Last Friday afternoon I got the chance to baptize my granddaughter. She’s just turning thirteen and this was her choice something she’s been talking about for the past few months. Just before I left for Europe she asked me if I would baptize her when I got back. Would I? My heart melted.
When I asked her why, she said, “I want to follow Jesus with all my heart.” I don’t do much baptizing these days, never did actually. Even back in the day when I was a pastor we always encouraged the one being baptized to ask the person that was most influential in his or her decision to follow Jesus, or one who has been most helpful on the early parts of their journey, to baptize them.
It was great! Even though that scared a lot of people to be asked we would always walk them through it and then they were thrilled to be a part of it. Lots of people experienced the joy of getting to baptize someone into this awesome journey. Many parents baptized their kids, and we never made a “service” out of it. We’d start with the baptism and what it meant and finish up with celebrating the Lord’s supper together. They were always parties on the lake, by a stream, or in a backyard pool. Friends and family would celebrate together and often share a meal after.
I hear a lot of people out-of-the-box people diss baptism as an old relic from a bygone era. They see it as an empty ritual and argue whether or not it is essential for salvation, since it isn’t a normal part of our culture. After all, the thief on the cross wasn’t baptized, they’ll say. I wouldn’t argue that baptism is essential, but I do think the Scriptures make clear it is preferable. Jesus set the example with his own and we know his followers we’re also baptized. The early church saw baptism as the means of entry into the kingdom of God, which is why the Ethiopian eunuch wanted Philip to baptize him immediately in Acts 8.
This is how it played out after Pentecost:
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acs 2: 37-42)
I don’t see baptism as a ritual, even though many seem to practice it that way. And even though some have abandoned it altogether for a “sinner’s prayer” and a get-out-of-hell free card, I see salvation not as the resolution of our destiny but as a door into an ever-deepening relationship with the Father through the work of the Son, by the power of the Spirit. As such baptism becomes a powerful event in yielding to the work of Jesus and being resurrected into a new adventure in his glory. (See Romans 6:1-14)
When the heart is convicted and people want to know him, Peter says we first repent, which means to abandon our agenda for our lives and embrace him and his agenda for us. Then he said be baptized “for the forgiveness of sins”. Does that mean sins aren’t forgiven without baptism? Of course not. But baptism is a cleansing of heart and soul, a washing away of the old life and opens the door to a new one.
Then, Peter says, you will receive the baptism of the Spirit. So there are two things going on here. First, a baptism of water to demonstrate on the outside the transition going on inside. Then, there is baptism of the Spirt, where we are connected to him and empowered to go on a different kind of journey learning how to know him and to follow him. So after baptizing someone one we always lay on hands and pray for the baptism of the Spirit, which will make them alive to his reality.
Will it make them perfect? Not even close. It’s the beginning of a journey, not the end of one.
Sharing that moment this weekend with my granddaughter was one of the most treasured memories of my life. Seeing her young faith and desire to follow Jesus touched me deeply and praying for the Spirit to fill her heart and guide her journey reminded me just how amazing this moment is.
If you’ve never been baptized, do it! Find someone influential in your journey and ask them to do it with you. Invite some friends over. You may feel a bit weird, especially if you’ve been a “believer” for awhile, but don’t leave out what this process does to mark the transition from the kingdom of darkness to the. kingdom of light. Don’t do it out of condemnation or fear, but when you know Jesus is the one you want to follow, remember this is how he began his journey, too. And ask him to baptize you with his Spirit as you do.
When Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven spoke, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” I always look for a dove and listen for a voice at baptism. I think Jesus got it that way because God needed people around him to know. But I do think God whispers the same thing in our hearts as well. Jesus wasn’t beloved and pleasing because he had maintained his perfection until 30. The words were not something he earned, but the expression of the heart of his Father for him as his Son.
Don’t we all need to start that way? I spent over 40 years of my life thinking that I had to earn my way to pleasing my Father. Now I know that he has always delighted in me, and been pleased with me as his son even when I’m lost in my own brokenness. Brokenness doesn’t make you less loved, if anything it makes us even more endearing to his heart.
That’s what Aimee needed to know on Friday, “This is my daughter, whom I love, with her I am well pleased.”
That we are loved and pleasing to Father is what we need to know most at the start of our journey, not think we have to earn it by its end. That’s why baptism is so important, not because it fulfills something God needs, but because it fulfills something in us that we desperately need to make sense of our growing life in him.