Anyone who’s learned a foreign language knows there are some words that are difficult to translate well. In fact, sometimes a word is so hard to translate, that you don’t translate it. You just use that word and import along with it the meaning. That’s the case with the word “baptism.” When we see baptism—or one of its different forms—in the Bible, what we’re seeing is a transliterated word from Greek. That is to say, we’re seeing a word in English that instead of being translated, was just brought over from Greek, and instead of using the Greek alphabet, we use our own alphabet and substitute the corresponding Greek letters. B for β, A for α, P for π, and so on. But what does “baptism” mean in Greek?
Well, it’s come to mean everything we associate with it today, but in the first century and before, it didn’t necessarily have a theological meaning first and foremost. Baptism was simply a word for a kind of cleansing with water. It could be a simple cleansing like dumping water on something to wash it. Or it could be more involved, like completely immersing something and really scrubbing it to get it clean. But at its most fundamental level, baptism was about cleaning with water. It’s only because God chose to use baptism as the means of uniting himself with us through Jesus that the theological meaning took precedence almost to the point of exclusivity over its other meanings and connotations. Yet even in the theological sense, baptism has the sense of cleansing and everything that word can mean—purifying, clearing, purging, absolving, freeing. So keep this in mind today as we explore, yet again, what baptism means, and what difference it makes for us that we’re baptized disciples of Jesus—if it makes any difference at all.
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Some of you already know that one of my favorite ways to relax and unwind is to take a scalding hot bath. One of life’s luxuries is a bath—and different scented soaps. I love it. What’s even better is a hot tub. In fact, my first hot tub experience was a big event. My friend Lauren and I decided that we’d make a weekend of it and got a room with a hot tub at a hotel in center city Philadelphia. The hotel was just down the street from Lush, a store that sells all sorts of cosmetics, soaps, and most importantly, bath bombs. A bath bomb is a perfumed ball that dissolves in water and gives off bubbles and makes the water change color.
So we get a couple of bath bombs and head back to the hotel room. We start pumping the hot tub full of water, and then when it’s getting full, we get in. We plop the bath bombs in, and despite the very clear sign not to do so, enjoyed an adult beverage in the foaming, aromatic, dark blue water. While we sat in the water and relaxed, it seemed that life’s problems washed away…dissolved like the bath bombs whose scent filled the room. The churning water massaged my skin and made me feel comfortable. The warm water soothed me, made me feel good, feel pampered even. After a while, when I got out of the hot tub, I felt reinvigorated, restored, full of energy. I felt like a new person. No wonder—the water pumps for hot tubs were first invented by Candido Jacuzzi to help alleviate his son’s chronic rheumatoid arthritis pain. The hot tub started out as medical equipment to treat problems, to make things better, if you will. And it does do that…After that hot tub bath, I did feel better.
Baptism is the initiative sacrament of the Christian life. That’s a statement and a half, isn’t it? What’s that mean? Put another way, baptism is how new Christians are born. If an infant is birthed in delivery, we can say a Christian is birthed in baptism. In baptism, we get a new life—the life of a Christian. We get a new identity—the identity of a Christian. We become a new person.
A few moments ago, I told you that “in baptism our gracious heavenly Father frees us from sin and death by joining us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.” St. Paul reminds us today that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death,” and so since “we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When that water hits us and our name is spoken alongside God’s name, we are united with God through Christ, who like us was baptized for the sake of righteousness—for the sake of making right relationship with God. Some would say that baptism it is like the burial of Jesus. No—baptism is burial with Jesus, and what’s more baptism is resurrection with Jesus. “We have been buried with him by baptism into death,” Paul writes, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
This is a new life. One of freedom. Freedom from sin. And we know that sin is anything and everything that would pull us away, or stand in the way of right relationship with God. Baptism is a cleansing of that original blemish we carry upon us as a marker of children of the dirt, descendants of Adam. Baptism restores us to right relationship with God. Baptism reinvigorates us, gives us energy. It makes us Christians, holy people—sacred, set apart, different. In baptism, God declares to each of us, as he declares to Jesus at his baptism, “This is my daughter, this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Baptism washes away our old body of sin, cleanses us from all unrighteousness, and makes us right with God to lead new lives, free from fear of sin, death, and hell. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; and so as death no longer has dominion over him, death no longer has dominion over us, and we know that we are already raised from the dead to walk in the promise of eternal life…
Those of you who’ve been to the pool with kids know that that they love to jump in the water.
Carl Franklin is no exception. One of his favorite, if not his favorite thing to do when he goes swimming is to jump into the water. And it’s not enough to just jump in. He’s got to run, launch himself into the air, and scrunch himself into a ball before coming crashing down into the water with a huge splash. And after he’s jumped in and come back up for air, he dogpaddles over to the pool ladder, climbs out, and does it all over again. And again. And again. And again. The energy he has for jumping into the pool and getting back out only to do it again seems limitless. There’s nothing better than jumping into the water and going completely under, only to come back up again and do it all over again. You’d think he’d get tired of it, but no. On and on it goes.
Those of you with kids who love the water know what I’m talking about, right?
While we think of baptism as a once-and-done thing, something that happens and then we have a wonderful life as a Christian, free of problems, worries, anxieties, or suffering, it’s not that at all. Baptism most certainly ties us to Jesus, but being united with Jesus brings with it a new reality that is a lot deeper than we might first realize—like jumping into the deep end of the pool. Baptism, while it is a cleansing from sin and everything that would take us away from the abundant life that God wants for us, is really more like taking the plunge into life and everything that encompasses. When we speak of taking the plunge, we don’t always know what the outcome will be, but we accept that we’re in for whatever happens—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Too often we wrongly believe that life as a Christian is one without issues. That blessedness means no problems. Too often we think that when we become a Christian, when we get baptized, we’ll go about our lives refreshed and restored like we’ve just gotten out of a hot tub bath…Massaged and soothed and pampered in a life free from any sort of annoyance. Too many Christians think they’re doing something wrong if that’s not the case, that their lives aren’t full of “blessing.”
We know that’s not the case at all, though, because Jesus calls us blessed who are poor, who mourn, who are meek, who are hungry…Blessing looks different than popular wisdom would have us believe. Baptism is taking the plunge into life as a disciple of Jesus, someone who not only follows Jesus but intentionally and freely seeks to shape our life around his life by living with a constant, prayerful awareness of our closeness with God; by sharing all that we have because in the end it was shared first with us; by not merely relying on our own understanding, but instead seeking a deeper understanding of our own selves and the world God has made through regular, intentional wrestling with the Word, together with other Christians and alone with God; by living our lives not for ourselves but in loving devotion to others as Jesus lovingly devoted himself to serving us; and most of all, by not placing ourselves at the center of our lives, but rather making everything we do a living sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God.
This is the life of a disciple of Jesus. It’s the baptismal life. It’s a life that takes the plunge into God’s grace—not knowing just how deep it is, but believing that it’s sufficient for us. Baptism is something that we embrace over and over and over again. Daily we take the plunge into the cleansing waters of grace, and even when our energy seems like it’s running out because here we are, yet again, coming back up for a breath of fresh air, we know that it’s not our energy filling us, but God’s Holy Spirit who comes down from heaven and resting upon us and who goads us forward when we think we can’t.
God never promised us life as a disciple was easy. What God does promise us is that when we take the plunge, when we jump into life, we don’t do it alone. We jump united with God through Jesus, and we jump into the wonderfully-yet-unknowably deep grace of God, a grace that although we don’t fully understand it, is sufficient for whatever we face. We jump even when we don’t think we have the energy, filled with power from God through the Holy Spirit to keep on swimming, to extend compassion’s comfort when we don’t think we have any more to give. Baptism gives us newness of life, births us anew through water and the Spirit, and cleanses us from whatever would hold us back from taking the plunge into God’s fullness of life. We have been set free through the waters of baptism—free to live lives without fear and full of trust in God’s promise that we belong to him, that he loves us, and nothing will ever stand in the way of that love for us. So let’s take the plunge into God’s restorative, reinvigorating, resurrecting waters of grace and live into our baptism, over and over and over and over again…
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.