Scripture text: Galatians 3:27-28
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
In many American churches today, like the one I serve, baptism has become something of a defanged sacrament. We perform it most often on babies. And so a congregation tends to coo like the baby itself, as people in the pew admire the little child in its white gown.
This experience of baptism makes it hard for us to appreciate what a serious, indeed often a disturbing and revolutionary act baptism was in the early church, like the churches in Galatia to whom the apostle Paul wrote the words quoted above.
Baptism was that decisive moment when a person made the transition from an identity as a pagan or Jew to an identity as a Christian. Up until that moment, a person might believe deeply in the doctrines of Christianity, one might practice its morals, one might attend church services regularly, but in the eyes of both pagans and Christians one was not yet a Christian.
That changed, however, once a person had been immersed in the waters of Christian baptism. In the eyes of both non-Christians and Christians, one was now a Christian. One had adopted a Christian identity. Paul puts it in the figurative language that now one was clothed with (or had put on) Christ.
This meant baptism was an existentially weighty act. One has to understand that to understand a strange incident that St. Augustine reports in his Confessions.
In Book 8 he tells the story of a Roman philosopher named Victorinus who became convinced of the truth of Christianity. His friend Simplicianus urged him to complete his Christian conversion by coming into the church through baptism. Victorinus saw no need to take this step and argued his position with the question, “Is it then walls that make a Christian?”
Baptism incorporated a person into the community of faith, which was the church. (And in Augustine’s time, Christian congregations were constructing church buildings as their gathering places.) So in the eyes of the church, one did not become a Christian until one did indeed come within the “walls” of the church through baptism.
Victorinus understood being a Christian as believing certain doctrines. Simplicianus, along with Augustine and orthodox Christianity, understood being a Christian as something existentially deeper. It was nothing less than a spiritual union with Christ effected through the sacrament of baptism. That union had psychological and social dimensions to it in addition to intellectual and spiritual ones.
Baptism represented a new beginning for a person. This was expressed in the very act of baptism. In many churches of that early era, when one was baptized, one stripped off one’s street clothes, stepped into a pool of water naked, and was immersed in the water. When one emerged, one was then clothed in a new (often white) garment and led into the church’s congregation for one’s first participation in the Eucharist.
My wife Ginny and I saw a clear example of one of these baptismal pools in the ruins of the Basilica of St. John in Ephesus during our recent trip to Turkey. I include a photo.
In the act of baptism, one also renounced sin, evil, and the devil, and proclaimed one’s trust in Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior.
As a result of all this spiritual weight associated with baptism, one could truly speak of baptism as a spiritual washing, a new birth, a death and resurrection, an act of new creation, and also a Christian participation in a spiritual crossing of the Red Sea and an entrance into the heavenly Promised Land.
Baptism was therefore not something to regard lightly or take on lightly. It was serious business. And it signaled that one was entering into a spiritual journey that could be profoundly transforming.
One aspect of that transformation for the apostle Paul is expressed in the Galatians passage I quoted above. Baptism for Paul effected a union between the believer and Christ. And as a result of that union, deep and long socially sanctioned social divisions were relativized. What was now primary was our oneness in Christ. The divisions of Gentile and Jew, of slave and free, of men and women could no longer be primary in the way Christians lived.
That this was revolutionary stuff is shown by the inability of most Christians through the ages to relativize these distinctions. Witness our long Christian history of anti-Semitism, racism, upholding of slavery, and gender discrimination. We still want to tame and defang the power of baptism. It can be too toxic for our comfort.
So when I counsel parents who ask me to baptize their child, I am beginning to feel I ought to say to them, “Beware of what you’re doing. It may turn your and your child’s life upside down.”