In a story by Flannery O’Connor entitled “The River,” a little boy whose parents are alcoholics is taken by his babysitter to a baptism. When they get to the river where the service is being held, they see the fundamentalist preacher standing in the water. The preacher is saying:
Listen to what I got to say, you people! There ain’t but one river, and that’s the River of Life, made out of Jesus’ Blood. That’s the river you have to lay your pain in, in the River of Faith, the River of Life, in the River of Love…
Harry, the little boy, is fascinated by the preacher. Before he knows it, he is out in the water and the preacher has hold of him and says to him, “If I baptize you, you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?”
“Yes,” the boy says. The preacher plunges Harry’s head under the water and when he brings him up, the preacher says to him, “You count now. You didn’t even count before.”
There isn’t much similarity between that account of a baptism and the one we heard as our New Testament reading. In Luke’s account, the one baptized isn’t a little boy, but a full-grown man. Jesus is the one being baptized, although he isn’t the only one. The text says, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…”
The one doing the baptizing in the Gospel account is a man named John, and in some ways he resembles the preacher in the story by Flannery O’Connor. John is an arresting character; both his appearance and his words are remarkable. But as soon as Jesus is baptized, John’s presence is all but forgotten. The focus now is on the Holy Spirit descending from the open heavens in the form of a dove and on a voice that declares: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Who saw and heard this miraculous event? Well, the gospels themselves give different answers. Matthew and Mark indicate that Jesus himself saw and heard it. Luke implies that all who were present saw and heard it. Whatever the case, all the gospel writers clearly intended the baptism of Jesus to signify God’s approval of Jesus, God’s blessing upon him.
In a sense, the baptism of Jesus was his ordination. At the age of 30, Jesus sets forth on his ministry. Called by God to teach, preach, and heal, Jesus pursues that calling by announcing that the Kingdom of God is near at hand. The pursuit of his calling eventually brings him into conflict with the religious leaders who plot to destroy him. All this had its beginnings on that day of baptism.
What significance does baptism hold for us? Down through the centuries, baptism has symbolized the new life in Christ that comes to all who believe and follow him.
Baptism is, first of all, an individual matter. I am committing myself totally, without reservation, to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It’s like the words of a chorus we sometimes sing:
I have decided to follow Jesus,
I have decided to follow Jesus,
I have decided to follow Jesus,
No turning back, no turning back.
In baptism, I am pledging to learn more about who Jesus was and is, about his way of courage and compassion. I promise to model my own life after his. I do so, knowing that I will falter and fail in my resolve. I know I will need God’s forgiveness and grace. And each time I witness someone else being baptized, I am reminded of my own baptism, my decision to follow Jesus.
Baptism is not only an individual decision, it is an individual gift. Baptism is not just something I do; it is something that is done to me. I am given something that I could not achieve on my own…a new life. As the Apostle Paul put it, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
That preacher in the Flannery O’Connor story had it at least partially right. “You count now,” he said to the little boy named Harry. The preacher was wrong when he said Harry didn’t count before, but he was right that baptism was a way of giving the boy something he never had before…a sense of himself as a unique, loved child of God. That can never be done in a vague, generic sense. It can’t happen when I’m part of a large or even small group. It can happen only in an intensely intimate, specific, individual way. Baptism is all those things: intimate, specific, and individual. I go into the water by myself, at a particular place and time. I willingly give myself into the minister’s hands for baptism, and thereby signify my willingness to give myself wholly to Christ.
Baptism, then, is very much an individual matter. But that’s only part of it, because baptism also is very much a corporate matter. It is an initiation rite into the church, the body of Christ. That’s why when we baptize persons, the congregation is present. It’s why one of the vows at baptism asks for a pledge of loyalty to the church, whole-hearted support of its life and ministry. The church is like a family of sisters and brothers bound to each other in Jesus Christ, not a collection of individuals who happen to have similar opinions about religion.
To be baptized is to become part of a community of people who themselves have been baptized into Christ and who are, in a sense, stuck with each other. Just as you don’t get to choose who your flesh and blood brothers and sisters are, you also don’t get to pick who you want to have in the church family. Paul the Apostle said it this way:
For indeed we were all brought into one body by baptism, in the one Spirit, whether we are Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and that one Holy Spirit was poured out for all of us to drink (1 Corinthians 12:12-13 NEB).
Some time back, I came across an article by Mary Beth Danielson. She was recalling her own baptism in a lake years before. She remembered especially coming out of the water that day and seeing the group gathered there: her parents, grandparents, other family members and friends, all part of the country church she had grown up in. She said that some of those gathered that day have since died, some learned cynicism, some moved away, some left the church. But she says that seeing in her memory the people waiting for her to come out of the water symbolizes the treasure of her baptism. In her own words:
…baptism is not a sacrament administered in a closet. It is not a private, holy ceremony passed down from the pious to the pure in heart. It is about belonging to a church. It is about the strengths and failures of the ordinary and extraordinary people who make up that church. It is about being rooted and joined to real people in imperfect but real ways. (Mary Beth Danielson, “Total Immersion,” The Other Side, September/October, 1989, p. 40.)
So then, baptism is both an individual and a corporate matter. It is at least one more thing. It is a ministry matter. What do I mean by that? I mean that all persons, as they join the church through baptism, are called to minister to their neighbors in the world through their life and work. Just as in his baptism, Jesus was commissioned by God for his ministry, so in our baptism, we are commissioned for our ministry.
At a church I previously served, these words appeared in large letters on the church sign out at the street: “Pastor — Kenneth L. Gibble; Ministers — Every Member.” It was another way of expressing one of the fundamental beliefs of Protestantism, sometimes called “the priesthood of all believers.” That is, in baptism we are ordained into the priesthood. Ministry isn’t just something the paid pastors do; it’s something we all do. We are called to represent Jesus Christ in the world. By our lives, we testify to the love and goodness of God.
All this and more is what baptism signifies. In a sense, we keep learning about the rich meaning of our baptism throughout our lives. Just as the boy in the story by Flannery O’Connor understood only a little of what his baptism in the river meant, so you and I, whether we be baptized as youth or as adults, begin with meager understanding. But that’s all right, because baptism is a beginning. The journey begins as we gather at the river. Today the water stands in a baptistry, but it’s a river nonetheless, a river that stretches all the way back to that real river of Jordan. It’s the river of life. It’s the start of our journey with sisters and brothers of faith, a journey that will take us only God knows where.
Only God knows, and only God will be there with us, utterly dependable and faithful every step of the way. To God all praise and glory.

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