Summary: Why do churches practise Baptism? From where does it come?
Eighteen months after Leni and I were married we went on a bit of a world tour. We visited places that were important in our development as people. Leni took me to Greece, to see the places where we parents came from. I took Leni to South Africa, where my mother was from and the place where I started doing my training for ministry.
One the thing that we saw in South Africa was a number of small tents in fields around various suburbs, particularly around the ‘shanty towns’, the squatter areas. We were told that inside these tents were black adolescent males. They were going through a rite of passage. They were becoming male adults in their society. I will spare the details about it, but they were going through pain and being on their own for a while. It was the process by which they became recognised as adults in their society. Going through this rite of passage can significantly influence the way a person relates to others in the society. Not because of any major change in the person, but because of what that means within their society.
For us today we have various rites of passage. I wonder what rites of passage you went through and why it symbolised and why it was important for you. Sometimes we go through rites where some don’t feel a great emotion about the event. Others going through the same rite will feel a great deal. For example in the movie ‘The Castle’, Dad Kerrigan describes to a man his has just meet how proud his was when his daughter graduated from technical college. For him, it was the first person in his family to graduate from tertiary education. He felt a great deal of emotion about it. In this situation going through the rite of passage gave cause for a feeling that hadn’t been felt before, at least in such intensity. In the movie he is describing this to a QC who has a string of degrees but nonetheless can relate to the sense of pride in a child doing well.
Today I am going to look at the Christian concept of Baptism. What is it all about? We are going to look at something of what we as a church believe about baptism and why we believe it. But before we do that I want to start, as I often do, by exploring how the process developed in Judaism.
In the earliest conversions to Judaism we don’t see much of a ‘ritual’, or a ‘rite of passage’ involved in becoming a Jew. However we do see the idea of circumcision being important in becoming a person of Israel right from the beginning. Moses’ male children needed to be circumcised before they could become part of Israel.
However there is one ritual that no doubt was incorporated into the process and developed over time. In the Old Testament laws those not of Israel are unclean people. They are ceremonially unclean. Before you can become a member of the community you need to become ceremonially clean. This involves sacrifices but it also includes washing. Leviticus 15 contains some of the information about how one becomes clean again. It involves bathing.
By the time we come to John the Baptist it seems that this has become quite a formalised process. Although there isn’t any Jewish literature documenting the process before John the Baptist, it seems from the gospel accounts that people knew what was going on. Certainly later there was a formal ‘baptism’ for people becoming Jews, which is about becoming ritually, clean and therefore part of the community.
I think that people knew that when people went out to John the Baptist, these people though that he was dealing with baptising people into the community of the people of Israel. We earlier read in Mat 3:9 that John’s dispute with the Pharisees was about being children of Abraham, or members of the community of Israel, God’s people. In going out they knew they were going for a special spiritual experience and so prepared themselves for going through this rite-of-passage.
So what was the message of John the Baptist? It was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What was the baptism? It was about being made clean in God’s sight and therefore being part of the community of God’s people. John was saying that you don’t belong to the people of God because you were born into the people of God, but by repentance and acknowledging your sins before God.
The rite associated with that entry into the people of God was being washed clean from sins, being washed pure of anything that would make us unacceptable, or unclean, in God’s sight. In Luke’s gospel (3:10-14) we see the ethical side of that, the things that we should do in order to show that we are real in our repentance. It isn’t just about saying the thing, or going through the ritual, but it is about going through a rite of passage that is meaningful to our lives and followed by a change of lifestyle, which shows that the people were real in their repentance.