Every baptism should lead us to a new sense of gratitude
I don't remember the hymns we sang, nor the Scripture we read, nor the sermon. But I do remember the baptism.
Near the conclusion of the service the pastor and the family with the baby walked to the entrance/narthex of the church, where the large, stone baptismal font was located. The pastor invited the congregation to gather around the font, then spoke the ancient words:"I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit."And then,"Mark, welcome into the church of Christ,into the family of God."But the ceremony was not over. The pastor put both hands back into the water, then scattered and splattered the water over the congregation and boomed,"Remember your baptism!"
I wondered long about that phrase. How could I remember my baptism as an infant in the northern hinterlands of The Netherlands? And why should I remember my baptism? I seemed to be leading an acceptable Christian life without thinking very often about my baptism.
But the challenge stuck with me. I began to think more about baptism, particularly my own. I tried to remember.
First I had to unpack that word remember. Remember Joshua? He had the people haul those twelve boulders out of the Jordan and put them up as a memorial. Why? There were two reasons: "So that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful" and "so that you might always fear the Lord your God" (Josh. 4:24). That kind of memorializing is close to what we mean by remembrance in baptism—much closer than the more typical use of the word in a simple sentence like, "Remember to get some more dog food."
The word remember is a rich one, often setting up a link between past and present. What was or what happened back then moves us now, both in communal and personal memory. Of course, we do not repeat the past. We need not even reenact it. But the memory, the remembrance, the memorial unites us with the past, and in some way we become part of it. The memory of my mother's hands (covered with white spots as long as I can remember), peeling potatoes, darning socks, wiping tears with a red handkerchief, holding Dad's hand in the nursing home—the memory is nearly tangible and brings a host of images and reflections. In a similar way the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., with its seemingly endless list of names, restores memories of the horror of that war and connects us to that event. That's part of what remembering is.
Remembering in Scripture frequently also has a public, celebrative note, which includes proclaiming and reciting. God's people remember the past as they observe and celebrate it in ritual and ceremony—especially at the Passover, with its bitter herbs, roasted lamb, and retelling (reliving) of the exodus story.
And remembering is sometimes linked to specific public action. For example, remembrance of the past may give rise to outward repentance and acts of obedience, as mental and emotional reactions flow into physical action. (For two examples, out of many, see Nehemiah 8 and 9 and Acts 2:14ff., where the call to remembrance brings responses of weeping, of sharing food, of breaking bread together.)
Some of the above is what the preacher meant when he told us to remember our baptism. Perhaps he had also read John Calvin, who stressed a similar remembrance: "As often as we fall away, we ought to recall the memory of our baptism and fortify our minds with it, that we may always be sure and confident of the forgiveness of sins." (Institutes, 4, xv, 3)
A Flood of Images
When I began to remember and relearn what the Bible teaches about baptism, I was astounded at the breadth and depth of the teaching. Out of this wealth some clear images began to emerge. First is the image of water. Water is sometimes a means and a metaphor of chaos and destruction, as when it drowned the wicked of Noah's day and later Pharaoh and all his host. But more often water is a source of life, reviving the desert and slaking parched mouths. Water comes with cleansing power, both washing away dirt and bringing ritual purity. The homey, everyday water used for washing kitchen utensils and dusty feet, getting rid of grime and making us presentable—this same water hints at forgiveness and holiness.
The River Jordan is another watery baptism image with many ripples of meaning. A missionary who had traveled through Israel brought home a jug of water from the Jordan to be used in the baptism of her child. To me the gesture bordered on superstition, but perhaps this mother recalled the powerful metaphor of the Jordan. The water of the river that scoured Naaman clean from his leprosy can serve as a symbol of the washing in baptism. It can also serve as a symbol of a crucial passageway: In crossing the Jordan the people of Israel left behind forty years of desert and entered the promised land—as they renewed their covenant vows to "serve the Lord." Later in Scripture the Jordan takes on even more significance as we see John the Baptist preach his fiery message of repentance on the river's banks, dunking Roman soldiers and other disreputable folk in the Jordan's waters. We also read the account of Christ's baptism in the Jordan as he became one of us and began his ministry.
Every baptism is a reaching back to these scriptural roots—to the images of cleansing, of entering a new land, of repentance, of beginning ser-vanthood. Christ became linked to us in his baptism, and we become linked with Christ in our baptism. Paul speaks of "putting on Christ," (Gal. 3:27), perhaps as a baptized convert puts on a baptismal robe. And Paul hints at a mystery of baptism as we are "buried with Christ" sharing in his suffering and death (but also, as we emerge from the water, raised with him in his glory) (Col. 2:12).
Elsewhere we read that Christ puts his seal of ownership on us (2 Cor. 1:22). Baptism brings us up close, within hugging distance, and this link with Christ permits us to share in his power, in his grace, in his service.
Baptism also brings us newness. The mysteries that Jesus unfolds to a prosaic Nicodemus will always remain mysteries, but the born-again newness "of water and the Spirit" (John 3:5) is pictured for us at the baptism font. Not "baptismal regeneration," our theologians warn us—but still, our baptism points to a new reality. As Paul later has it, "He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). This image of new birth by water cannot be nailed down with theological precision, but the sustaining, amniotic, life-giving symbol is wonderfully portrayed by the water of baptism.
Paul also uses his favorite one-body image in connection with baptism. "For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body" (1 Cor. 12:13). This living, vibrant variety-in-oneness body is enriched by each baptism. Young people from Christian homes do not "join the church" when making profession of faith at age twelve or eighteen. They are already part of the body and have been since they were baptized as infants. By the time they were five or six these children could remember, "I am a real part of these people in my church; I belong to them."
There's more to remember, but thinking just about these images will help to enrich the celebration of baptism in your church and will help us to be grateful for our own baptism.
When Do I Remember?
A friend of mine served a church in New York for four years. He called it a dying church. The average age of its members was sixty-three, and while he was there, my friend buried seventeen parishioners. He had no baptisms. That, he said, was the saddest of all—not only because there was no numerical growth, but because people were never reminded of their own baptisms.
Every baptism is a reminder of our baptism. Mine in a drafty country church in Groningen, yours in Toronto or Los Angeles. At that time God said, "You're mine, I love you, you're washed." And then he welcomed us into his family, and suddenly we had a slew of brothers and sisters. Every time that a Tom, Dick, or Harry, a Nicole, Megan, or Stacey is baptized, we say, "Hurrah! I'mbap-tized too." We are reminded of God's promises to us and of our pilgrimage offaith.
Some churches practice a "Renewal of Baptismal Vows." Such services sometimes seem to come close to the idea of rebaptism. But they need not. Again, remember Joshua? In chapters 23 and 24 he challenged the people to remember the Lord's faithfulness ("then you crossed the Jordan") and to renew their covenant vows ("choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve"). A renewal of baptismal vows can have the same dual focus: a remembrance of the Lord's faithfulness in my life and a rededication of my across-the-Jordan pilgrimage.
The Lord's Supper is also a remembrance, and here we see a wonderful merging of communion and baptism. Who joins in the Lord's Supper? Only the baptized—those who have been claimed by Christ and who have responded in faith to that claim. And what do those baptized folk commemorate and celebrate? The death and resurrection of Christ (in which we, somehow, are joined in baptism). The cleansing power of Christ's blood and his forgiveness (which was attested in our baptism). The "communion" of God's people (whom we joined in our baptism). Sacrificial living(as was symbolized in our baptismal pledge). Yes, the frequent gathering around the Lord's table is a remembering, an affirming of our baptism.
I (should) also remember my baptism in my daily walk. When Luther was tempted, his conscience whispered or shouted, "Remember your baptism!" Baptized people belong to Christ, and Christ's people don't cheat or abuse or lust or covet. Also, baptized people belong to a community, and therefore they think "us" instead of "me." How will my promotion affect my family? How will my leaving affect the congregation? Baptized people are pledged to daily love of God and service of others. My work and my play, my church- and my office-going, my voting and my shopping are all part of the across-the-Jordan pilgrimage that began at my baptism.
We Reformed folk are not Anabaptists. One baptism will do us fine, thank you. But we do remember our baptism. We treasure it, we are shaped by it, we live out of it.
Baptism: Some Thoughts from Calvin
"Whether the person baptised is to be wholly immersed, and that whether once or thrice, or whether he is only to be sprinkled with water, is not of the least consequence: churches should be at liberty to adopt either, according to the diversity of climates, although it is evident that the term baptism means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the primitive Church."
—Institutes 4, xv, 19
"Children who happen to depart this life before an opportunity of immersing them in water, are not excluded from the kingdom of heaven…Unless we admit this position, great injury is done to the covenant of God, as if in itself it were weak, whereas its effect depends not either on baptism, or on any accessories. The sacrament is afterwards added as a kind of seal, not to give efficacy to the promise, as if in itself invalid, but merely to confirm it to us. Hence it follows, that the children of believers are not baptised, in order that though formerly aliens from the Church, they may then, for the first time, become children of God, but rather are received into the Church by a formal sign, because, in virtue of the promise, they previously belonged to the body of Christ."
—Institutes 4, xv, 22