We can learn much about what truly happens at baptism by looking at the story of Saul on his way to Damascus. It's not a narrative that we typically look at in terms of baptism, but it is one, indeed - this is the moment when the Holy Spirit came to Saul and something fundamental about him became different.
It is very easy for us to provide a commentary on baptism, for us to say that so-and-so entered the waters, was buried and raised, and "gave his life" to Christ, whatever that means. In the same way, those traveling with Saul that day spoke about a bright light. That's it - just a bright light.
At multiple points in his story, Paul reminds us of that bright light, and he acknowledges that everyone with him saw the same light. Everyone saw what happened to Saul, but we must also recognize that Saul was the only one blinded by it. Everyone experienced the light, but only Saul was changed by it.
This is the truth of baptism - we all see what is happening. It's right there in front of our eyes. But only one person is truly changed by the event...the one in the waters. This is why it's so important for us to stop trying to categorize baptism, to stop trying to explain in simple man's terms what it is. It is something only to the one undergoing it; the rest of us can only witness.
And what is it that we are witnessing? This is where our witness takes yet another dangerous turn. We are prone to say we are witnessing a commitment. We are witnessing a human act. We are witnessing a repentance, or something of the sort. Those with Saul are prone to say they were witnessing a light, even, they may concede, a blinding light.
But Paul says there was more. He recounts, at every retelling, the voice that spoke to him in that moment. It was a voice that no one else with him heard, even those who saw the light. It was a thundering whisper that only he could hear.
How many of us have heard that voice at our own baptisms? How many of us felt that undeniable presence of the Holy Spirit?
And how many of us have had that taken away by those who only saw the light?
See, this is what I'm talking about. When I told the story yesterday about the lightness that I felt, the wave that washed over me at my moment of baptism, I was speaking of this moment of the undeniable presence of the Holy Spirit. Something fundamental was changing in me. But it was quickly drowned out by the voices of the witnesses who only saw the light, those who were so quick to say what a great thing it was that I was willing to give my life to Christ, to stop being a sinner, to declare a new allegiance.
They made my baptism all about me, and in doing so, they made me nothing more than a sinner. Where has the Holy Spirit gone?
It's for this reason that I'm so slow to get into all the baptism chatter. There aren't a lot of things that I understand about what happens at baptism, a lot of things I can't explain. But what I know for sure is that at every baptism that is not my own, I am only a witness to the light. That's it. I wasn't blinded by it, and I didn't hear the voice. It did not fundamentally change me, so I am unqualified to speak of what was really going on here. All I can say is that I saw it...and then I saw a changed man.
That's it. That's all I've got. And that's all I should ever have.
Anything else, I end up contributing to yet another generation of Christians who know keenly their own sinfulness and woefully so little more, who mistake the Holy Spirit for something much less. They come up out of the waters and in that split second, that brief little moment of time, lose the water for the sake of the world.