Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Moments of Baptism

Here is a bit of personal, sacramental theology. It was a writing assignment for a course called Intersections at Columbia Theological Seminary.

How does my baptism matter? My initial response as one who grew up in the Pentecostal tradition is to ask, which one—baptism in water or baptism in the Spirit? In the context of this class, the question seems to be simply about water baptism, the one baptism which can be observed in a single ritual at a particular point in time. The distinctive belief—and practice—of Pentecostals is that the baptized believer should also seek the baptism in the Holy Spirit as if they were potentially distinct moments in time. This contention has spurred no little doctrinal dispute. The difficulty, it seems, is with how we situate baptism in time: one discrete event, a sequence of events, a continuous process, an eternal moment apart from time, etc. I will not attempt to resolve this here, but I will work from my own experience within which there have been several distinct markers. To speak of water baptism in isolation from spirit baptism would do injustice to the integral work of the Holy Spirit within my life.

Perhaps the most significant fact of my water baptism is that I chose to be baptized. From the age of four to seven, I had responded to several altar calls to confess my sins and accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. This meant I was saved. I can’t recall what sins I needed to confess at that age, but I certainly did not want to go to hell or be left behind in the rapture because of them. Accepting Jesus Christ into my heart was supposed to be sufficient for salvation, but induced fear and guilt would lead this little child to doubt whether I was saved. My response to this insecurity was to respond to altar calls several times.

I grew up with baptismal services where new believers—whether children or adults—would be immersed in water. At the age of seven I asked if I could be baptized. Children did not usually get baptized that young; nine or ten was a more suitable age. But because I was insistent about this my parents and pastor agreed. That summer I was baptized in a creek. This creek flowed around the backside of the church property and then came around the property of some prominent church members a small distance from the church. We had the service and picnic on their property. It had better visibility and was a great place for all of us to swim afterward. Being baptized in a creek connected more strongly in my mind to the gospel story of Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan than did the use of a baptismal tank or worse yet baptism by “sprinkling” which this tradition did not recognize. This public profession of faith with affirmation of the congregation helped solidify the commitment I had made in previous altar calls. I never again felt the need to respond to an altar call to get saved—I was now a baptized believer. I felt more mature and serious about living my faith and being a useful vessel for God.

Baptism, however, did not assuage my fear of the rapture or guilt over sin. I grew up with the idea that, if I failed to confess a sin, the Lord might return and I’d be left behind to face the tribulation and quite possibly without my family. Learning to seek forgiveness quickly was the point, but it left me with much dread and rapture attacks. For example if my family we to disappear inexplicitly, then I might panic that they had been taken up and I left behind.

I think the greater significance of my water baptism is that set the stage for receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit. A year I was baptize in the Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues, as taught in the Assemblies of God. The Sunday evening service would typically end with invitation to come forward prayer. Some would seek healing or some other touch of the Holy Spirit. I was taught to tarry in the Spirit as Jesus had instructed the disciples to “tarry in Jerusalem” for the gift of the Spirit. I was always one of the last to leave this time of earnest prayer. All around me I would hear people praying in tongues, singing, shouting, weeping or laughing however the Spirit may lead them. Tarrying in the Spirit was a way opening oneself to the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Specifically the baptism of Holy Spirit is the decisive opening of the soul such that the charismatic gifts might begin to flow in one’s life. While I chose to be baptized in water, the Holy Spirit decided when to give me this second baptism.

These two baptisms are part of larger work of the Holy Spirit in my life, a process which has no end-point. Now when I contemplate the baptism of Jesus, I see myself. The prophet John raises Jesus from the water; the Spirit descends to anoint him; and finally, a voice from heaven cries out, “This is my son, my beloved.” My whole life I knew that God loved me and that I was child of God, but only much later in life did I truly experience this third, unexpected baptism. I heard this same voice say to me, “You are my child, my beloved; in you I am well pleased.” However saved or gifted I may have been matters less and less. Each baptism bears the seeds of the next, and the latter outshines the former.

I am not sure what to make of these three moments of baptism. I do not know where they lead. Theologically, we may bundle all three into one sacrament of baptism, but it can take much longer to unpack each promise. Even Jesus had to be driven into the wilderness to test what had been given to him. Transfiguration is brighter than baptism, and resurrection is yet more transparent than transfiguration.

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