What’s the Big Deal about Baptism?

September 10, 2010

in Reflections on the Life of Faith

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This coming weekend, we’ll begin a five-week series at St. Philip the Deacon on Christian baptism. The series is based on a book by theologian, author and preacher William Willimon called Remember Who You Are: Baptism, a Model for Christian Life.

Two immediate questions might be posed by anyone who notices this series, and looks at the publishing information in the book: 1.) Why spend five weeks talking about baptism; and 2.) Why use a book that was originally written in 1980 as the basis for the series?

Behind the first question is an assumption that maybe baptism isn’t really that important — that it can’t possible require five weeks of consideration. Behind the second question is the assumption that something that was written 30 years ago can’t possibly have anything relevant to say to us today.

I’d suggest, though, that it makes perfect sense to spend a few weeks talking about baptism, since it is, as Willimon notes, a wonderful “model for Christian life.” And I’d suggest that, like baptism itself, Willimon’s book has stood the test of time, and still has many important lessons to teach us about who we are, and why baptism matters. That may be why the book has been reprinted 12 times, with no end in sight.

Willimon helps us consider the significance of  baptism in this passage from his book, from a chapter titled “Royalty.”

Through baptism, a Christian first and finally learns who he or she is. It is the rite of identity. Baptism asserts rather than argues, it proclaims rather than explains, it commands rather than requests, it acts rather than signifies, and it involves rather than describes.
 
When you ask in desperation, “Who, in God’s name, am I?” baptism will have you feel the water dripping from your head and the oil oozing down your neck and say, “You are, in God’s name, royalty, God’s own, claimed and ordained for God’s serious and joyful business. So, therefore, you had better get with it.”
 
Part of our present trouble with baptism, and with living as Christians, is that we have misplaced the action of baptism. Like almost everyone else in our modern world, we Christians have put too much stress on human doubts, strivings, misdeeds, questions, aspirations, and too little stress upon God.
 
In our Sunday worship, we incessantly chatter about human sin, human problems, human questions, human feelings. We tirelessly reiterate and catalog all the evidences of human frailty and falsehood. We tell people to get out there and start living right or thinking right or feeling right. We present the Christian faith as an achievement, a goal, an attainment of sincere and struggling sinners who are earnestly trying to get right with God. This all sounds reasonable in our self-help, achievement-oriented society. But it does not sound like Good News.
 
The Good News says that we do not need to “get right with God.” The gospel says we are right with God. We do not need to work to get anywhere. We have arrived. We are not miserable wretches inching our way into God’s good graces. We are royalty who already have assigned seats in the Kingdom — by God’s grace.

Question: This book suggests that baptism helps us to remember who we are. Who do you think you are?

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