The father in Clarence Day’s “Life with Father” does not have much interest in religion or the church. His wife is concerned that he has never been baptized and keeps insisting that he be baptized. At one point in the story, he asks why she is so interested in his being baptized.
She replies that she is determined to get him into heaven some way.
He responds, “They won’t shut me out on a technicality.”
Is that what baptism is, just a technicality?
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what baptism is for many people.
Now, it’s easy to understand why there is so much confusion around baptism. As a friend put it, “Baptism is like a giant onion with many layers of meanings and traditions, interpretations and customs.”
And that confusion continues. A young mother called the minister regarding the baptism of her infant daughter. She stated that baptism was not all that important to her, but it was “the thing to do.” For this woman, baptism was a technicality.
I ask again, is that what baptism is? Just a technicality?
The church answers that baptism is a sacrament: “an outward and visible sign of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, through which we become partakers of His righteousness and heirs of life eternal.’”
First, baptism is essentially something God does. The Greek word for baptism means: “to dip, to immerse, to submerge, to saturate.” Baptism means being saturated by God’s grace and love.
There’s a delightful story about a first-grader who told her friend that she was adopted. “Adopted,” said the friend. “What is that?”
“Well, it means that I grew in my mother’s heart instead of her tummy.”
That’s it! Baptism shows the gracious heart of God — God’s graciousness in choosing us and saving us.
Through baptism, we have been chosen by God — claimed by God, adopted into God’s family, embraced by God’s love and accepted by God.
Second, baptism tells us who we are. It was at Jesus’ baptism that he discovered who he was. Jesus heard the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).
This raises an interesting question. Who tells us who we are? Do our parents tell us who we are? Our employer, our school, our peers, our friends, our political parties, our bank account, the government, the news media, those who differ?
Who tells us who we really are? If we allow others to tell us who we really are they will be only too happy to do so, and therein lies the concern.
An employer tells an employee that “we can’t use you anymore. Your job has been eliminated.” And the employee begins to doubt not only his or her ability but his or her worth.
As Bishop William Willimon put it, “When we ask in desperation, ‘Who in God’s name, am I?’ baptism has the water running down our face and words saying, ‘You are in a God’s name, royalty.’”
Third, baptism inaugurates our own ministry! In all the Gospels, including Luke’s, it is Jesus’ baptism that inaugurates his ministry. And, in reality, our ministry is not our ministry or even the church’s ministry. Our ministry is nothing less than a continuation of Jesus’ ministry.
Stating it another way, baptism is each believer’s commissioning to share in Christ’s work in the world.
So, is baptism just a technicality? Hardly.