What is the point of baptism? Why should we view that event with such reverence, and in some traditions, why is it a holy sacrament?
Historically, God stated in Ezekial 36:25, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.” Individually, baptism removes the original sins and wrongs from our lives and reunites us with God. It is also a guard against future wrongs. Ezekial continues a few verses later, “It is not for your sake that I will act; let that be known to you.” We are to be baptized so that God can bring us back to Himself. We also follow in the steps of Christ and complete His commandment of going to all people, making disciples, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Baptism is change; there is a shift that occurs within us when we are baptized. We are made new.
But this change is not isolated to the individual only; it also alters the church body. When a person is baptized and the church witnesses that event, we are engaged in the new life of that person. In some traditions, we even covenant ourselves with the newly baptized person by answering positively to the question: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his/her life in Christ?” We commit ourselves to that person, that new child in Christ. The late liturgy professor at Yale Divinity School Aidan Kavanagh stated that the transformation of the individual and the church is realized at that moment of unmerited grace.
This transformation, this change, goes much further than the one event. At each baptism we all are made new, and our covenant, our vow, to that individual is renewed each time a new person is baptized. Like ripples on a clear, smooth lake begin with just a touch and swell ever stronger the further they spread, so should our commitment grow and intensify as time passes. Our promise to support one another in his or her life in Christ should become stronger and more tangible. The promise evolves into a process of formation, of raising that new person in the church body and “forming,” or helping them “conform,” to the life of Christ. Some traditions call that discipleship, and others call it Christian formation.
What happens, though, when that baptismal covenant is neglected, when the process of formation is lost? Fred P. Edie asks regarding youth in particular, “How long will we persist in impoverished practices of formation then profess shock and dismay at how un-Christian they turn out?” We cannot just hope that discipleship and training will mysteriously occur. We cannot expect that these newly baptized will learn on their own how to read the Bible, how to pray, how to discover their spiritual gifts. We promised them, we covenanted ourselves to them, that we would support them and be accountable. This is no small task and should not be taken lightly. Christ says, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
Baptism, like ripples on the water, do not end when that person is either sprinkled or raised from the water. Instead, this renewal continues endlessly through the life of the Body of Christ, and the hope and grace of Christ should bond us ever closer as His family.