The sign of Baptism

I gave this message in 2016. Article 11 of the confession of faith in a Mennonite perspective.

Starting with Baptism we have 3 articles that deal with Christian faith practices: Baptism, the Lord’s supper, and foot washing. How Mennonites view baptism forms a key distinguishing feature of the Mennonite faith tradition.

Menno Simons belonged to a movement of leaders in the Catholic church that had rejected some of the traditions of the Catholic church. Among the traditions that this new movement rejected was the tradition of infant baptism. Not only did they not baptize their babies anymore, but they recognized that their baptism as babies was not good enough because it wasn’t a choice they made and so they re-baptized each other as adults. Their movement quickly became known as Anabaptists, which means re-baptizers.

I was in elementary school when I became aware of a problem between the Mennonite Church and Mennonite Brethern Church in Winnipeg. It seemed there was a dispute over how the church’s performed baptism. Mennonite Brethern insisted that it needed to be full immersion, while the Mennonites said that pouring or sprinkling would suffice. It seems a little ironic that a bunch of Anabaptists would get into an argument over baptism considering our distant history. Maybe they took the irony to heart because the issue seemed to have disappeared by the time I reached my mid-teens.

The topic of baptism is central to being Christian and it is often the center of debate and controversy. The very first argument about baptism was between John the Baptist and Jesus. John told Jesus that Jesus should baptize him, but Jesus said no. Jesus won that argument. And later, there was a baptism contest between John’s disciples and Jesus’ disciples, but Jesus diffused that problem by returning to Galilee.

How we view and practice baptism is important because we can do baptisms wrong. Here is how our confession starts to describe baptism:

Article 11, paragraph 1 of our confession of faith: We believe that the baptism of believers with water is a sign of their cleansing from sin. Baptism is also a pledge before the church of their covenant with God to walk in the way of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Believers are baptized into Christ and his body by the Spirit, water, and blood.

Many of us are taught that baptism is a symbol, but our confession says that it is not a symbol, it is a sign. In scripture, signs come both from God and from people. For example, when the Israelites came out of slavery in Egypt, their worshiping at the Mountain where God spoke to Moses, was a sign that God sent Moses. Baptism was the sign to John the Baptist that revealed the truth of Jesus being the Christ when he was anointed by the Holy Spirit.

Baptism has three parts: the Holy Spirit which is God’s presence within us, Water which is our cleansing from sin and blood which is our death with Jesus and resurrection in Jesus’ new life.

Baptism by the Spirit

This is a picture of the Amish school house in Nickel Mines where Charles Carl Roberts killed 5 Amish school girls. The school is gone. There are a lot of significant parts to what happened at Nickel Mines, but forgiveness for the deaths of the children got international attention. Forgiveness is not the standard human response to violence like this.

Article 11, paragraph 2: Baptism is a testimony to God’s gift of the Holy Spirit and the continuing work of the Spirit in the lives of believers. Through the Spirit we repent and turn toward God in faith. The baptism of the Holy Spirit enables believers to walk in newness of life, to live in community with Christ and the church, to offer Christ’s healing and forgiveness to those in need, to witness boldly to the good news of Christ, and to hope in the sharing of Christ’s future glory.

As Paul says in Ephesians 1, the Holy Spirit is the deposit guaranteeing our inheritance. It is clear that the coming of the Holy Spirit, revealed in Baptism, is the more important part of baptism.

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Matthew 3:11 NIV

When does the Holy Spirit enter your life? Does it come at baptism? Or before? Or after? In scripture, the Spirit comes on his timing. In one case, people are baptized, but do not yet have the Spirit until they are prayed for and have the hands of disciples laid on them. Cornelius received the Holy Spirit before baptism without the laying on of hands.

It is the Holy Spirit that enables us to live obediently to Jesus’ teachings. How can you tell the Holy Spirit is working in your life? Easy. The fruit of the Spirit will be evidence in your life. Is there someone that hurt you and you refuse to forgive them? Then you are resisting the Holy Spirit.

Baptism by water

In his baptism, Jesus is revealed as the Christ and so Satan goes to tempt this newly revealed target in the wilderness.

What happens during baptism? Is baptism by water just another reason to have a worship service Or is there something deeper happening?

Article 11, paragraph 3: Baptism by water is a sign that a person has repented, received forgiveness, renounced evil, and died to sin, through the grace of God in Christ Jesus. Thus cleansed, believers are incorporated into Christ’s body on earth, the church. Baptism by water is also a pledge to serve Christ and to minister as a member of his body according to the gifts given to each one. Jesus himself requested water baptism at the beginning of his ministry and sent his followers to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is done in obedience to Jesus’ command and as a public commitment to identify with Jesus Christ, not only in his baptism by water, but in his life in the Spirit and in his death in suffering love.

When we gather as a community to be a witness to a sign between God and people, it is significant and it’s a power that rests in the foundations of who we are. Baptism by water is a sign that reveals the truth for all to see of who we have become in Jesus Christ.

Baptism by death into life

Many of the first Anabaptists were put to death for not staying with the Catholic church. Some were drowned, like Maria van Monjou. Drowning was often called the martyr’s third baptism.

Article 11, paragraph 4: The baptism of blood, or baptism of suffering, is the offering of one’s life, even to death. Jesus understood the giving of his life through the shedding of his blood for others as a baptism. He also spoke about his disciples’ suffering and death as a baptism. Those who accept water baptism commit themselves to follow Jesus in giving their lives for others, in loving their enemies, and in renouncing violence, even when it means their own suffering or death.

Where baptism by water is the cleansing of our past and the baptism of the Spirit is the gift we enjoy now, the baptism of blood is our future destiny. Baptism means suffering. Jesus always reminded his disciples that life following him would be hard. In Mark 10, James and John ask Jesus for a favor:

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with”

Mark 10:36-39 NIV

Jesus is blunt: They do not know yet the suffering that they are committing to, but he also knows that they will commit to suffering because they love him more and believe that he has the power to save.

During the protestant reformation, when the Mennonite church started, there were groups of revolutionaries that became violent and believed that only a violent revolution would cleanse the church and make it pure. Many Anabaptists including Mennonites believed that violence was not the answer because even Jesus, when faced with the choice to call down angels to defend him or go to his death on a cross, chose death. It isn’t in killing that we have life, but in our resurrection from death. And so Mennonites choose suffering and death over violence.

This strong position against violence and willingness to suffer is one of the teachings the distinguishes Mennonites from other Christian denominations. Many Mennonites struggle with this teaching and it has always been a struggle. So we are left with Jesus’ question: Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?

Believer’s baptism

There are many denominations that practice infant baptism, including Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans and more. They do have theological justifications for the practice that has a basis in scripture and tradition. Mennonites believe that baptism needs to be a free choice that can only happen when you’re old enough to make the choice.

Article 11, paragraph 5: Christian baptism is for those who confess their sins, repent, accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and commit themselves to follow Christ in obedience as members of his body, both giving and receiving care and counsel in the church. Baptism is for those who are of the age of accountability and who freely request baptism on the basis of their response to Jesus Christ in faith.

At what age can one be baptized? Our confession doesn’t tell us how old someone should be except to say at least the age of accountability. How do we invite people to be baptized? Our confession states to only baptize those who freely request baptism.

Baptism within the Mennonite Church has had a rocky past. It wasn’t too long ago when the church wouldn’t conduct a marriage unless the couple was baptized. There were also other social expectations that put subtle pressure on young people to become baptized. In the church I grew up in, for many years, baptism candidates would give their testimony and then be put in a room while the congregation discussed the sincerity of the candidates convictions. I remember hearing at least one account where a person was denied baptism after giving his testimony because other witnesses gave testimony of an unchanged attitude in his life.

There are ways to do baptism wrong and it is bad news when we do it wrong. It is difficult to make clear cut rules about baptism because that could tempt us to ignore what the Holy Spirit is doing. While it is good to understand what baptism means before being baptized, we never fully know what the cost of following Jesus will be until we follow, just like Jesus told James and John that they really didn’t know what they were asking for.

When you give your life to following Jesus, there is a peace you have when you let the Holy Spirit have his way in your life. When you choose Jesus, you are saying you love Jesus more than all the good things in your life. Can you say “Yes” when Jesus asks you “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”. If you can, then you are invited to the celebration, the sign of baptism, the baptism by Spirit, water and blood.

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