One of the Common Lectionary readings for last Sunday was Luke's description of John's baptism of Jesus. Chuck Currie, a UCC pastor in Oregon, published yesterday's sermon in his blog, where he expounds on the subject of baptism. I liked one of his comments, in response to the questions that some might raise over the fact that he had not baptized his infant daughters:
If I thought for a minute that God would reject anyone from the Kingdom of Heaven simply because they had not undergone a ceremony I'd renounce my ordination and my faith. But I believe in a God whose love for creation is simply too deep for that kind of pettiness. Want proof of God's expansive heart? Think of the baptism story of Jesus again. Remember that Jesus stood with the sinners and not apart from us. That is the God that I follow.This is, to me, the heart of matter. Baptism is, in my view, a fine ceremony, but not a necessary one. It is a nice thing to do, for those who believe in its importance. But it holds no importance for me. My Quaker background plays a role, perhaps, in my perception of the rite.
The woman who preached yesterday at the UCC church I attend also spoke on the subject of baptism. She made the point that rules regarding baptism are sometimes appropriately broken. She told the story of one hospital patient, a longtime attender of Christian worship, never baptized, but who wanted to be baptized before she died; the problem was that this person was infirm, and thus unable to participate in the ritual in the context of a public worship service, which was considered an important element of the act in at least the denomination that the individual was a part of. So the chaplain baptized that person in the hospital anyway, despite the rules.
Of course, that was the story of someone who wanted to be baptized. But what about those who don't want to be baptized, or at least who consider it unimportant?
Wikipedia has an interesting article on the subject of baptism. Among other things, it contains a chart summarizing all the different practices and beliefs among various Christians regarding the act of baptism. It is worth viewing, just to take note of how much variety of belief there really is. If Christians can't even agree among themselves on an array of issues surrounding the theology and practice of baptism, then isn't it just possible that its role in an individual's relationship with God is less important than many Christians imagine?
It is worth remembering what the Gospel of Luke reports John the Baptist as having said that while he baptized with water, Jesus would baptize with "the Holy Spirit and fire". What does it mean to be baptized with "fire"? The Gospel writer was obviously using metaphorical language. Bruce Epperly, in his commentary on the lectionary reading on the Process and Faith web site, suggests that
While the meaning of John’s affirmation is unclear, it surely points to the energetic nature of God’s presence in our spiritual lives. Our faith journey is meant to embody the energy of the “big bang” or “big birth” of the cosmos. God’s energy flows through our lives in each moment. We are the children of cosmic stardust and cosmic energy, who are meant, to use Whitehead’s language, not only to live, but to live well and live better. Abundant energy and life flow through us, God’s passion awakens, guides, and inspires us, but—for the most part—we are oblivious to its intensity and guidance.What Epperly says about God's energy and God's passion in our lives is something that I believe to be always true--true for all of us, whether we were baptized or not. He goes on to say:
It is God's fire, not the water of a ritual, that should really matter in our lives. Baptism is a ritual, no more and no less. There is nothing magical about it. For those who place great importance on the ritual, it can be a wonderful experience. For others, however, it is perfectly possible to be in a relationship with the Divine without ever being baptized. I believe it is the relationship with God, and the transformative power of that relationship, that should matter to us the most in the long run.
Fiery followers of God will encounter challenges that threaten to overwhelm us. To become fire is to take risks, test new behaviors, and embark on adventures to new and strange places. Exciting as these new adventures may be they may also heighten our anxiety, and we may turn back from the pathway God has invited us to follow. There is no all-protective safety net on the Holy Adventure, but there is the companionship of God and faithful spiritual friends, and this is our healing, salvation, and sustenance for the adventure.
In the risks of life, we need to remember our baptism and other significant moments of transformation. While God’s love and guidance does not depend on the ritual of baptism, remembering God’s word to Jesus, “you are my child, my beloved,” reminds us of God’s unconditional love for every child and at every season of life. Breathe in God’s spirit, bathe in God’s healing waters, radiate God’s fire. God is always with you, enlightening, illuminating, soothing, and inspiring.