Is it a worthwhile question?
The question why does baptism still matter? is not one I ask because I am especially skeptical or cynical (although these are defining character traits for my millennial generation).
I ask because a friend asked me to baptize him this weekend.
In doing our best to prepare for this oddly beautiful and beautifully odd ritual, we have met together regularly and begged the question, why does baptism still matter?
We beg the question because we want to be faithful in observing it – not just rush into what we have come to feel is a sacred responsibility.
After all, unless one takes time to stop and think about baptism, it’s not likely to come up in casual conversation, at least not very often.
If you’re reading this, however, and want to step back farther and ask not why but does baptism matter at all?, then let’s make room for that question too.
No gimmicks, no magic, no bait-and-switch routines
Sacraments like baptism, the Eucharist, and so forth mean a lot of things – even next to nothing – to a lot of people.
Whenever someone intends them to be divisive, harmful, or manipulative, they cease to be sacramental in the first place.
To help me keep in mind what sacraments are actually good for, I tend to prefer the phrase “means of grace.” It’s a phrase I have learned from studying John Wesley (1703-1791) to refer to both the formally recognizable ‘sacraments’ and moments one could describe as ‘sacramental’ (i.e., a symbolic encounter with God).
Wesley offers some helpful advice for keeping such moments in perspective:
[B]efore you use any means of grace let it be deeply impressed on your soul: There is no power in this. It is in itself a poor, dead, empty thing: separate from God, it is a dry leaf, a shadow. Neither is there any merit in my using this, nothing intrinsically pleasing to God, nothing whereby I deserve any favour at God’s hands, not a drop of water to cool my tongue. But because God bids, therefore I do; because God directs me to wait
in this way, therefore here I wait for God’s free mercy, whereof cometh my salvation.
So what do I mean?
We can’t label just anything a “means of grace” to make ourselves feel better.
Instead, some moment, some activity, some ritual, any encounter is a “means of grace” because we come to recognize God intending for it to be so.
Like God’s grace and mercy, sacraments are shared. The Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper is called “Communion” for a reason. As one of my seminary professors puts it, “You cannot baptize yourself and you cannot commune alone.”
Sharing more than just stuff
Once someone is baptized, memory is all any of us has.
Where my memory begins
I personally recall that cold, snowy Sunday morning in Springboro, Pennsylvania when I stood in front of my local church family and my then pastor – my father.
I was 17. I had already been serving the church as a locally licensed minister for two years. Baptism was something that I had put off for far too long, and I was not about to wait for the spring thaw or a more picturesque setting.
I remember how, for lack of means to immerse me in water that day (and my father would have relished any excuse to hold me under water), or even a decanter from which to pour, my father filled a tarnished and dented bowl, and anointed its contents with oil. Then he dipped his strong, large, familiar fingers into the water and wrung them through my greasy, teenage hair while praying God’s blessing over me.
Then we went on with the rest of the morning service.
It was plain. It was simple. It was beautiful.
Memories are about more than past events
Sharing our baptism becomes a means through which God graciously maintains the new covenant through Jesus of Nazareth, who also seemed to think baptism was a pretty good idea.
Whenever someone is baptized, our memories shape us again.
H. Orton Wiley (1877-1961) rightly calls baptism “a perpetual ceremony to which God’s people may ever appeal.”2
Memory itself becomes sacramental.
Stories and memories of baptism allow communities of faith to establish and maintain the new covenant’s gracious permanence.
More than a formality
The formality of baptism is formative. Both understanding and experience affect and effect each other.
To be clear, baptism becomes the occasion and means of grace whereby believers come to understand their experience and surely come to experience their understanding of God’s work.3
Baptism is defined and redefined each time we share in it together.
Even a formality like, say, this blog post, is formative – for reader and author – as our assurance and acceptance through God’s means and gift of baptism.
I am not about to assume anyone who reads this is already baptized.
Baptized or not – Christian or not – the sacrament of baptism is hardly one I would demand as a requisite for belief that God accepts any of us.
It is, however, a priceless heirloom for that means of grace which Wesley calls ‘holy conversation.’
If you are a Christian, then you should be baptized. Don’t miss out on the lifetimes of memories in the making. Baptism still matters because memory matters. All baptisms are worth remembering.
If you are of a different faith tradition, then baptism is still a worthwhile conversation topic. The whole of the Christian faith both at its worst and at its best is tied up in sacraments like this one. Please, don’t let me keep you at arms length because of my faith observances.
Baptism is a great conversation starter
Reflecting together on our individual histories allows all of us to recognize each other in ways we may not otherwise be so willing.
If one of us, say, struggles to accept either rebaptism or infant baptism as legitimate, then we need not struggle alone.
Or, say one of us resists an adult-conversion-and-immersion-only stance as somehow unfaithful to the diversity of the international and historic Church, then sharing our stories can keep us from resisting each other.
Each of us who has been baptized shares something: it happened, and someone else baptized us.
Because someone else baptized us, none of us can hold our being baptized against someone who has not been. We are all in this together.
Sharing in the memory of these moments of baptism can both serve to confirm our faith – even in spite of our differences – and to (re)form our beliefs and practices.
Those baptized when they were too young to remember it have the unique and blessed gift of dependence upon others to pass down their memories to them. Likewise, those who are no longer able to remember their baptism (as with those experiencing dementia) belong to those of us in their legacy.4 Each of our baptisms belongs to the Church of the ages.
Where our memories begin
Being conscientious does not affect grace; but grace can help us to become more conscientious in our receipt of it. This is something for which to pray.
Memory is sacred, and our baptism in Christ is perpetual and permanent.
I realize I’ve shared a lot of strong thoughts, but please don’t mistake them for definitive answers.
I’m fairly certain, however, that baptism will always matter. That is, I can’t imagine the practice of baptism will fall out of fashion anytime soon.
As long as people are being baptized I believe we must persistently beg the question why does baptism still matter?
- 1. John Wesley, “The Means of Grace” (1746), § V.4, full text available via Wesley Center Online.
- 2. H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill, 1943), III:176; edited for emphasis; full text available via Wesley Center Online.
- 3. I take my cue for how “experience is given form by understanding” from H. Ray Dunning, Grace, Faith, and Holiness: A Wesleyan Systematic Theology (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill, 1988), 550.
- 4. For more on faith which includes those experiencing dementia, see John Swinton, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdmans, 2012).