Christ’s Own Forever

Baptism of Christ. Jesus is baptized in the Jo...

Baptism of Christ. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by John. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The wind from the east blows up against the sandstone escarpment causing dust devils to swirl over the ruins. The ruins, stone walls, are all that remains of a once bustling community where date trees grew and housed people waiting for the coming Messiah as they kept the ancient writings sacred. Daily, these people daily walked into pits of clear water. Now dry, tourist can step into those stone-lined pits called cisterns and try to imagine what it was like two-thousand years ago. The pits in the Judean wilderness near the Dead Sea were built for catching rare rain water were used to nurture the date palms but more importantly were also where the people who once inhabited this place washed away the guilt of sin. As others sharing the Hebrew tradition, these people, the Essenes of the Eastern Wilderness of Judea, believed that to stand in the presence of the living God in prayer and worship they must be washed clean by the scarce and holy water in the cisterns of Qumran.

Among other ruins unearthed and reminding us of past rituals of purification are similar cisterns in Jerusalem. These ancient cisterns are part of archaeological discoveries of the ancient City of David just below the walls of the old City. Also, archaeologists have identified these cisterns as purification pools used by the worshipper before entering the temple grounds on Mount Zion.

Ritual purification is found in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, specifically, in the Book of Numbers.[1] In the Hebrew tradition, cleansing in sacred water also can be found in other antique stories of Bible. For example, in the fifth chapter of the Book of Second Kings, the Syrian general Naaman is directed by the prophet Elisha to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River to cure a form of leprosy. Therefore, washing away sin by bathing in water provided a means to stand before God in a state of spiritual as well as physical cleanliness. Thus, when John-the-Baptist called for repentance on the banks of the Jordan, washing sins away by water before the Messiah appears did not seem unusual to the people, the sons of Abraham. In John’s view of the world, no one was without sin. Everyone, especially those who believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob failed to meet God’s high standards—both inwardly and outwardly. In fact, they could not claim they had any special status resulting from their heritage as sons of Abraham. John rebuked them and then declared God can make sons of Abraham out the very stones that lined the river’s banks.[2]

Jesus shows up seeking to be cleansed in that same ancient tradition. Possibly, in seeking this ritual cleansing he prepared himself to be the vessel of God’s Spirit. Maybe, Jesus wanted to declare his bond with humanity before he was declared to be God’s son. We do not know Jesus’ motive. Nevertheless, it is clear in the Gospel accounts that this was an unneeded gesture. John says of Jesus, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”[3] Then he states quite emphatically, “Jesus is the man!” That is, Jesus is the one you have all been waiting for and seeking.[4]

From this event the Church has established that being ritually washed with water spiritually and symbolically ties believers to Jesus profoundly. Jesus and the believer have stepped forward acknowledging their humanness and willingness to be cleansed in order to stand in the presence of God. Thus, we have the Sacrament of Baptism and the only requirement for admission into the Body of Christ—the Church.

Baptism is a strange word. Actually, it does not appear in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). In the Hebrew context, as mentioned earlier, immersion appears as a purification ritual called mikvah. In the Christian context, the word baptism is derived from a Greek word, baptismos, meaning to be washed.[5]

Today, people make all sorts of requirements concerning baptism. Candidates are to be immersed, water must be “living” (that is, not sitting motionless in some vessel), and so on. Further, we see the same problems concerning baptism as described in the Acts of the Apostles.[6] Someone other than the apostles was baptizing people in the name of Jesus. The apostles were certain that such baptisms did not have the charismata or gifts of the Holy Spirit in them.[7] Thus, it was essential that they go to the newly baptized and add more than the ritual of water purification solely in the Name of Jesus. The apostles deemed the invocation of the Holy Spirit at baptism had to be included in bringing converts to the new cause.

From this Scriptural story two ideas have arisen. The first is a traditional view that at baptism the candidate is anointed with charismal

oil, invoking God’s Holy Spirit and sealed by the sign of the Cross as Christ’s own forever. The second and controversial notion is that to be truly Christian one must be “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” A convert baptized with the laying on of hands experiences all the gifts of the Spirit[8] later identified by the Apostle Paul as including speaking in strange tongues, interpreting tongues, and prophecy. Further, those who believe in a theology of baptism of the Holy Spirit insist true followers of Jesus engage only in ecstatic worship.

Because there seems to be confusion concerning the nature of baptism, let me review with you what Episcopalians say about baptism.

In the Catechism[9] baptism is identified as the first of the two sacraments ordained by Christ—the other being the Holy Eucharist. Baptism is first described as Holy and then the Catechism instructs that baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts believers as his children and makes them members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God. The Catechism further instructs that baptism is by water, its outward and visible sign, in which the person is washed of sin in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And then the inward and spiritual grace of baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit. In baptism the believer renounces evil, seeks to enjoy the benefits of God’s Grace by believing Jesus is the Savior, and promises to uphold the dignity of all human beings. There is no apparent requirement that baptism should have an ecstatic or additional outcome. Infants are baptized so they will know from the beginning days of their lives that they are integral to the Body of Christ—the Church. Therefore, regardless of the age of the person being baptized—whether infant, child, or adult—or the form of baptism, as long it is with water and the Holy Trinity of God is invoked, the benefits of the grace of baptism adhere and the grace provided in baptism is life-long..[10]

Certainly, there are those who scoff at the idea of baptism, of ritual purification, thinking there is nothing beyond this present life on this present planet. That may be so. Faithful people live in hope and hope is an active concept of life. That hope is there is something greater than self and the immediate. Christian hope is that evil will be conquered, that humanity will share in the resurrected life with Jesus, and because all of humanity is made in the image of likeness of God, no one is denigrated and their spirits robbed from them by prejudicial hatred. Without hope there is no spiritual life in the present on any planet.

The Gospels tell of Jesus’ willingness to step into the water of the Jordan River and allow John-the-Baptist to cleanse him of sins he has not and will not commit. If Jesus can humble himself before John, those who wish to follow Jesus on the journey of life can do no less and in humility offer the same grace to all. If you have been baptized, think about your baptism and be grateful that someone loved you so much they wanted you to live in the grace of God. It does not matter whether you were immersed, someone poured water over you, or even if you did not feel the ecstatic joy of receiving God’s Holy Spirit. What matters is that someone loved you enough to take you to the font, the pool of water or to the river bank and then the baptizer used these words, and “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit.” Take joy in knowing that you were ritually purified and sealed with the sign of the cross and made “Christ’s own forever.”

[1] Numbers, Chapter 19 provides for ritual purification in water for converts, for people exposed to corpses, and other defilements.

[2] Matthew 3:9 and Luke 3:8.

[3] Matthew 3:11 — “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Luke 3:15-16 — As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. John 1:26-27  —  John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

[4] John 1:36.

[5] The early Christians are believed to have practice the rite of baptism by having the candidate stand naked in a pool of water and then washed by pouring water over the convert.

[6] Acts 8:14-17

[7] Acts of the Apostles 8:14-17.

[8] The Apostle Paul identifies the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Letter to the Romans and in the First Letter to the Corinthians. In Romans 12:6-8 the gifts are identified as prophecy, serving, teaching, exhortation, giving, and leadership. In 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 the gifts of the Holy Spirit list is lengthened and includes word of wisdom, word of knowledge, faith, gift of healings, miracles, prophecy, distinguishing  between spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. The Roman Catholic catechism lists the gifts of the Holy Spirit as wisdom, understanding, wonder and awe, right judgment, knowledge, courage, and reverence. Episcopalians make no direct reference to the gifts of the Spirit in their catechism other than to say that the Holy Spirit is the giver of life, the One who spoke through the prophets, and enables Christians to grow into the likeness of Christ as Christians are brought into harmony with God, with others, and with all creation.

[9] The Book of Common Prayer, page 845.

[10] Article XVI, Sin after Baptism, The Articles of Religion, The Book  of Common  Prayer, page 870.

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