So where does baptism fit into your thinking about the Christian faith? Where does it fit within God’s plan of salvation? Or does it?
Oh, I know, you might say it’s a sacrament, an outward sign of God’s inward grace, and all that. Some may say it effectively washes away our sin, others that it identifies us with Christ, others that it initiates us into Christ’s Holy Church, others all the above. But so what? What difference does any of this make in practical terms? In other words, why do we do it? If you were baptized yourself, then why?
If you were able to understand the message of my last blog, then know that in my own mind all salvation and all healing begins with Jesus. Jesus is revealed to us through the Bible. And the baptism of Jesus is a good place to begin in our understanding of him through the Bible. Yes, the prophets foretold him, but I’m looking here in this blog for something most practical for our own personal experience of salvation and healing. Jesus was baptized for what reason? To have his sins washed away? Not. To join the Church, which did not yet exist? Not. To identify with himself in some redundant way? Not. Matthew 3:13-4:11 is essential to answering the question of “why baptism?” even as we learn first from Jesus’s own baptism.
Jesus was already born of water in the womb of his fully human mother, Mary. In baptism, he was born again of new water and the Spirit. Here I would ask you to look at these verses not from Matthew 3 but rather John 3. They describe a conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus, whom Jesus tells, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Maybe you know the next lines. Nicodemus asks, “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” To which Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to Spirit.”
In baptism, Jesus was himself “born again” of new water and the Spirit. We read where he then entered God’s Kingdom and proclaimed that Kingdom to all in both his words and works. But first what happens? He is tempted by the devil while alone in the wilderness. Were Jesus only born of the water of the womb, I seriously wonder if he could have overcome these temptations. Remember, “flesh gives birth to flesh,” and the flesh — our human body — is filled with impulses, feelings, desires, fears, wants, wishes, whims, or whatever other instincts you might name. If in some sense our human mind is parent to our body, who of us could be so strong as to resist food when the body is starving? My own mind would surely tell my body to eat. It would think of little else except food for my body’s cravings, believing these cravings to be survival needs and not just selfish wants. I’d have given into my body’s temptations, and so would Jesus have done so, I think, had the events of Matthew 4 (temptations) have happened prior to those of Matthew 3 (baptism).
For Jesus, baptism was the game changer. He was still born once of the water of the womb. But now he was also born again of the Spirit, and he was now a mighty citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. His mind was now tuned to a different voice. The voice of his body, or some would say “Satan” was clearly saying “you have to give me what I want. You have to let me be the boss. You have to say YES to my instincts.” However, now being born again of new water and the Spirit, there was another voice to inform his mind’s decisions and choices in life. Jesus now, within God’s Kingdom, heard what I imagine to be the Spirit’s wisdom saying something very different. Something more like, “You can listen to your body and understand its feelings, but you don’t have to let your body be the boss. Your flesh doesn’t know your wants from your needs. Don’t let your body think for your mind. It wants to be the boss but it needs you to do so just as a son needs a father, a child needs a parent. You need to say NO this time and to remember these words of scripture, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” Baptism is the very “born again” experience that empowered the mind of Jesus to say YES to his soul and NO to his body.
I tend to think, after years of training and practice as a therapist before becoming a pastor, that the mind is at best caught in a crossfire between the instincts of the body and the influences of the soul. The body shouts with fear. The soul whispers with love. The mind must choose. One day at a time, one moment at a time. Decisions have consequences. And good decisions, good choices, come about when the mind takes time to listen to the body born once of the flesh and water of the womb, even as a good parent listens to the child before then making his own wiser decision. The one who is born again (in the new water of baptism and the Spirit that empowers God’s Kingdom) can, like Jesus, say YES to our soul’s loving influence and NO to our body’s fearful control. In our baptism, we die like Jesus to the fears and desires of our flesh and are raised again into the love and needs of our spirit. We are born again Christians, if you will, and alive in God’s Kingdom. This is why Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” This is “why baptism.”