Water and Fire
(Fourth in a series of nine on the Gospel Practices of a Christian Church)
Can I tell you about Francisco? He is here today listening to my voice, worshipping with us, entering into the gospel work of Providence Baptist Church. For months he has been attending. He spoke to me of the welcome he has received here, a gay man finally finding a spiritual home in a church that loves him and blesses him for who he is.
He was baptized two decades ago. But that man was in the closet. He was not free to be person God made him to be. He had to remain hidden, half known. The person that was baptized was not the real person. It was a half person, a hidden person, a fake person. Now, he comes to us and says, “I am beginning a new walk, a new talk, a new work. I am who I am, and I want to be baptized to signal this new era in my life journey.
It is not just about baptism. Francisco said to me, “I want to be trained as a Christian leader. It has been my ambition for many years.” I directed him to a half dozen seminary programs designed for lay leaders who aspire to know more and do more and be more. He examined them all and chose Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Marcy and I have agreed to be his mentors. On his behalf, I submitted a letter to the Cooperative Baptist Fellow of North Carolina requesting scholarship aid. He begins this fall with a retreat in Michigan. I will go with him.
This is a new day for him. He wants to begin this new direction with a fresh dipping in the waters of baptism. His baptism will be a powerful sign of all that is happening in his life.
We pray that God will send the fire to go with the water.
In former years, I resisted a baptized person wanting to be baptized again. I may have changed my mind!
In our area, traveling evangelists would call for people to “get their baptism in order.” They meant to foster doubt among Christian people about the legitimacy of their first baptism in order to motivate people to make revival decisions, make the numbers look good.
In many Christian traditions, churches would require other Christians to be rebaptized if they wanted to change churches. We even talked about alien immersion as the ultimate no-no. Many other Christian traditions require practicing Christians to be re-baptized.
I have watched pilgrims to Israel wade into the Jordan River at the newly constructed baptismal site just south of the Sea of Galilee. Many tour groups stop there and baptize people who want the experience of the baptism in the Jordan River.
I did not approve of any of this. It all seemed a repudiation of the word of the Lord which reads plainly, “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, … and one God and father of us all.” But the request of Francisco pushed me into prayer and back to the Bible. This is what I found.
There were many kinds of baptisms among those first followers of Jesus.
Jewish people came out to hear John and join his movement of personal and social transformation. They were Jews before and Jews after, but they were determined to walk in a new way. Jesus himself came to John asking for baptism to inaugurate his movement of social righteousness and personal transformation. Saul of Tarsus was baptized, the Acts of the Apostles reports, after encountering the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. Among the several reasons he was baptized was surely this: his life was set in a new direction.
The Ethiopian traveler came to Jerusalem to worship and on his way home heard the story of Jesus and embraced the baptism of Jesus. He returned home with a new direction that he would walk alone. There were no other Jesus people in his region. The disciples in Samaria, according to Acts of the Apostles chapter 10, were baptized twice: once, with the immersion of John and later, with the convert-dipping of Jesus.
Does your baptism fit any of these models?
Some of you were baptized as infants. You had water dripped or poured on your head. This is the experience and practice of the vast majority of Christian people today. That is nowhere in the New Testament. You were baptized on the faith of your parents and with the hope of you growing into the faith and practice of Jesus.
Some of you, like me, were baptized as children. We knew and understood more than infants, but basically the baptism was a formal and public way of welcoming us into the church. This can be found nowhere in the Bible. It is a common church practice today but not of the far yesterday.
We all have a different baptism story, sometimes more than one!
The one thing all these baptisms have in common is a beginning, an inauguration, a resolve to move in a new direction. It was not that what they already had was deficient; it was simply that it was insufficient for the moment. A new commitment requires a new gesture, a new ritual, a new act to signal something. Jesus went out to the wilderness to hear John. He said to John, “Baptize me. Now is time for me to launch the work God sent me to do. Baptize me, before God and all these people.”
Baptism is the ritual of renewal, of re-direction, and rededication! Baptism is the embracing of a new path and a new purpose at any stage of life, for any seeking person, for all of us who yearn for a deeper, more powerful walk with the Lord.
The waters of baptism are available to you and to me as we seek a freshness in the things of God. Maybe it is time for you to go in a new direction, to embrace a new ministry, to live into the wide-open vision that God has put in your soul, to live with faithfulness, with fierceness, and yes, with fire.
Maybe we all need a fresh baptism. We don’t need to be saved all over again, but time and again we need to redirect our energies, renew our commitments, and re-invigorate the movement that Jesus launched 2300 years ago. Certainly, what we need is a baptism of fire.
For all these baptized people, their immersion in water was the first step in a new journey, toward a new destiny, with a new urgency. They were joining a movement of justice and peace, of social righteousness and moral responsibility, of the rule of God on earth. Later, they would pray the pray Jesus taught, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
It was a grand mission summed up by Jesus when he stood in the synagogue of Nazareth and read the Word: The spirit of the lord is upon us, within us, around us, and through us, to bring good news to the poor, release to the prisoner, sight to the blind, and freedom to the slaves.” It is the movement later described in Acts of the Apostles with these words, “The believers met together in one place and shared earthing they had. They sold property and shared the money with those in need. They worshipped in the temple and in homes, eating together with glad and generous hearts.”
Later, Paul the apostle described this social-spiritual movement this way: “All of you have been united with Christ through baptism; you have put on Christ like putting on new clothes. There is in our fellowship no distinction between Jew or Gentile, between slave or free, between male and female. We are all one in Christ.”
Whither once, twice, or thrice, we have been baptized into Christ and into this community of Jesus, and into each other. Together we are on mission. In our day and on our mission, we will add that our unity extends to other categories of division. In our day and on our mission, we say there is no distinction between citizen and immigrant, documented and undocumented, young and old, gay or straight, Democrat or Republican, liberal and conservative, rich or poor, abled or disabled, healthy or sick, in the sanctuary or on the broadcast. Whatever category the world uses to divide you, we say, NO. We are on a mission to see each person, welcome each person, and honor each person. We are one in bond of love. .
Today, baptism into the Way of Jesus is still a new and dangerous mission. Somewhat like it was in the day of Jesus. Somewhat like it was in the day of John the prophet. Somewhat like it was in the day of Mary, and Nicodemus, of Stephen and Lydia, or Aquilla and Pricilla. It is a radical vision of human flourishing on planet earth.
This is the rule of God, the kingdom of God, the beloved community. This is the meaning of our baptism. This is why we were baptized. This is the dying and rising of the baptismal ritual. Again and again, we need to rise from the waters and walk in the way of Jesus, full of spirit and fire.
I wish we had a baptistry on our church campus. I know we are going to the river to baptize Francisco, but I wish we had one here.
We could build one just south of the sanctuary, on the slope in the yard. We could do it together, each taking a shovel, some framing it up, and a few people mixing the concrete. We can decorate all around it with growing plants, perhaps put some benches here and there. Then, on some Sunday after our formal and public worship, we can all go to the water, put on a white robe, and once again submit ourselves to the wonderful ritual of immersion in water. It is not quite the river, but it is the water of God. We can go all the way under and come up dripping wet, with the name of Jesus on our lips and his gospel work on our mind. We can rise from the baptismal waters having buried some things that need to be buried and embracing some living things that need to be embraced. We can leave off the past and embrace the future. We can walk in newness of life and purpose.
It is a matter of life and death. Life on earth and life in heaven. Life abundant and open and free. Life in Christ and life in the spirit. We are raised to walk in newness of life. If so, we will need the water, and the spirit, and the fire.