Most people think of baptism as a ritual. Those with a little more background on the sacrament see it as a symbol. It is a symbol. That’s true. But it’s also an experience. It’s a metaphor that you can feel; on your skin, in your clothes, through your hair. It is less like the wedding ring and more like the honeymoon.
Baptism has a certain wildness that makes it unique from other rituals. It conjures images not of the Sunday pastor with his tie tack and parted hair, but of the prophetic John in his camelhair shirt, his beady eyes glaring from behind a mess of knotted hair and whiskers. As the Sunday pastor announces the upcoming baptism, one can’t help but contrast the images. Here we sit amidst drywall and ceiling fans, breathing air conditioned oxygen that stinks of a mixture of hygiene products- as far from our natural world as can be. Later we will be perched on a grassy bank by a muddy river, geese flying overhead, sun blaring down, and farmer’s dogs barking in the distance. The Sunday pastor himself will be knee deep in that water, orating sans microphone like the teachers of old, welcoming to the river all who have made a confession of Christ. The whole thing is as if a bit of nature, a bit of heaven, and a bit of madness has intruded upon our manmade world. It is as if someone has left the front door open, and autumn leaves and insects are blowing into the living room. As the congregation gathers on the bank, it becomes evident, once again, that the church is not the building, not the sprawling mini-mall shaped cathedral in suburbia, but the people and the Spirit within them.
What ensues thereafter is no less wild. As each individual wades into the river, stumbling across the rocky bottom, the cold enveloping ankle, knee, hip, and waist, the senses awaken and a new realm is entered. It’s the same realm to which any out-of-the-routine physical sensation can take us. Climbing a mountain, for instance, is mood altering. So is the smell of a campfire. Or the sight of your own shadow in moonlight. Each of these connects new experience to old memory, where the mind stands between the past and the future (in a place not accurately called “the present”), and then suddenly the act of spiritual examination is possible. And in that moment of frankness and vulnerability, the individual confesses his own deepest sense of identity. Then backward he goes, at the hands of the pastor, into the water, which represents the grave, to experience something all people suspect to be true- that spirit and body can be separated, especially at death. Then, into the light beyond the surface, he is lifted to experience what all people hope to be true- that the spirit can be housed again in the resurrected form of the other. And whom does the pastor represent in all of this? Perhaps Paul’s declaration provides on answer: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Perhaps, the pastor represents Christ carrying the believer through the burial and resurrection.
In this way, Baptism is a reenactment, not of an earthly historical event, but of an eternal event. It is also a preenactment of what will be; the baptism of fire and of the Holy Spirit. And the ritual itself, a symbol, is an experience. It’s not unlike the other lessons God uses to teach his disciples. Jesus, especially was (and is) an experiential teacher. When he says “follow me” that is his whole syllabus. When someone proudly declares, “I’ve never been baptized, and I don’t need to be. It’s only a symbol,” I have to wonder. I am curious as to whether he would have rejected the other experiences Jesus offered to his disciples, like walking on the water or climbing the mountain to witness the transfiguration. Would this person have even responded to the exigency of “follow me,” or would they have said, “No I can worship God from home.” To deny the symbol, the experience, and the command of baptism is, perhaps, to reject the teaching style of Christ.