I believe one of the most counter-cultural spiritual practices a skeptical person can witness is the baptism of a new Christian. In fact, I love inviting spiritual inquirers to observe our baptism services. In my experience nothing un-nerves a skeptic more than watching someone get baptized. That’s a good thing.
One reason it disturbs them is it’s a little odd. And if you’ve ever seen a baptism, admit it, on the surface, it is a strange thing to watch. One day a guy is putting with his buddy Harry on the 16th hole of their neighborhood golf course, and the next day he’s joined some nutty religious group dunking him under water.
Baptism is also humbling. Everyone gets wet. No exceptions. No-one can baptize themselves. Everyone is stripped down to a t-shirt and shorts just like everyone else. Cell phones don’t work real well when wet. Neither do luxury cars, expensive homes and stock options. Baptism makes everyone equal.
But the biggest reason non-believers are unnerved by the image of baptism is because they get it -- they finally get what it means to be a disciple. Nothing in our religion so powerfully conveys the counter-cultural re-direction of a life like a person being baptized. Baptism is the ritual that tells an unbelieving world we’re slamming on the brakes with both feet, wildly swerving the car around and heading back up a one-way cultural street.
In Matthew 28:19 Jesus said that the very first thing we are to do when helping someone become a disciple is immerse them. That’s what baptism means. The original Greek word “baptidzo” means to dip or plunge. What does this symbolize? Romans chapter six makes it clear that one of the primary images Jesus had in mind was decomposition. Baptism is actually a mock tomb. You are lowered into the water as if you were being lowered into a grave. As you come up it symbolizes that, just as Jesus was raised from the dead, we too are raised to live a completely different life.
It is like God is saying through this image, “Let me clarify something from the very beginning. This whole spiritual journey is about death. Death to your self. Death to the culture in which you live. Death to your ambitions, your dreams, your wishes, your everything. But it’s also about life. My life within you. My life to recreate. My life to work in and through and around you to accomplish my will on this earth.”
One of my children’s favorite games when we go on vacation is a game they call, “Baptize the sinner.” It goes something like this: Starting 1,400 miles away from our destination my kids start asking, “Are we there yet?” After 32,435 “Not yets” we finally make it to the hotel. We drag our suitcases to the room, they change into their swimsuits in under three seconds flat and make a mad dash for the pool. We’ll swim for what seems like hours and then at some point I’ll overhear my middle daughter yell out, “Are you a sinner!?!” My oldest will yell back, “Yes!” And then my middle one will yell back, “Well, be baptized you sinner and become a Christian!” and slam her into the water like a heavyweight wrestler. Then my newly redeemed offspring will jump up and say, “My turn. My turn.” This continues until everyone has been dunked four or five times. When I first saw this I muttered to my wife, “This is utter blasphemy.” She laughed, “What kinds of games do you expect Pastor’s kids to play?”
Baptism has the same affect on skeptics too. It’s a mental image that’s hard to shake, especially at our baptism services when as soon as people come up out of the water people hoot and scream and clap and high five one another.
The Bible says in Luke 15:7 that heaven throws a massive party when just one sinner repents. So we figure that if they’re partying in heaven, shouldn’t we do the same on earth?
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