Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized 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.
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus..
-Romans 6:3-11 (NIV)
Now, before you get mad at me, hear me out. I still believe what I was taught since I was a child: that baptism is important, that it “washes away sins” and connects us with Jesus and that it’s the place where the Holy Spirit descends on us like that dove did Jesus in the Jordan River. Every Sunday I have the privilege (and I see it as one) of inviting people to be baptized into Christ. Every now and then, someone will even take me up on the offer. So I’m definitely on board with the concept.
It’s the execution of it that can be, well, a little embarrassing.
First of all, baptism usually necessitates a clothing change. That in itself is a little awkward. Then there’s the whole thing of dunking someone in a tank of water. (No one ever looks photo-ready when they first come up.) Folks who practice infant baptism have solved those problems; those of us who practice believer’s baptism still wrestle with them.
And then there’s this: baptism has always seemed to me to be a little…anticlimactic. We look at it, and rightly so, as a big moment. We look forward to and pray for people to decide they want to follow Jesus and come for baptism. And then when it happens we ask them if they believe in Jesus and want to follow him, we send them to the back for the aforementioned wardrobe change while the rest of us sing a couple of songs, and then when it’s time the baptizer speaks a sentence or two and then — splash — it’s over. Literally takes a few seconds.
Imagine you brought a visitor to church on a Sunday when there's a baptism. They know nothing about Christianity. In whispers, you explain to this visitor what’s about to happen: forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, new life in Christ, etc. And then the baptizee and baptizer are in the tank…and then it’s over.
You would understand, wouldn’t you, if your visitor turned to you and said, “That’s it?” Your explanation would have taken much longer than the event itself.
See what I mean? A little embarrassing. Am I the only one who thinks so?
If I’m not, then maybe what’s missing is a little imagination.
Imagine the Holy Spirit hovering over the primeval waters, preparing to create a new world. There’s nothing but darkness and chaos. And water. But there’s about to be light and life.
Imagine for example that God, frustrated and fed up with the horrific way human beings were treating one another and the creation with which he had entrusted them, flooded the world. In a catastrophe of, well, biblical proportions, he opened the clouds and the springs and submerged the mountains. Every living thing on earth except the family huddled in a homemade cruise ship and the animals God had put in there with them died. Only this family was saved. Saved through water.
Or how about this: imagine that God took an ethnic group that existed merely as slave labor and set them on the way to nationhood by promising them a land of their own. Now imagine that he led these people out of the land of their captivity through a sea on dry land, between walls of water stacked up on either side of them. And imagine that he wiped away those who would have kept them in slavery by bringing the water down at their heels, engulfing the army following them. Imagine a generation later that he led their children and grandchildren through a river in the same way as he finally overcame their sin and resistance and brought them to the land he had promised them.
And imagine, if you will, two young men wading out into that same river that God had brought Israel through millennia earlier. Imagine one of them baptizing the other in that murky water. And imagine a voice booming from heaven: “This is my Son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.”
Yep, maybe my problem is a failure of imagination. I forget what God does with a little water.
He creates order out of chaos, light in darkness, life in desolation.
He judges sin and saves those who trust in him so that they can go on to begin a new world.
He destroys everything that would enslave and dehumanize us and leads us on to the new life of freedom he always intended for human beings to have.
He announces the pleasure he takes in his sons and daughters who put their trust in him.
When you think of it that way, baptism isn’t really all that embarrassing at all, is it? It’s a small act, but it brings us into contact with something infinitely large. Maybe that’s the point, really: it’s a small act. Not much for us to do, wardrobe change and wet hair notwithstanding. It’s not our power or initiative. All we do, quite literally, is get wet. And yet it puts us in touch with the power of God that creates and recreates worlds, that tears down oppressors while setting free those they oppress, that removes the sins that compromise our identity as God’s image-bearers, that makes alienated human beings into sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters of one another.
What God didn’t accomplish in the flood or in the Red Sea, he accomplishes in baptism. He sends his Spirit to us. He changes hearts. He destroys the power sin and death have over us. He unites us with Jesus in new life.
Such a small little act. You would understand that it would take great faith for someone to see it and believe all that was going on.
Which is, of course, the point.
So the next time you see a baptism, don’t be embarrassed. Think about creation. The flood. The Red Sea. The voice that called Jesus “son”. Think about all that God has done in and with water.
And then think about how this tops them all.