With our students entering their confirmation process today, we’ve spent some time emphasizing baptism in worship. It is our practice to claim God’s forever love for any person as soon as possible, meaning that parents often bring their infants and young children to be baptized long before those children are capable of speech, let alone independent decision-making. For those who were not baptized at such a young age, it is certainly our hope that they would come for baptism as soon as they are ready to publicly profess that they too believe in God’s forever love for them.
“Baptism is the act marking a transition from outside the Christian community to discipleship within it.” Whether it happens at the age of three months or the age of ninety, baptism is the rite of initiation into God’s claim of gracious, covenant love. With the youth beginning a process of confirmation, we see in them steps towards claiming these promises for themselves. It’s a way of saying, “Yes, this faith is for me too.” This is a significant journey for them, so I invite you to lift them up in prayer and to be a part of training them to be students – that is disciples – of Jesus.
In Jesus’ own baptism story, I see something similar going on. There are many meanings embedded in baptism. It is an act of welcome into the community. It is a cleansing from sin. It symbolizes a move from one way of living into a different way. Even John recognizes that Jesus does not need John’s baptism of repentance. John even protests, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Still, Jesus’ baptism is this turning point between one chapter of life and another. Jesus is moving from his private life into public ministry, and his baptism is a public affirmation of what is already true about Jesus. In a miraculous manner, John does what Jesus asks, and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. God speaks words that claim Jesus and proclaim to the world who he is. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” From those waters Jesus goes into the world to teach people a new way of living, to suffer and die for the world, and to be raised from the dead. Those who witnessed this baptism surely had no idea what would come of this Jesus, just as parents do not truly know what will come of their children in years following baptism.
If we were to share our own stories about our lives and how we became the people we are today, our stories would be focused on turning points – people, places, and events that drove us into each stage in life. Baptism or confirmation might be one of those for you. It might be the job you landed or the child you had. It might be where you live or a diagnosis that altered your life. Turning points happen regularly in life, and when they do, it’s how we respond to them that defines who we are becoming. Quite often, those responses are a mixture of faith and doubt.
Let me share a story of one of those turning points. “A week before Easter 1995, a fire ravaged Butler Chapel AME Church in Orangeburg, South Carolina.