I was baptized on an Easter Sunday morning, in the midst of a beautiful service celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. By the first rays of morning light, we greeted each other with the familiar refrain, “He is risen!” and “He is risen indeed!” We sang the big, old Easter hymns. We heard the good news preached: that Jesus, who had died, the Son of God who took human flesh, had been raised by the power of God that overcomes even death. We were reminded that the God who raised Jesus had called and chosen us too, and had invited us to receive adoption into the family of God.
I made my way to the baptismal tank at the front of the sanctuary to be immersed, as was the custom in my home congregation. As I entered the water, two pastors there beckoned me forward. I took my place between them, looking out toward the smiling faces of a congregation that had nurtured me in faith and in life. Now they were promising to uphold me as a brother in the journey of Christian faithfulness that lay ahead. I affirmed before them that I believed in Jesus and was committed to following him. The pastors put their hands around my arms and my back, and in the name of the Triune God, they lowered me into the water. They buried me with Christ in those waters of baptism, and then they raised me up out of the water into the new resurrection life.
Through this death and rebirth, I was joined to the body of Christ, to the people around me who cheered and applauded as I stood dripping. And, I was joined to Christ’s body around the world. Once I had dried off and changed my clothes, I gathered with my brothers and sisters to receive the bread and the cup that welcomed me into a communion of saints stretching back for centuries.
Then and now
This is how I tell the story now. But I wouldn’t have told it this way at the time. Back then, my baptism was a bit of a disappointment. I had spent the years leading up to that day waiting for something—for what I couldn’t quite say. I felt that my faith was missing some level of depth, or passion, or sparkle, and I hoped that maybe baptism would make the difference.
My baptism Sunday came and went, and I didn’t feel any different. That “something” I was waiting for did not appear to come. For all the rich and wondrous New Testament descriptions of what happens in baptism, mine seemed to fall flat.
I’m sure I didn’t fully grasp that I was being baptized into the death of Christ, as the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans, and I can’t say I felt that I was being reborn into newness of life. Did I comprehend John’s words that the baptism of Jesus is baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire? I doubt it. Did I claim Peter’s description of my newfound calling to proclaim the mighty acts of God who called me out of darkness and into a marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9)? Not likely. Was I actually ready to embrace all those brothers and sisters to whom I was now joined in the body of Christ? Certainly not.
But here is what I ask myself now: Are any of those things less true because I didn’t understand exactly what was happening or feel my baptism’s full significance in that moment? Does my memory and experience of that baptism really exhaust its meaning for my ongoing life of faith?
It is easy to get worked up about our role in the baptism process: Am I ready to be baptized? Do I understand what it’s all about? Am I doing it for the right reasons?
It is certainly true that baptism requires something from us. We say “yes” to God, we receive the new life God offers, and we commit ourselves to living into this reality. But we can sometimes forget that that God is the primary actor in any baptism story.
A gift from God
Baptism is something God does—it is a gift. God says, “I have called you and chosen you, loved you from before you were even born. Whatever the story of your life, you are invited into the family of God as brothers and sisters to the living Christ. Let me mark you with the sign of this identity and seal you for the life I created you to live. Be cleansed in these waters and receive all that I have for you. I want you, and I will pursue you with tireless love.”
We may not understand what has happened in our baptism, but God does. And God will continue to be with us in the unfolding of this event through the rest of our lives.
Thinking about baptism, I feel torn. On the one hand, I want to say that baptism is not a big deal. It is a beginning to be celebrated, and we shouldn’t get ourselves too worked up with psychological analysis and religious anxiety. On the other hand, I want to say that there is no bigger deal than baptism. It’s a matter of death and new life, of truth and identity, of a God who has called and chosen us by grace.
Baptism has long been a central issue for the Mennonite church. Mennonites insist that the church is composed of disciples. We become members of the church by baptism once we have committed our lives to following Jesus and have said that “yes” to the new life God offers.
In our churches, baptism is generally preceded by a time of preparation or faith exploration. We expect that baptismal candidates will be mature enough to understand the commitment being made. But we also recognize that you never can know exactly what you’re getting yourself into when you say “yes” to God. Baptism is not for the perfect or for those who have it all figured out. Baptism is not a reward for living rightly or believing rightly. When we are baptized, we confess together with the father in Mark 9: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Baptism is the beginning, an entrance, a commitment, and a gift to be lived into. It is God’s promise of new life in spite of our shortcomings. It is an offering of grace that marks us with God’s delight in what God has made. In that sense baptism is not a big deal. It is just what we do when we hear God call our name.
At the same time, there is nothing more important than our baptism. This is a foundational moment for our identity, this death and rebirth into the peoplehood of God. This awesome gift proclaims our calling as God’s beloved children! It is a life-changing experience of affirmation. In the baptismal waters, God says to each of us, “You are my beloved child. I made you, and I love you.”
In this affirmation is also a reorientation, a turning. The old life is gone, left there in the water. Paul describes how this kind of death prepares us to live now in the newness of Christ’s resurrection. Nothing can be more important in life, no calling loftier, no grace more free, no turning more joyful. This is the work of God, to be received with gratitude and celebrated in praise.
A lifelong process
We all have our own baptism stories and experiences. Some of us will remember a decisive moment of renewal and commitment that continues to have power in our lives. For others, it may be a distant memory of childhood faith hardly connected to the present. Some were baptized as infants and don’t remember the water at all. And of course, many of us connected with the church have not been baptized. What do we make of these varied experiences?
These days, the baptism story that keeps coming back to me is that of the Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8. It is a little unconventional by our current standards: a spontaneous roadside ritual with limited preparation and no larger faith community involved. But the Spirit moves, the scriptures are opened, and the Ethiopian says, “Here’s some water. What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”
Evidently nothing. This makes sense to me, because a baptism is not over once the water has dried. We have to renew that baptism every day; it takes our whole lives to finish. It is a promise to be lived into, something to be explored and encountered and claimed through the rest of our days. No matter how or when it happens.
That’s why I tell the story of my baptism in the way that I do, in spite of how I felt at the time. The work that was begun in me then has not ceased shaping me and calling me. I may not have known all of what I was doing, but God did. Today I view my baptism with humility and gratitude. I remember my baptism and reclaim it daily, because its mark of grace is not finished with me yet.
Kevin Derksen is on the pastoral team at St. Jacobs (Ont.) Mennonite Church, and is a regional ministry associate with Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. This is adapted from a sermon he preached in 2011.
1. How much to do you remember about your own baptism and your feelings about it? Did you feel encouraged or even pressured to take that step? How much encouragement should we give to young people to consider baptism? What age do you consider too young for baptism?
2. Kevin Derksen writes that he didn’t feel different after his baptism saying, “That ‘something’ I was waiting for did not appear to come.” Do most of us have a similar experience?
3. Are you more inclined to say “baptism is not a big deal” or “there is no bigger deal than baptism”? In what ways is baptism a big deal and how not such a big deal? Has baptism lost its significance in the Mennonite Church? What do you think Derksen means by his comment that baptism “is a promise to be lived into”?
4. Derksen mentions the story of Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8. How would we respond if baptism happened beside the road with no larger faith community involved? Should baptism be more inclusive as John D. Rempel suggests (page 10)? How can we work to make baptism more meaningful for the people in our congregations?
—By Barb Draper