lay behind many calls for only adult baptism: me and my salvation. That awareness helped us to see that our western individualism did not fit the biblical world, where individuals mattered but found their identity in community. It would have been natural to include everyone in the household in baptism. This is also closely related to the insight that we are shaped by much more than what we consciously think and decide as adults.


With the revival of baptism came the renewal of liturgy. Picking up practices from the rich heritage of the church the Uniting Church order for baptism, for instance, places baptism firmly within the worshipping congregation, includes symbols of touching ears and mouth, of giving light, and declaring that this event is a celebration of God’s action to which we come and much else which heightens our appreciation of what is happening.


While some of these changes in understanding baptism reflect changes in society, it is also clear that biblical and theological studies which abounded at the time when the conflicts were in full swing helped recover baptism as a word of God’s goodness and grace, there for us before we were even born and, in our lifetime, before we can comprehend its impact.


Forgiveness, which needs people to be old enough to understand it, is not all that the water symbolises. The same grace which embraces forgiveness (also always ahead of us) is also a water or renewal, of security, of hope and of all that Jesus was and is in his life, ministry, death and resurrection. It is there when we are helpless and unknowing and it is there in our last frailties. We want to celebrate it through all life’s stages and with creativity and imagination we can (just as we might a marriage). And each time we see an adult, a child or an infant kissed by baptism we renew our own love and reaffirm our community and our will to share this life in our world.


More on baptism:  Baptism in Context and Conversion and Baptism and Baptism, Water, and our World


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