Text: Mark 1:4-11
The lectionary text for today tells the story of Jesus’ baptism. Mark begins his story as John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This man, John, clothed with camels’ hair, a leather belt around his waist, and eating locusts and wild honey must have been a sight to see. For the text tells us that “people from the whole Judean country-side and all the people of Jerusalem” were coming out to see him. As he baptized folks, he had another message for them—a kind of cryptic message. He said, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me and I’m not even worthy enough to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” Then he says something really strange. He says, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” I can imagine folks standing around saying to one another, “Who is this wild man and what does he mean about being baptized with the Holy Spirit?” Sounds a bit scary, but after all it is John dressed in camels’ hair and eating seed pods or bugs—we’re not sure which.
Several years ago a couple of our young children attended our Easter baptism service. A couple of weeks later as I was talking with them on a Wednesday night, one of them remarked, “Pastor Nancy, I don’t want to be dunked in the water. Do I have to do that?” Their mother told me that since attending the Easter baptism service, baptism had been a reoccurring topic at the dinner table causing much anxiety. I tried to reassure the two young boys that it really wasn’t scary and that it was kind of like getting into a little swimming pool. I could tell by the look on their faces that they were having nothing to do with my attempt to make it seem like a good thing so I decided that the best thing I could do at that moment was to assure them that they did not have to be “dunked” any time soon and if they ever decided that they did want to be baptized we would talk about it.
Baptism by immersion is one of two ordinances in the Baptist tradition. The other is the Lord’s Supper, or as we call it here at Pullen, communion. It helps to know a little Baptist history at this point. No one knows exactly who first brought Christianity to England or when. An old tradition suggests that Paul the apostle or one of his converts may have preached in Britain. By the seventh century most English people were at least outwardly Roman Catholics. In the following centuries some evangelical groups flourished, and some remnants of these groups survived in the sects which later opposed Catholicism, such as the followers of John Wyclif.
By the sixteenth century, many of the English Christians were demanding reform in their church. They sensed that the church had become corrupt and selfish, and that it had largely left the simple message of the Bible (or what they thought was the simple message of the Bible). Several factors contributed to this appeal for reform: the teachings of such great reformers as Martin Luther in Germany and John Calvin in Geneva; the new translations of the Bible into English which allowed the common people to read the Bible; and social and political changes which led people to want more participation in their church.
There were several English rulers in the sixteenth century that sought to reform the Church of England to some extent. However, none of these reforms went far enough to satisfy those who wanted to return to the simple teachings and practices of the Bible. One militant group within the Church of England genuinely desired to recover biblical teachings and practices. Deeply influenced by the reforms of John Calvin, they became known as “Puritans,” perhaps because they insisted upon more purity of doctrine and practice in the church.
Another group seeking reform was called “Separatists.” Most of the Separatists were frustrated Puritans who had given up hope of reforming the church from within. The Separatists decided to separate from the Church of England and form their own independent congregations. By 1600, there were already several of these congregations in England, and they blossomed by 1625. The Separatists included many groups holding a variety of views. Some of them later helped populate such diverse churches as Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and assorted independents and nonconformists. Some of these Separatists, studying the Bible, adopted believer’s baptism and became known as Baptists. We, here at Pullen, hail from these roots.
One more bit of history that you might like to know. Many people assume that Baptists got their name from John the Baptist. This is not the case. Like most religious groups, Baptists were named by their opponents. The name comes from the Baptist practice of immersion. The first known reference to these believers in England as “Baptists” was in 1644. They did not like the name and did not use it of themselves until years later. The early Baptists preferred to be called “Brethren” or “Brethren of the Baptized Way.” Sometimes they called themselves the “Baptized Churches.” Early opponents of the Baptists often called them Anabaptists or other less complimentary names. Here at Pullen, we are familiar with those other less than complimentary names. And so we carry on the Baptist tradition.
As you can see, baptism by immersion deeply defines us as Baptists. And yet, our own Pullen history has been somewhat of a process when it comes to the theology and practice of baptism. In 1973 our church was one of a handful of churches within the Southern Baptist Convention and the North Carolina Baptist State Convention that challenged the practice of requiring baptism by immersion of people coming from other faith traditions. In essence, what Pullen said was that if you come to us having had a previous faith experience in another tradition in which baptism took a different form than immersion you did not have to be re-baptized in order to have full membership into our church. And that has been our practice since 1973.
As a part of that decision in 1973, the church asked Roger Crook to write a statement on baptism in preparation for a visit from a committee of the Baptist State Convention. The document declared:
Baptism as we understand it, is the symbol of a person’s Christian experience of salvation, of his [or her] movement from unfaith to faith. It signifies repentance, a dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ. The time for this symbolic action is the beginning of the new life in Christ. We believe it inappropriate to employ this meaningful symbol as a mere initiation ceremony, the means by which one who has already been a Christian for many years now becomes a Baptist. Baptism, in our judgment, is far too important for that.
In the Baptist tradition, especially the Pullen Baptist tradition, I want to continue the process of rethinking baptism. I’ll begin with a story.
In November of 1989, I began my ministry at St. John’s Baptist Church in Charlotte. Soon after arriving in Charlotte, I was invited to preach at a non-Baptist church that openly welcomed gay people. It was rare in those days for such churches to exist. About twice a year, I would return to this particular church to preach. Although I was still in the closet as a gay person, I became known in the Charlotte community as a minister who was supportive of the LGBT community.
One morning, in the fall of 1991, I received a phone call from a stranger who shared with me that he had a friend who was dying of AIDS and that his friend desperately wanted to be baptized before he died. His next words to me remain to this day some of the saddest words of my ministry. He said, “We’ve called some other churches and we’ve tried to find a minister who will baptize him but we can’t find one. We are hoping that you might be willing to come talk with him and consider baptizing him.” My heart sank and not knowing what else to say, I said, “Is there a bathtub where he is living?” You must remember I was one year out of seminary and the only baptism I had preformed was on my best friend in the community swimming pool at around age 10. After a moment of silence the person on the other end of the phone responded, “He can’t get out of bed. They have told us that he will probably die tonight.”
As I entered the one room apartment, I moved slowly to the bed that sat in the far left corner of the room and sat down by the dying man. He looked up into my eyes and quietly said, “Thank you for coming. I’m dying and I want to go to heaven. I’ve not been a bad person but I’ve never been baptized and I’m afraid. I’ve asked God to forgive me for all my sins and I know that Jesus died to save me from my sins. But I need to be baptized before I die.” In that moment I said and did the only thing I knew to say and do. I told him that God loved him and that nothing he had done or could do would ever change that. I told him he was safe. I prayed with him and then with a pot of water that his friend had brought to me I began sprinkling the water on his head. As the water trickled down his face, he said, “No, pour it all over me.” And I did. I poured until every inch of his body was wet.
It is one of the most beautiful and privileged moments of my ministry; and one of the most haunting. The fear in his eyes that he might not be with God when he died because he had not been baptized left me sad and angry. Yes, I had grown up believing the same because that is what the church taught me. But in that moment standing with that pot of water in my hands there was an absurdity to what I had been taught to believe and had believed. How could something that had the potential to be so meaningful and important and beautiful be so distorted and misunderstood? On that day, I saw and felt sharply the difference and the danger of symbol as a substitute for substance. Baptism symbolizes something profound for those of our faith tradition, but it is a symbol and should not be confused with the sacred experience of faith.
I tell this story this morning because this serious question of the role of the symbol of baptism is alive and well here at Pullen. For some time, the youth in our church have been asking questions about the rite of baptism and its role in their journey of faith. One question that comes up frequently is why
our church requires the young people who grow up in our church to be baptized by immersion before becoming a member of the church? Is baptism, in our judgment, not far too important for that? Can our older youth not make a commitment to being a member of our faith community before they decide when and how they want to experience the rite of baptism? Youth, I’m asking the question with you. I know that some of you have asked this question as a part of your Lenten discipleship program where you talk about faith and baptism and church membership, as well as some of our adults. You have shared with me your desire to become a member of this church, you have written out your statements of faith, and yet the symbolic act of baptism is still an unsettled question in your mind. You have asked me and Laura, “Why do I have to be baptized?” And now, I’m asking the question with you.
I don’t have the answer but I think it is an important question for our church to consider. Maybe together, we could discover why the ritual of baptism by immersion is important for those who have never been baptized. Or maybe together, we would discover what expressions and symbols of our journey into faith hold meaning for us today. Is our parent/child dedication any different from what happens when other faith traditions seek a promise from parents to raise their children in the church and to know God’s love simply because no water is involved? Is our Rite-13 ritual akin to a moment of confirmation—that moment when we bless you into adulthood? Can writing your statement of faith and sharing it with the community be an acceptable symbolic action of your commitment to a life of faith? I don’t know but I am willing to ask these questions with you and with our community.
Here’s what I do know. The Sunday night service at Sandy Plains Baptist Church at which I walked to the front of the church and professed my faith was one of the most significant moments in my life. To this day, I can tell you everything about that moment—even down to the detail of what socks I was wearing. I remember, though, very little about my actual baptism by immersion that took place the very next Sunday evening. What has lasted in my memory was that moment of decision as I made a commitment to try and live as Jesus taught me to live and in sharing that decision with my faith family. As I told the lectionary group this week, my baptism with water came when I was in the fifth grade and I remember very little about it. My baptism of the Spirit has happened over these past twenty-two years as I have been nurtured and challenged by the people of this church to live as authentically as I can in relationship to the teachings of Jesus.
Our youth are asking us to rethink baptism. Regardless of how our theology or practice of baptism may change or stay the same, I consider the conversation a worthy conversation for all of us. In fact, I can think of no better way to honor our heritage than to engage deeply in the questions of practice raised by those in our community who think differently from us. Our theology must always guide our practice, and our practice and rituals only have meaning if they are rooted in our theology. In the great tradition of Pullen, I am inviting us to take this as another opportunity to make meaning together as we explore and articulate what it means for us to be the people of God.
I still believe that baptism has the potential to be a meaningful and symbolic action into a life of faith when one chooses it because I have seen how meaningful and beautiful of an experience it can be as I have baptized many of you in this church. Ultimately, though, it is my hope that our focus at Pullen will be on being a people baptized by the Spirit.