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Icon: John the Baptist

To wash ceremonially in ancient Jewish times was to participate in a mikveh (or mikvah). For rituals, particularly washing from impurity, required “living” or flowing water such as a river or mikvot (the mikveh place) fed by a natural spring. It constituted the washing away of the old impurities and to mark the beginning of the new.

Matthew 3:1-2,
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” . . .  “I baptize you with [or in] 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 [or in] the Holy Spirit and fire.

John the Baptist treated sin as the greatest impurity of all and called everyone who wanted a new start to celebrate a mikveh with him, right there in the desert, in the river Jordan. While priests, via the regulations in the Torah and other rabbinical writings, performed the mikveh for a variety of circumstances (after sexual relations for men, a menstrual cycle for women, after the birth of a child, upon declaring someone healed of a skin disease or leprosy, prior to Yom Kippur, and so forth), this may have been the first time that a mikveh was performed without a traditional priest.

John’s message was clear: prepare the way (prepare yourselves) for the coming Messiah. Release the old and make room for the new.

The water submersion was a ritual meant to mark a moment in time. And yet, John promised another moment, a time that would be marked by something more permanent than water: the Holy Spirit and Fire.

The baptism of the Holy Spirit came after Jesus’s resurrection, the gift was given (and promised) to all believers — the in-dwelling of God [Acts 2]. This in-dwelling changed everything and everyone. We tend to minimize this deeply motivating presence today.

There is so much “Jesus Junk” (Tchotchkes) and pat phrases like “Jesus loves you brother.” But it’s more than that. It’s not just that Jesus loves you; it’s that Jesus is you [Philippians 1:21]. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one. And once Jesus has been invited to occupy us, then the process of true sanctification begins, fusing me and the Christ. And with sanctification, unnecessary elements must, like chaff, be cast away and in some cases, burned away through experience, pain, persistence of motion, and repetition. We are all intended to “get it.”

The occupy movement from Wall Street to Washington, D.C., has nothing on the potential power and change that comes from the occupation of a human being by the Holy Spirit. This is the most authentic change of all.

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Water baptism is controversial among various denominations, from dunking to sprinkling, from adults to infants, required or not required, and so on. But, according to Peter, it can be symbolic, it can be a moment in time when the person says, “Yes, from this day forth . . . ”

I Peter 1:21a
. . . and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.

I suppose then, if parents want to mark a day for their babies (at Christenings and dedications and such), is that a bad thing? Does the infant have an unclear conscience, not really. Is the day meaningful for the child, no. But it can be important for the parents on behalf of the child and whatever has gone before that child’s birth. Perhaps they need to mark a moment in time to let go of former circumstances or negative thoughts about the child, this bundle of life that has changed their lives forever. Perhaps they need to make a pledge that day, to move forward and not look back. I like the idea although I doubt it’s a concept shared with young parents. Wish it were.

Now, as to adults and baptism . . .

When I made the decision, some thirty years ago, to become a follower of Christ, I was “all in” except for the church thing. It took me several months before I could go through any of those motions or rituals. My childhood experiences with people of the church and its liturgies had been discouraging. Eventually, I did attend a church in Manhattan, an anachronism to say the least (beehive hairdo’s, long black dresses on the women, knee thumping gospel, etc.). But after some weekly exposure to the Pentecostal teaching, I was drawn to being water baptized as an adult.

Even then, with little understanding of Christian norms, I knew it was a symbol; it was a personal gesture; it was an act of submission to God; it was an agreement between us; it was my pledge to let go of everything that had gone before and to move forward with God and Christ. It was a “yes.”

Do I believe I could be a Christ follower without the dunking pool? I do. Did it seem odd and a little ridiculous at the time? It did. Was I self-conscious of its process? I was.

But I am not sorry I did it. And in a way, I’m thinking water baptism should be considered as an act that can be done more often, much like communion, as an expression of intent, an agreement, a promise.

This, too, then is a “start-over.” It makes a lot more sense when we re-examine the baptisms that John the Baptist ran before Jesus had even started his ministry. It was a gesture of hope back then too.

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I understand there are tons of people who argue endlessly about the need for water baptism, the type of baptism, and the reasons for baptism. All I know, there is significant symbolism in the coming out of the water with intended resurrection. It’s a powerful image. I remember my baptism clearly.

I Corinthians 15:29
Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?

I was still in my first year of faith in New York City. I continued to resist all trappings of Christianity. I feared, above all, that I would lose all of my former friends and somehow become a “geek.” I definitely didn’t want to attend a church. Finally, my friend convinced me to at least “try” his church on 62nd Street that had a 3:30 pm service. That sounded humane.

But nothing could have prepared me for one of the most bizarre experiences ever (in that point of my faith walk). I had never seen Pentecostals in action, from the beehive hairdo’s (late 70’s) to the full orchestra playing hand-clapping hymns to the manifestation of the “gifts” like tongues and the plentiful “Praise the Lord’s.” You would think I would have turned around and left immediately. But it was just so different from anything I had ever known. I became intrigued and mesmerized. And then the pastor, who seemed about 100 years old then, but of course, he couldn’t of have been since he was there some twenty years later. He had an amazing gift for bringing the scripture to life and, in the end, I stayed to learn from him.

In addition to the afternoon service, I discovered the church actually had three separate services on Sunday and a service every night of the week. That’s right, EVERY night except Monday. There were no duplicate services either and generally, the assumption was that everyone would attend. This was their life. The weekday services were usually led by evangelists or missionaries from around the world. And somehow, after a few months, and the determination of my friend, I agreed to be baptized by one of the upcoming evangelists one weekday evening when they were holding baptisms.

It turned out that the man was from the south and I almost died when I saw him–like walking out from the pages of Elmer Gantry, he had long yellow white hair that fell in his face, a booming voice, and a southern drawl that begged to be mocked. If I hadn’t invited four or five friends to “witness” my immersion, I would have backed out immediately. He was my worst nightmare.

I survived. I had to wear a little white gown thing over my underwear (we were instructed to bring dry replacements) and we (there were six or seven of us) stepped into the baptismal font one by one with the music and singing blaring. All I really remember is his eyes. He looked at me intently and quietly said, just to me, “Are you ready?” And like a flash, everything I thought I knew or expected, fell away. He wasn’t Elmer Gantry, he wasn’t funny or weird or anything else. He was a message. All I could answer was simply, “I am.” And a minute later, I was wet and out of the water and smiling. Turning point.

I never saw that evangelist again. And that night, I will never forget.

The simple question is still there. Am I ready? All of it happens in just a second, the change, from one state to another, from dry to wet, from death to spirit, from darkness to light, from ambivalence to certainty, from death to life.

To resurrect, something has to die. When the phoenix resurrects, it’s always the same afterward. But in true resurrection, out of the death, comes something new.

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As a believer, I am promised a new life when I accept Christ’s sacrifice (his death) as the propitiation (satisfactory compensation) for my sin. Although the sacrifice is enough, my ability to embrace the truth of it in daily life is wanting.

Romans 6:3, 5
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? . . . If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.

I firmly believe the faith walk is a process. And although our beloved Messiah did everything necessary to repair the separation between God and us, I am still learning how to walk the new path (the Way). I struggle with the paradox: death = life. I tend to hold onto what is familiar instead of letting those parts of me die.

I understand in my head that I must be more like the seed that dies before the plant will grow. Instead, I keep trying to be the best seed I can be. I’m missing out on the real transformation.

But God is patient. My old nature, my old self, is in various partitions and states of renewal. Gradually, sections do die. And with each small death, new life finds root. This is sanctification, my rite of passage from death to life.

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