Baptism as Initiation: The Start of Something New

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

It occurs to me now that the story of the Baptism of Jesus is one that appears every year at this time in each one of our lectionary cycles. Oh, we have the same experience at other times as well. Christmas, of course. And Easter. And Pentecost, too.  And this. Oh the details differ, of course, depending on whether you are hearing it from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but the story is much the same:

  • When Jesus goes to John to be baptized, John declares himself unworthy. 
  • Even so, Jesus is baptized.
  • Either a dove actually descends or is referred to.
  • And in three out of the four, a voice from heaven is heard to declare Jesus “beloved and pleasing in God’s estimation.” 

What strikes me as particularly unique in Luke’s telling is the specific mention of all the others who were baptized when Jesus was. Indeed, I find myself landing on the certainty that others were baptized, too, as an entry point of meaning for the story before us now. For how can we consider Jesus’ baptism and not also consider our own? Indeed, what does the story before us now offer us for our own walks of faith, if we cannot in some way compare our baptisms to that of Jesus?

Now one assumes that that the baptisms of the others then and now were and are surely different from the one Jesus underwent. Or were they? Are they?

Oh yes, in my experience, surely the words spoken at baptisms today are different. And for many, the setting is profoundly different. But in each and every case, water is used. And each and every time, it is meant to be the start of something new: a kind of ‘initiation,’ if you will. Or at least the marking of something out of the ordinary. As was true for Jesus, so it is also meant to be for you and for me.

And so it is that I have found myself thinking about baptism as ‘initiation,’ — the sort of initiation which points to all that has been and/or will be. This was surely the case for Jesus. For instance, in his baptism, he submits to that which his incarnation calls him to. Though understood to be without sin, like all the rest, Jesus is baptized. And yes, at least in the theological tradition I call home, by going under the water, Jesus experiences a kind of dying. And by emerging from it? A sort of resurrection, too.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been through a number of ‘initiations’ in my life — a number of ‘ritual experiences’ which were the start of something new. In my faith journey it has been the liturgical experiences of baptism and confirmation. In my call as a pastor it has been in ordination and installations in various settings. But I’ve had them in the rest of my life as well.

One ‘initiation’ which especially comes to mind today is my own experience of going away to college. As I recall it, from the very start, it was something for which I was groomed in every way and as my senior year in high school wound down, I could hardly wait to go. Indeed, I can recall sleeping on the sofa in the front room that Sunday night of Labor Day Week-end, falling asleep to the Jerry Lewis Telethon. For all of my life I had shared a room with my younger sister, Martha, but we would be getting an early start and I didn’t want to wake her. And I can remember reflecting even then that this was a transition which meant that nothing would ever be the same.

And it was not.

 Only for me the initiation was not only the four and a half hour drive with my folks in the family station wagon to Waverly, Iowa. It was not just unloading my things and moving them into a corner room with an unknown room-mate on the third floor of Wartburg Hall. It was not even waving good-bye, knowing I would not seem them again until Thanksgiving. No, the program I was enrolled in required another kind of ‘initiation.’ We would spend the better part of our first week in the ‘wilderness’ in Northeast Iowa in a sort of makeshift Outward Bound experience: canoeing, and hiking and repelling down cliffs, and well, you name it.

It was the sort of initiation which was meant to break us from our past and propel us into the future. It was meant to build community, I think, although I do not now recall the name of another person alongside me on that journey. Or maybe we were to develop some necessary skills for dorm living for the next four years. (Looking back, I’m not entirely certain those in charge knew what they were doing. And as you can probably tell, my memories of it are not particularly fond ones!)

Whatever it was meant to do, by the end of the week, my homesickness was profound. I knew ever more deeply that I had left something behind which was precious. And I knew it in a way that my intellectualizing about it the night before we headed west could not begin to touch.

And yet, no matter what the ‘initiation’ looked like, and no matter the regrets it stirred up in me at first, I will never be sorry that I went away to school. In spite of a somewhat nightmarish start, the experience which that ‘initiation’ kicked off shaped me in ways for which I will always be grateful.

Sometimes our human attempts at ‘initiation’ work. Sometimes they don’t. Even with mine though? It attempted to mark an ending and a beginning. It was meant to bond me to a new community. Its purpose was to launch us into our freshman year well.

And so I can’t help but wonder now, if Jesus also experienced a kind of sense of loss in this ‘initiation,’ in the setting apart of his baptism. Surely he knew that nothing would ever be the same again once he emerged from the water and the voice of God was heard declaring his identity. Indeed, I, for one, can’t help but wonder if at some very human level he regretted it a little bit even then. For the ‘dying’ he experienced in his baptism would be his to undergo again and again. In his relationship with his human family, yes, but also in relationship to the powers of this world with which he would then and always would be at odds. And of course, in his actual dying on a cross on that fateful Friday.

And don’t you think it is much the same for us?

As we are ‘initiated’ into the family of God, isn’t this also so for us?

  • Indeed, when we emerge from the water, are we not also put at odds with a world where wealth and power seem to rule? 
  • Where human life is all too often valued?
  • Where violence is believed to be the only antidote to violence?
For at its best and truest, isn’t there always something in the initiation itself which propels us to live differently in all that we are called to next? And isn’t that as true in our lives of faith as it is anywhere else?
  • Why do you think the story of Jesus’ Baptism shows up in each and every Lectionary Cycle? What are we to take from it or learn from it?
  • Do you have stories of ‘initiation’ which parallel your understanding or experience of Baptism?
  • How do you think our baptisms are similar to that of Jesus? How do they differ?
  • If Baptism is the start of a new and different life, what does that mean? How have the gifts and promises of Baptism shaped your life so far? How might they shape your life tomorrow?

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