If I was a complete stranger to the ways of Christians and churches, baptism would be a real head-scratcher. Why this ritual of sprinkling water on someone’s head or, odder still, submerging them completely under water?
But I am a Baptist insider. I cut my teeth on the Cradle Roll, sang my way through Sunbeams and was thoroughly immersed in the words and ways of Baptists. So everything about baptism makes sense to me.
For one thing, it was ordered by our Lord, which is the reason we call it an “ordinance” of the church.
For another, it paints a picture of salvation. When we choose to follow Jesus, we put away our old lives and put on a new life. We bury our past and rise to a fresh future. Baptism is salvation symbolized.
Finally, just as the Hebrew people marched to freedom through the Red Sea and abandoned their wilderness wandering and crossed to the Promised Land through the Jordan River, so baptism reminds us we have crossed over to freedom in Christ. Landing safe on Canaan’s side was not easy then, nor is it now. It deserves a celebration, which is what baptism is.
Frederick Buechner offers this simple, vivid explanation of baptism in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC: “Baptism consists of getting dunked or sprinkled. Which technique is used matters about as much as whether you pray kneeling or standing on your head. Dunking is a better symbol, however. Going under symbolizes the end of everything about your life that is less than human. Coming up again symbolizes the beginning in you of something strange and new and hopeful. You can breathe again.”
At River Road Church we conduct baptism in the Chapel, because that is where our baptistry is. I regret that we do not have one is our Sanctuary, so we could observe baptism in our Sunday morning service, but one was not placed there for architectural reasons that make theological sense.
This means we must be intentional about the times we observe baptism so we do not fail to teach our children and youth that baptism is a ritual that conveys power and meaning to the Christian life. As I move deeper into my faith journey, it is clearer to me that rituals, and the stories that surround them, anchor us in times when life lets us down or lifts us up. So it is with baptism.
This was originally published in the April Explorer.