Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Two Baptisms

From the moment that the disciples hit the road as apostles, it seems that they are engaged in the never-ending work of differentiating between baptisms. "Which baptism did you have? Oh, the baptism of John? Let me tell you about the baptism of Jesus!" (who was baptized, by the way, by John...).

So the question is, what's the difference? Why does it even matter?

Maybe it's easy to say that it doesn't matter. Two thousand years later, can it really still matter? Yes. It can, and it does. Because our churches are still talking about baptism, still engaging in it, still calling the faithful to it, and so it absolutely matters that we understand what baptism is.

There are some churches that say that once baptized, always baptized. You don't need a second dunking, even if you change churches or denominations or hearts. If your body has been passed through the blessed water, whether you knew what you were doing or didn't know it fully at the time or were an infant or were an adult or were a protestant or were a Catholic or whatever, once done, always done. There are other churches where members are being rebaptized every couple of years, whenever they want, or whenever they feel like they have to because they've fallen back into sin or switched churches or changed hearts. Because they know more about Jesus this time than they did last time, so this time, they really mean it (unlike last time, when they also really meant it or next time, when they know even more about Jesus, and really really mean it).

But if we can look at this a little bit, all this talk that the apostles do about baptism, and figure out what it even is, maybe we can understand better and put some of that to rest. (Maybe not. Two thousand years of church history have been pretty clear, and I will probably not be able to solve the issues in one simple post.)

It's actually fairly simple. John's baptism was a baptism of repentance. It's what men did when they came to understand their sin and the saving grace of God. It was their pledge to turn their lives around, to start living righteously, to do their best to put faith into action and make a difference in their lives. This is, oddly enough, the way that we use baptism most often in our churches today - as a commitment of repentance and a promise to live a new life of faith.

No wonder, then, that so many Christians spend so much of their lives wondering if their baptism was "real," if it "stuck," if they need to do it again. No wonder so many Christians keep going back and back and back to the waters. Over and over and over again, just to make sure their lives are still covered.

And this is what we preach about baptism. That it is a confession of faith. Even if we don't say it's a repentance of sin, that's what we mean. We mean that the person committing to baptism is turning his or her life over to Christ, in order to sin no more. And then we pray over them and promise to help them in their new life of faith, in their journey toward righteousness that promises to be daunting.

Go back to Acts 19, though, and we see one of the clearest places where the disciples say that this is not the baptism of Jesus. This is not the goal of the faith. This is not what it means to come into Christianity, to commit yourself to Christ. It's not about a baptism of repentance - something that men do.

It's about a baptism of the Spirit - something that Jesus does.

That's right. Our baptism is not something we do for Him; it's something He does for us. It's the moment when the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us, when that Spirit becomes manifest in our lives. The disciples even ask the Gentiles - when you were baptized, did you receive the Spirit? And when they say yes and demonstrate that joining of flesh and Spirit, they are accepted into the family.

When was the last time you celebrated a baptism at your church by talking not about how that person was going to change their life, but about how their life was about to be changed? When was the last time you asked someone not whether they committed to turning away from sin, but whether they were filled with the Holy Spirit? When was the last time you pulled someone up out of the water and instead of clapping, they prophesied?

This isn't about being charismatic. That's not it at all. Not by a long shot. This is about whether the baptism we're participating in is something we're doing or something God's doing. Whether it's us repenting from our sins or Him sending the Spirit to dwell in our hearts. Whether the baptism we preach is the baptism of John, as so many through the years have engaged, or the baptism of Jesus, which the disciples said was the better thing. The only thing, actually.

And it's not that it's not happening. It's that we're not talking about it. We're so focused on the repentance of sin that we aren't even asking about the Spirit, we aren't even looking for Him in that moment. Even though He's there. Maybe these are the baptism stories we ought to start telling. Maybe this is what we ought to start preaching.

A little scary? Sure. We would have to confess that the Spirit of God, the Living Spirit of God, dwells among us. That He's in our midst. And that means we might have to change some other things, too.

But it's the better thing. It is. The only thing, actually. 

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