“Is he going to drown her?” I thought to myself.
I was in Romania a decade ago as part of a group of students from Wake Forest Divinity School on pilgrimage for a week, where we were attending a Sunday night baptism service. The large, zealous, imposing pastor was holding the newly baptized under the water a little longer than felt comfortable to me. I swore I was seeing bubbles, but finally up she came.
I looked down the line of those waiting for the water – a long line of all ages and different backgrounds, all standing uniform in their white robes, but reflecting various forms of anticipation. Some were excited and eager, others taking deep breaths, but I noticed one young woman down the line was visibly trembling beneath her robe, perhaps sensing the enormity of the moment or the significance of the statement she was about to make, but to me, she was just worried about being held under the water too long.
I nudged my neighbor – our trip leader, and Baptist historian, Dr. Bill Leonard, who has studied baptism in all its forms and iterations as much as anyone. “I think that young woman is about to cry,” I said, expecting for him to chuckle along with me, but when I looked, his eyes were joyful and misty, and he said with a knowing smile, “It’s still dangerous.”
It’s easy for us to forget the danger and the risk, for we have taken baptism inside and insulated it from its original setting out in the wilderness, where the signs along the Jordan River said “Caution” and “Enter at your own risk.”
These days most of our baptisms occur indoors, in tubs filled with water that is temperature controlled. On the Sundays we hold baptism at First Baptist, one of the first orders of the day is the early morning temperature report to ensure that the water’s warm, and if it’s not at least that we can modify the temperature somehow so it rises to a tolerable tepid lest we have to cancel the whole thing.
At my previous church, baptism occurred in a hot tub; well, maybe not literally, but it appeared that way. Our Baptist church was located in an old Polish Catholic sanctuary in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan – purchased in the mid-80s and modified for the use of this Baptist congregation. So a baptismal pool was added in the back left corner of the sanctuary: a circular tub, about 8ft in diameter. “Why is there a hot tub in the church?,” visitors always asked. There was actually only one heating jet, but that didn’t stop at least one Resident Staff member years ago from inviting friends over on Sunday nights after baptism services.
It was in that pool where I performed my first baptism as a pastor. Pedro was a 15 year old member of our Teen Center, who had returned from summer camp renewed in his faith and passionate about making a statement, so we made plans to wade into the water, this wiry, 6ft 2in teenager and me. We stood before the congregation as I shared my carefully memorized remarks, and I readied myself to lower him into the water. I held his back and his forearm and widened my stance, but when I prepared to take my lunge step I realized I hadn’t moved far enough into the pool, and my foot hit the steps that led inside. Not knowing what to do, rather than lower Pedro gently with my left arm, I had to violently plunge him into the water with my right, grasping the front of his robe and yanking him back up again. We both came up and I looked to see my wife with her head in her hands. But the silence was broken as that gracious and loving congregation broke into laughter and applause as Pedro smiled and we embraced in the middle of the pool, both of us dripping wet, for he had taken me right in along with him.
It’s still dangerous. It can still find us bubbling and catching our breath. Trembling, perhaps at the prospect of the moment. We who are part of this group that claims the word “Baptist” to describe our particular practice of Christianity know the significance of the moment particularly well. But we are very far from those early Baptists who knew it even better. In 1646, Anglican critic Daniel Eatley observed of the Baptists – or the “Dippers” as he called them, so widespread in England: “They preach and print and practice their heretical impieties openly… they flock in great multitudes to their Jordans where both sexes enter the River… where they defile our rivers with their impure washings and the waters groan under the load of their blasphemies…”
All these years later, with none of our lives or livelihoods or even reputations on the line for attending this church or participating in this ritual, we might forget that we still follow a practice that has been dangerous. And maybe it remains that way even for us, for in baptism we are “buried with Christ.” Or so Paul wrote in Romans.
We are creatures 100 percent dependent on breath – the oxygen that keeps us alive and has done so since when we imagine God giving humankind breath through the nostrils of Adam. But when you make the decision to be baptized, you agree to go – just for a moment – to a place where you can’t breathe. You go straight to the heart of mortality and loss. You are “buried,” as Paul wrote.
Now if you’re considering baptism, don’t worry; to be baptized is not actually to be in danger of drowning. But it might be to expose yourself to a different kind of risk: to be lifted into a life that is not the same. To be lifted into the life of Jesus Christ – who came from Galilee to the Jordan unto John to be baptized by him, as we learn in this foundational text from Matthew this morning.
It’s the first thing we learn about Jesus after his birth in the gospel of Matthew. It’s the first time we hear him speak in this story, after 30 years of relative obscurity in a carpenter’s home in Nazareth. It’s a significant moment to declare his priorities and announce his ministry, and of all places to make his appearance, Jesus chooses the wilderness, of all rivers, he chooses the Jordan, of all baptizers, he chooses John.
These initial moments were of vital importance to the early church who, in the early festivals of Epiphany, focused especially on these first things we learn about Jesus: his visit from the wise men, his baptism by John, and his first miracle at the wedding at Cana. The early church believed that in these initial moments, much about Jesus, his ministry, his call, and his direction was revealed. In this passage, the revelation comes with Jesus’ baptism in the wilderness, which presents a question with which we have wrestled for centuries: Why did Jesus need to be baptized? John shouted a message of repentance, but the spotless, blameless son of God is not in need of such redemptive action. Why should he be baptized?
In Matthew, John himself wonders aloud about the purpose: “I should be baptized by you,” John says, “and yet you come to me?” But Jesus is insistent, saying his baptism is a fulfillment of righteousness; it’s an act of obedience to God, so under he goes and up from the water raised into a life that follows the echo of the sky: “This is my beloved Son.” Everyone out there hears it. Every one of them sees it. And he goes from there and passes that word around to others who didn’t see or hear for themselves. He helps others see that the identity of God’s love that defines him is promised to them, too.
Jesus enters the waters of baptism as an invitation to all of us to do the same, showing that his ministry is our ministry, his identity can be ours as beloved of God, and that when we enter those waters we are as close to the grace and love of God as Jesus himself was in the Jordan. We can share in his baptism.
This was the subject of the very last sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we commemorate this weekend. Preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4, 1968, the famous sermon is entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” where King encouraged his congregation to seek greatness through service, love, and the pursuit of justice for all people.
His scripture text came from Mark, where James and John ask to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus, and Jesus replies: “Do you know what you ask? To drink of the cup that I drink of… to share in the baptism that I am baptized with…”
Dr. King goes on to reflect on this baptism of Jesus, into which he invites all of us; it is a way that is costly, that asks so much, and that invites us to come and give our all, and it even leads King towards the end of his sermon to begin to envision his own death and funeral as an extension of what it means to share in the baptism of Jesus. Because it was dangerous for him to follow in that way.
We’d much rather stay indoors where the temperature is controlled and lifeguards keep watch.
We’d much rather move to the center of things, where there’s power and stability, not out in the wilderness where people survive on rainwater and locusts and call for the world to be more than it is.
Or maybe we’d rather stay out of the water altogether – stay on the shore, where all is safe and secure, and nothing more is expected of us.
We’d rather keep our head above the water, where there’s no risk of losing our breath.
Because we know what can happen if we share in this baptism of Jesus.
Dr. King said it this way: “And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, “What is it that I would want said?” And I leave the word to you this morning. If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity… Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice… ”
He would be 88 years old today. But he was killed two months following that sermon.
It’s dangerous. But remember the promise: those who have been buried with Christ in baptism are raised to walk in the newness of life. And it’s all those baptized, wilderness followers of John who become the first to see Jesus and to join him in a dream of something new. It’s those who go all the way under the water with Jesus, who emerge from those waters called to share in all that is ahead for him, too.
That New York City hot tub was the site of a few more baptisms during my years as a pastor at Metro Baptist. There was Gerri, concerned so much about her hair getting wet, and Tom, who had found a new start in that church and wanted to reclaim the faith of his youth. I eventually got the spacing and the steps down, much smoother than the first round, including one of my final opportunities for baptism: the baptism of a woman named Janet.
Janet had been a part of that community of faith for years. She lived outside, homeless for years, and most recently making camp at a construction site. We assumed she struggled with addiction, but we tried to do what we could. She loved that community of faith. She would show up almost daily at certain times, asking to help with one of our programs. She found pastors and community there and she eventually came to a place where she wanted to be baptized. It had happened before in her life, but this time she really felt it, she meant it, she thought it could make a difference for her.
So we gathered in that lukewarm pool with the congregation around. “Come on, sinners, let’s go down” the congregation sang as they surrounded the water. My remarks were rehearsed, and the lunge step was smooth, and Janet came up to applause, and great laughter, and an embrace from her community.
This week I got a letter. The address label held Janet’s name. “Just a short note to say hello” it started, “and to speak with you on behalf of the new version of myself.” Janet shares how she’s been clean, how she’s changed, who she loves, where she lives, and what she does with her time, again and again saying how her faith and her church had made such a difference. “I was dying,” she said, “Now I’m alive. And now I’m bound for heaven.”
Jesus is baptized because out in the Jordan, when John puts him under, he takes us all under with him: the gangly teenager, the trembling young woman at the end of the line, the stirring prophet, the excited child, and the woman who wonders if she can actually change.
Out there everyone sees it. And everyone hears it. And through the power of the Spirit, up we come into the echo of God’s love, and a life that is not the same, buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life.