The Christian life makes more sense when we understand our baptism. When we are frustrated that our dreams are taking longer than we want to come true, when life takes its detours, and when we disappoint others and ourselves, it will help us to remember that we are in the middle of a long baptismal cycle.
I have always loved the water. As a boy on family vacation, you could find me riding the waves of the ocean surf or splashing around the swimming pool. I remember distinctly one hotel pool where I discovered I could hold my breath for longer than I knew possible. I dove directly into the deep-end and, grabbing ahold of the ladder, I walked myself down to the depths of that abyss. With my feet touching the bottom tiles and my hands pressing upright against the lowest metal rung, I began to count (figuring I could last at least 2 minutes). When I counted up to 5 my lungs started to quiver. At 15, my brain began to panic. But I resisted the urge to let go and swim up. At the count of 25 I started seeing stars. I reduced my goal to 30 seconds. 28, 29, 30 and UP!!!! Up I surged like a bullet. At the surface I gasped after the salty air and replenished my body with oxygen.
It’s not for no reason why Jesus chose baptism as the initiation rite into his movement. If anything, baptism is the lifelong drowning of our sins. The German theologian Martin Luther said that baptism is a plunge beneath the purifying waters. Symbolically, we enter in and, yes, we come right back up. But really, says Luther, we won’t surface from those waters again until we are resurrected. In the meanwhile we stay beneath the flood and suffocate our pride, envy, lust, sloth, avarice, greed, and gluttony. For Luther, it was permissible to come up and take a breath, as long as you stayed in those waters. Don’t get out of the pool. And if you can, stay under until you see stars.
I wonder what it would have been like to be Jesus’s disciples when he walked resolutely to Jerusalem. “Can you be baptized with the baptism that I will be baptized with”, he asked. He was talking about his death. In Romans 6, Paul picks up this imagery and tells us pretty much the same: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Baptism is never only about God’s endorsement, or becoming part of God’s family. It is joining Jesus as he plunged beneath the earth and finding that in the tomb we are slowly changed into reflections of God’s love in the world. We become beloved lovers in the great baptismal process.
What does this mystery look like in practice? We can get at this by asking, along with the gospel writer Luke, what a beloved lover does:
- What excess goods do you have to give away (Luke 3.11)? Give them.
- In what ways are you temped by greed (Luke 3.12)? Be content.
- Are you content with their pay (Luke 3.13)? Be content.
- Do you resist the urge to justify yourself (Luke 4.3)? Don’t give in.
- Can you stay devoted to God in the face of the temptation to take power (Luke 4.7), and
- Have you learned not to test God (Luke 4.9)? Resist.
Perhaps something is not going “right” in your life today. If you are a Christian, I bet it is being affected, in some ways, by your baptism. In what ways might God be using your situation to transform your heart into love? What insights do you have about your baptismal spirituality? I’d love to hear your thoughts.