Preaching a More Meaningful Baptism

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Did you know that most of the people who leave our congregations don’t depart for another ? That’s one of the great myths circulating in recent years about church growth: that when folks leave our congregation, it’s because they’re not happy with something about the church, its beliefs, or its leaders and leave for another, usually more conservative, congregation. But it’s not true.

I think the reason we easily believe this is that when it does happen – when someone, that is, leaves and makes a point of telling us why and where they’re going instead, it hurts and we remember it. But as it turns out, when most people leave our churches they’re not going elsewhere, they’re just leaving. They stop going to church at all. Why? Because they see little connection between the hour they spend on Sunday and the other 167 hours of their week.

And little wonder: most of our people don’t understand the basic elements of our faith well enough to find it interesting or useful, let alone apply it to their daily decisions and life. Countless surveys, for instance, show that most mainline Protestants think that, counter to the Reformation cry that we are “justified by grace through faith,” we must “do something” in order to be saved.

Let me be clear: I don’t say all this to belittle our folks. They don’t understand because they haven’t been taught, at least not in a way that has sunk in. And now let me be doubly clear: I don’t say this to belittle our pastors and teachers. The fact is, in a nominally Christian culture we didn’t have to teach the basic tenets of the faith because a) church attendance was valued in the culture and so folks were likely to come to church whether it was particularly meaningful or not and b) the larger culture consistently helped us teach the faith. (Think of how often the Christmas story was told in public school settings or on television specials, for instance.) But those days are over and the emerging generation will not keep giving time to something that has little impact on the rest of their busy, over-scheduled lives.

All of this is to say that when it comes to the annual debate about whether, on the Sunday of the Baptism of our Lord, to preach a sermon that “teaches about Baptism” or “just preaches the text,” I’ll opt for the former. Why? Because most of our people have little to no idea what Baptism is, why we do it, or why it continues to be of any importance in their lives. This isn’t to say that they don’t “believe in baptism,” whatever that may mean, or that they don’t want to have their children baptized. But if you ask folks where infant baptism is the norm, for instance, why we baptize babies rather than wait until closer to adulthood, they will likely have no idea (as opposed to Evangelicals, for instance, who often can easily and quickly explain and defend “believer baptism”). Hence, it seems an absolute shame to miss an opportunity like this to teach about a central element of the faith. (Having said that, I recognize that not all the folks who use Working Preacher will agree on baptism, but the larger point, I hope, still holds: whatever our theology of baptism is, we should teach it!)

To tell you the truth, I don’t think the choice I stated above – preach baptism or preach the text – has to be quite so stark. What I advocate is teaching about Baptism through the text at hand, in this case Luke’s gospel account of Jesus’ baptism.

Along these lines, two elements of Luke’s story stand out. First, baptism is about identity. As in Mark, the voice from heaven is addressed to Jesus in the first person: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Baptism teaches us who we are – God’s beloved children – and confers upon us the promise of God’s unconditional regard. In an era when so many of the traditional elements of identity-construction have been diminished – we change jobs and careers with frequency, most of us have multiple residences rather grown up and live in a single community, fewer families remain intact – there is a craving to figure out just who we are. In response to this craving and need, baptism reminds us that we discover who we are in relation to whose we are, God’s beloved children. We belong to God’s family, and baptism is a tangible sign of that.

Second, whatever your feelings about when the best time for Baptism may be, all Christian traditions emphasize that this is God’s work. Notice, interestingly, that in Luke’s account John does not actually baptize Jesus. In the verses omitted by the lectionary (19-20), we learn that John is imprisoned by Herod. Who, then, baptizes Jesus? The Holy Spirit! In fact, it’s the same Spirit that baptizes us! Baptism, then, is wholly God’s work that we may have confidence that no matter how often we fall short or fail, nothing that we do, or fail to do, can remove the identity that God conveys as a gift. Our relationship with God, that is, is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up precisely because we did not establish it. We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go. Again, in an age when so many relationships are fragile or tattered, it may come as good news that this primary relationship remains solid and intact no matter what. In fact, trusting that this relationship is in God’s hands, we are freed to give ourselves wholly and completely to the other important relationships in our lives.

Now that we’ve identified two significant elements of baptism that may prove useful to our people, how do we help them not just know more about Baptism, but live out of this gift of God? Three ideas:

1) Given the ubiquitous role water plays in our lives, emphasize the Reformers’ insistence that every time we wash with water is an opportunity to remember our baptism and the promises God made to us in it. Baptism, though conducted only once, was never intended to be a once-and-done event, but rather something we remember and renew daily. Perhaps you could invite the congregation to “practice” aloud (a couple of times!) a one-sentence reminder of God’s promises – something like, “I am God’s beloved child, called and sent to make a difference in the world” – and invite congregants to get in the habit of saying this when they take a bath or shower in the morning or wash their hands before meal time.

2) Perhaps this Sunday would be a good day for a re-affirmation of Baptism. Maybe you could even put a variety of bowls throughout the sanctuary and people could move to these different stations so that someone might trace the mark of the cross on their foreheads and say (again, something like), “Remember that in Baptism you have been marked by the sign of the cross, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and sent into the world to share God’s love in word and deed.”

3) Many congregations that practice infant baptism give the parents or sponsors of the baptized child a candle with which to remember their baptism. More often than not, I suspect, these candles are placed in a child’s “keepsake box” never to be brought out again. Invite everyone to bring their candles to church. Or, as one congregation near me has done, invite people to bring their old candles of any shape and kind and pass these out so that everyone has a candle. Light them, have an affirmation of baptism together, and send people home with their candles to light on the anniversary of their baptisms each year, on this Sunday each year, and – for that matter – anytime they need a reminder of God’s profound, enduring, and unconditional love for them and belief in them and their ability to make a difference in the world.

Well, these are just some ideas, Working Preacher. What we are looking for, I suppose, is a more meaningful baptism. I know you’ll have many more ideas of your own, and I hope you have fun thinking of ways to help our people grasp the meaning and significance of this important element of the faith. However you move forward, though, know and remember that you, too, are God’s beloved child and with you God is well pleased. Blessings to you this week and always!

Yours in Christ,

PS: If you’re interested, I’ve post a short article on Baptism on my blog both sharing some of my convictions and questions about Baptism and inviting readers to post their own. The discussion thus far has been fantastic – candid, probing, challenging, enlightening. I’m learning a ton. Feel free to join us!