By Trey Sullivan
Last Sunday in worship we remembered our baptisms. In the children's sermon we were reminded of our physical connection with the universe –ocean, sky, dirt. We remembered how water is frequently used in the Judeo-Christian narrative to represent change, beginning, cleansing, and redemption. We followed Luke's account of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River, and we used our theological lens to confront the purposes behind John's baptism of Jesus. What was Jesus trying to teach us through his own baptism? Was he trying to teach anything at all?
Then, as is the case in any good sermon, we were asked to move from the past to the present. From the spotless white tile of the baptismal pool (don't worry, it was dry), our pastor asked us to consider our own baptisms.
Do you remember the day you were baptized? Do you remember what it felt like? What did you wear under your robe? What do you wish you had worn under your robe? Remember the songs? Remember a renewed sense of courage, or peace, or freedom? How did it happen?
Some of us were sprinkled, some poured over, and some immersed. Some maybe thought from the safety of the pew, “You're not gettin' me in that tiled box under the organ pipes with that preacher lady! I don't care how white her robe is.” No matter how the mysterious and ancient rite was administered, we can see baptism as a symbol of God's involvement in human life, as identifying with Christ in his unjust death and glorious resurrection, and as a public statement to the community that we seek to follow Christ and live in Christ's way.
Because I sang in the choir this week, it was important that I looked like I was paying attention to what was happening in the service. For future reference, it's important to smile every now and then, and if you can manage, it's always a good idea to get out your giant, leather-bound journal so you can scribble a few illegible, holy thoughts when the preacher says something especially noteworthy. Oh and believe me, I made sure to bring my journal! I couldn't help, however, being distracted by the memory of my own baptisms.
That's right, not one but two – two sinner's prayers and two immersions.
I grew up in a Baptist church in the south. At a very early age I was taught that God loved me and that hell was a real place for real people like me. I was taught that Jesus was my friend, that he protected me and my family, that he died on the cross for my sins, that he needed to be Lord of my life, and that if he wasn't Lord of my life then I was going to hell. I was taught that I needed to get baptized!
Like any sensitive southern boy, I began to be afraid. I loved God, but I was also terrified. I began to say to myself, “I don't want to go to hell. I don't want to suffer with all the bad people. I want to be with my dog Topaz in heaven when I die.” So, not long after my eighth birthday, I asked Jesus to come into my heart. The next Sunday I was baptized. I remember how funny I felt taking a gym bag to church, and more importantly, I remember the feelings of peace and freedom that rushed over me as soon as I came up out of the water.
Whew! That was a close one!
Nine years later, I found myself twenty miles down the road in another Baptist church experiencing the same gut-wrenching terror and anxiety over my sin and the reality of hell. I silently thought to myself, “Maybe those things I did when I was only eight didn't really mean anything? Maybe, I was never saved in the first place? Maybe, my baptism didn't do anything after all? Maybe, I've been headed for hell this entire time? Ahhhh, something's got to be done!” Solution? Get saved and baptized once and for all. Really mean it this time. So I did. I prayed the prayer and got baptized.
Whew! That was a close one!
Here I am almost thirty years old, and I still feel like that scared and timid eight year old boy who wants to see his dog Topaz in heaven when he dies. I still cry in the dark when I feel lost, alone, and unforgiven. Many days I feel like an old t-shirt whose stains need to be scrubbed out in the wash – like a cracked dish that needs to soak in the sink overnight. Now does that mean my prayers to God weren't heard or that my baptism was just some other thing we did in church to fill the time like a wet doxology or a damp invocation?
Absolutely and unequivocally not.
It was one of the many ways God calls to me, pursues me, shelters me, and renews me. Where my ontological dilemmas and frequent existential crises point me to, however, is a place of discovery, newness, wandering, and struggle. At this point in my life, the fear of hell is no longer my fundamental motivation for pursing God, justice, love, and mercy (cheers Rev. Bell!). My baptism, as it were, was a starting place, a launch pad, a new beginning. I have put away the (childish) notion that my baptism (and the perfectly worded prayers that went with it) somehow magically secured my place in heaven, or that God's grace is more available to me now that I've been baptized. In its stead, I have come to see baptism as a public reminder that each one of us needs more of God, more of Christ, every day. Not once when we were feeling especially scared or vulnerable at youth camp. Not once when we were sorry for all the bad things we thought and did in high school. Every day.
I do the dishes at home almost every day of the year. My wife doesn't like it, and I don't mind. So I do them (the laundry is a different story).
The dishes must be done. I can't do the dishes once and leave them for the rest of the year. Can you imagine the piles of dishes? The filth? The rodents? It would be like hell. Eventually, we'd have to go out and buy more dishes. Not those nice ones that your friend put on her registry when she got engaged, but those paper-thin plastic ones that come in packs of twenty-five.
Some dishes are easy to wash – like a plate that was used while eating a sandwich or a piece of toast. Some dishes can seem to be impossible to clean – like the roasting pan that sat in the oven three hours too long and now has turned into a brown and black sticky burnt mess. Sometimes I feel like a nearly completely clean toast plate, and sometimes I feel like a sad neglected disgusting roasting pan. That's why it is important for me to revisit my baptism every day.
Can anyone think of a good time to do this? Hmmm, while sorting the mail, while playing minesweeper on your vintage 1997 computer, while sweeping actual leaves from your driveway? Sure, but I would suggest revisiting your baptism while you're doing the dishes. I know, what a novel idea! As you take care to scrub the burnt mess from each roasting man or gently wash away the tiny crumbs from your toast plate, remember that you are a work in progress.
Remember that God is pursuing you every moment.
Remember that you are a child of the one who washes you clean.
Remember that God calls you to die to sin as Christ died on the cross, and it is God that calls you to daily resurrection just as Christ was raised on the third day.
So, as you remember your baptism, find peace with God, find peace with yourself, and find peace with your neighbor. And if you have a dishwasher, try washing the dishes with your hands every now and then. Think of it as a spiritual practice. You might be surprised by the voice of God in the bubbles.
This article was originally published for Talk With a Preacher and taken and edited by permission.
Trey Sullivan is a 2011 graduate of McAfee School of Theology and lives and works in Washington D.C.