First Baptist Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin
First Baptist Church of
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1209 Main Street
La Crosse, WI
(608) 782-6553

A Drama in Three Acts (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:36-42; Matthew 28:16-20)

This morning we have already witnessed an enacted sermon in the Christian ordinance of Believer’s Baptism. Most everyone here today is aware that Baptists perform baptisms in ways that differ significantly from many churches: Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic just to name a few. I remember sitting at a joint worship service of theological schools and listening to the president of a nearby seminary speak. He began, in the fashion that many have been taught, by making a few jokes. As it happens, since he was among Baptists, he decided to joke about baptism, and the obvious differences. It was interesting that all his jokes centred around the amount of water that Baptists use, as over against many others. What he didn’t know, perhaps, was that we’d already heard all these jokes, and even a few more. Like, “Baptists are the only group that take 750 gallons of water to baptise, afterwards it takes two drops to keep home from church.” It is a common misconception that what is distinctive about us Baptists is the amount of water we use. Although Baptists practice immersion rather than sprinkling or affusion, this is not what is distinctive.

Worship that day took place inside Manning Memorial chapel at Acadia University, which is a beautiful and sacred space. It is interesting that, although the roots of Acadia University are Baptist, this building has absolutely no facility of any kind for baptism, whether baptistery or font. It is as if the architect was saying, “This thing divides Christians, and we don’t want even to consider it here in this ecumenical setting. Baptism can be as one old book’s title put it “The Water that Divides.” The fact remains, however, that virtually every Christian denomination or sect practices baptism of one form or another, and this may be a good time to think together about what it is we do when we baptise folk here.

Baptists (and some others) call baptism an ordinance because the practice was ordained or established by Jesus in the New Testament as a practice to be followed by disciples (see, e.g., the Gospel Lesson today). What we call “The Great Commission” is, in some ways, a program for the way in which the Church of Jesus Christ carries out its mandate to spread the Gospel while, at the same time, continuing as a community. One of the ways in which disciples are made is by baptising them in (or into) the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In other words, in this and other New Testament texts the Ordinance of Baptism comes from God in Christ through the power of the Spirit. Water baptism is a symbol of something that God has already accomplished. To use another metaphor for this, one might say that baptism by water is symbolic of baptism by God’s Holy Spirit. We look to passages such as the Old Testament Lesson in the prophecy of Joel for the basis for such a conviction. Joel said that in the future the day will come when God will pour out the divine Spirit upon all people. He goes on to be socially radical by saying that God’s Spirit will come upon people in a way so as to transcend all the narrow ways of thinking that seem to be important in human culture, such as gender, social class or age. When God’s Spirit is among God’s people the cultural boundaries that keep us separate don’t matter. We are truly one in the Spirit, and one in the LORD. In baptism, the call comes to the disciple to be visually and viscerally united with God. So, the call to baptism comes from God and, act one of the drama is the act of God.

Some of our British (and Canadian) Baptist cousins will call baptism a sacrament, although those of us in this country have tended to avoid this word because a sacrament seems to require some kind of automatic action of God apart from the faith of the recipient or believer, which all but a few Baptists and many others reject. In fact, although some denominations who use the term sacrament are convinced that baptism bestows the automatic gift of God’s saving grace upon the recipient, the word sacrament itself does not necessarily carry that meaning. The term sacrament is derived from the Latin sacramentum which was the oath of allegiance that a Roman soldier took upon induction into the army. In that sense, what we have witnessed today, and what we witness whenever we practice baptism is precisely a sacrament. It is the believer’s pledge or oath of allegiance to Christ, as a matter of a new direction in life.

I have used the term believer here several times. This term is crucial to the way in which Baptists (and some other Christians) view baptism. In Baptist churches we speak of Believer’s Baptism. I know the traditional nature of this term in Baptist life, but I want to say that by “believer,” I mean more than one who affirms certain doctrinal propositions about God, Jesus, the Bible, etc. As I use the word “believer” I mean one who is convinced that Jesus reveals the true and living way to God, and, at least as importantly, who has determined to follow Jesus’ way of life in the contemporary world. That we practice “Believer’s Baptism,” means that Baptists baptise those who are already Christian disciples. Viewed in one way baptism is that sacrament (oath of allegiance) that says, “Here I stand.” Now, whether we always like it or not, this doesn’t come in a cookie-cutter kind of experience, and so always when we’re children. Sometimes it does. Other times it comes, later on, and some of you have come to baptism that way. The important factor is not that we do it all at a uniform time. Quite the contrary, we are baptised only when we are convinced that it is time to say, “Here I stand, and I am ready to take this oath of allegiance now at this point in my pilgrimage.” There is no time more “right” than another. For the reason that we depend upon the decision of believers (in the sense I have I have used the word) to be baptised, Baptist churches do not grow as some others do by simply baptising their infants. So Baptists are, in every day, only one generation, or even one day, away from extinction.

It is really only at the point of what we witness by our baptism that its mode (or amount of water) becomes significant. In Romans 6, Paul wrote:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, 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. (Rom. 6:3-4)

Baptists believe that Paul’s picture of dying with Christ to the old way of life and rising with Christ to a new way of life is best pictured by being totally immersed in water and brought back up out of the water. Although the conviction that this is the most appropriate symbol to convey baptism’s significance is the most important reason we immerse, there are several other reasons that all boil down to a conviction that this was the way it was carried out in the New Testament, and if it “isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” I do want to underline, more important than the amount of water and what we do with it, is the principle that baptism is administered to those who, by their own decision, have already decided to be disciples of Jesus. Does the Spirit of God draw people to make this response to God? I believe so, but not in a way so as to remove the choice from us.

This is to say that the second act of the drama of baptism is the act of a person who has freely decided to respond to God’s ordaining call, and it is in that respect that the word sacrament (in the sense of an oath of allegiance) becomes full of meaning for us, and we ought not to fear its use. In baptism Christian disciples make a public witness that their lives are taking a new beginning and a new course.

So, baptism is an act of God and baptism is an act of an individual. Too often, this is where we Baptists leave it, especially in the U.S. where we fall easily into the trap of overwhelming individualism. There’s an gospel song that goes: “Now, it’s just Jesus and me, for each tomorrow.” That’s not true with baptism (or lots of other Christian stuff, as it turns out).

Baptism is also the act of the congregation, acting on behalf of the universal Church of Jesus Christ. One of the distinctives of the way in which American Baptists view local congregations that is different from many other types of Baptists, especially in the South, is that we view the local congregation, not as if it were the whole church, and so individual and independent, but as a representative of the whole Church of God, and a piece of that whole universal body of Christ that crosses both time and space. Each piece of the Great Church is, granted, unique, and so adequate to order its own affairs, but is also but a piece of the Great Church, and so incomplete without the others. Both are views of the church held by Baptists. The former view tends to suspicion of others and a kind of independency that needs no one else (or thinks so), even if it chooses to associate with others, if they’re judged “safe.” It often leads to a lack of cooperation, especially with those whose theological and practical convictions are different than our own. The latter view (which, as I say, still characterises most American Baptists, and is, certainly, our historic view) leads to ecumenical openness and cooperation both with those of like faith and order and those whose convictions are very different.

It is this view of the local congregation as a piece of, as representative of, the Great Church of Christ that makes it so important to say that the third act in the drama of baptism is an act of the church (in both the local and the universal sense). Sometimes people ask about baptism in private or in a small family service. We resist this when possible because Baptism is not an act that is carried out in private or in a vacuum. It is a public act carried out in the context of a local community of faith that represents the whole church. In a real sense, the minister only serves as the representative of the church as the administrator of baptism. Today I acted on your behalf, and represented each and every one of you in the baptistery with Jonathan and Tyler this morning.

I said a bit ago that baptism is a symbol of what God has already done. Baptists do not believe that the act of baptism is necessary for salvation. It pictures death to an old way and resurrection to a new way, carried out in the community of Christ, not simply one local community, but, as that local community is a piece of and representative of the whole Church of Jesus. People are baptised into the whole community of faith. We come back to our Old Testament Lesson from Joel. Where God reigns, and when God’s Spirit baptizes, people are united not divided. It teaches us unity in Christ.

So, baptism, as Baptists view it is a drama in three acts. It is the act of God who calls, it is the act of the individual who responds to that call, and it is the act of the Church into the context and life of which the person is baptised that affirms the call and the response.

As we, once again, have witnessed this enactment of God’s covenant giving love, let us renew our own oaths of allegiance to the God who is the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer, into whom we have been joined with two new pilgrims along the way.