What is Baptism?
This Sunday we celebrate Baptism of the Lord Sunday. This is the commemoration of the day Jesus meets John in the waters of the Jordan insisting that John baptize him. There are many significant aspects of this story that really set a foundation for the ministry that Jesus begins to embark on.
Though Matthew and Luke start the Gospel narrative with the birth and very brief glimpses into his childhood, all four Gospels mark the baptism as the beginning of his ministry. Found in Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; and John 1:31-34, Jesus acknowledges the role John makes in preparing the way and in so doing claims alliance with those whom John had already baptized. This also signified an important transition in the life of Christ.
But to understand this transition it is important to understand a little about baptism and its role in the culture at the time of Christ. Contrary to what many have thought baptism was a common practice, though it was not compulsory. Like many spiritual practices today, baptism at that time was very much about the individual choosing to be more devout or trying to connect on a deeper level with God.
The roots of baptism can be seen in the Yom Kippur traditions and the theology around the “Day of Atonement,” obviously, with influences from the Greco-Roman culture that was pervasive at that time. Yom Kippur is a call to seek repentance and spiritual renewal and is the end of the holy days, which follow Rosh Hashanah, the New Year (the Celebration of which will happen between September 13 and 22 recognizing year 5776).
Obviously, the reason for Christ’s need to be baptized was not for repentance or to seek a new purity. This is something that John clearly points out in the exchange. But this is where baptism and its role fundamentally changes.
In Jesus’ baptism he was attested to be the Son by the Father and was anointed with the Holy Spirit to undertake the way of the servant manifested in his sufferings, death, and resurrection.
God’s faithfulness signified in baptism is constant and sure, even when human faithfulness to God is not. Baptism is received only once. The efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment when it is administered, for baptism signifies the beginning of life in Christ, not its completion. God’s grace works steadily, calling to repentance and newness of life. God’s faithfulness needs no renewal. Human faithfulness to God needs repeated renewal. Baptism calls for decision at every subsequent stage of life’s way, both for those who Baptism attends their profession of faith and for those who are nurtured from childhood within the family of faith.
Both believers and their children are included in God’s covenant love. Children of believers are to be baptized without undue delay, but without undue haste. Baptism, whether administered to those who profess their faith or to those presented for Baptism as children, is one and the same Sacrament.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen