Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why Baptism Matters, Part 2

Yesterday I began the series on why baptism matters by using Sunday's New Testament reading (Acts 19:1-7) to explore the difference between the baptism of John and baptism into Jesus Christ, which comes with the gifts of the Spirit. I argued that most Christians I know (often myself, too) think of baptism as a moment in the past rather than an initiation into a Spirit-led life. You can read that post here.

Today, I want to come at baptism from a different angle--a Trinitarian approach. In the rambling introduction to my post yesterday (pretty often I start these things not knowing where they will end up), I touched on the different accounts of Jesus' baptism and noted that Mark, unlike the other gospellers, doesn't go to great lengths to mitigate the confusing nature of the sinless Christ seeking a baptism of repentance (see Sunday's reading of Mark 1:4-11). Bottom line: why would Jesus need to be baptized? We don't believe in adoptionism (a heresy that says Jesus became God's son at a specific moment in time), so the baptism isn't about a fundamental change in Jesus' relationship with God the Father. We know that Jesus was born without the stain of original sin (to use some antiquated language that conveys a relevant theology by using anachronistic terminology), so he didn't need it washed away. So why did Jesus come to the Jordan River to be baptized by John?

I think there are two reasons--one psychological and one theological. First, one can argue that Jesus came to the river to model for us the importance of baptism. Although he didn't necessarily need it, we needed him to show us how it's done. Jesus is the pattern of obedience. His baptism is the initiation of his ministry, and, by undergoing baptism, he shows us that we need to follow his example. That leads to the second point, which is that Jesus' baptism also shows us that it is through baptism that our participation in the divine life of the Trinity becomes possible. (Hang with me for a moment, patient reader. I'll get past the seminary gobbledygook shortly.)

In this moment of Jesus' baptism, we encounter explicitly the three persons of the Holy Trinity--Father, Son, Spirit--for the first time. This is the moment when God's Trinitarian nature is first revealed to his people. The Son is baptized, and the Spirit descends, while the Father's voice speaks. What was implicit in the creation narrative (see Sunday's reading of Genesis 1:1-5), becomes explicit in this encounter. The Trinity means that God is relational. For God to be love, God cannot only be unitary. Yes, God is one, but God is also three (in one). That means that we can know God's love as real and not just analogy. Jesus' baptism shows us that God is Trinity, and, as such, it also invites us to discover our own place in the divine life as we follow Jesus' example.

Baptism matters because it is the way in which we discover that God invites us into relationship with him. By following Jesus' example, we, too, receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and we, too, hear the Father say to us, "You are my beloved child." Baptism is the principle means by which we discover that God loves us not because of who we are but because of who God is. That is why we name that we are baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. It is his accomplishment that makes it possible for God to say to us, "You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased."

Tomorrow, I'll take this a step further and argue why infant baptism matters. Then, on Thursday, I'll look at why baptism is and should remain the prerequisite for the reception of Communion. Fun, huh? Bring on General Convention 2015!

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