The Politics of Baptism
Baptism is just seen as a conversion ritual. It’s a bit more than that.
Also, you ever hear about the baptism of Moses? Yeah, we’ll talk about that.
Nelson Mandela of South Africa spent 18 years in prison on Robben Island. Robben, isn’t Dutch for Robbers, but for “seal” because before they built a prison there, the island was covered with seals. When Mandela was released from that prison, that meant a new opportunity for himself and for South Africa, a new future. To symbolize that event, there is a swim that happens every year from the island in the sea to the mainland, that takes a good swimmer about 2 hours and a professional swimmer 23 minutes. It is called the Freedom Swim, and it symbolizes the deliverance of an entire nation. Of course, taking a dip in the ocean doesn’t make a nation free. But participating in it makes one feel that they are participating in the freedom the new nation brings.
This is baptism.
Is anyone familiar with the story of Moses and the mass baptism? What about the time that Noah baptized his family? No? Smh. What are pastors teaching these days?
Paul, in I Corinthians 10, talks about Moses taking the children of Israel through a baptism What baptism? That in the Red Sea. Peter speaks about Noah going through a baptism. Going across the flood with his family. And John baptized in the Jordan River. Why? To remember the baptism of Joshua and the children of Israel, crossing the Jordan River centuries before.
Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, let’s talk about what the Bible considers baptism.
First of all, the word “baptise” comes from the Greek, “baptidzo”, which doesn’t mean “to dunk” but “to give a thorough soaking”, either through dunking or pouring or whatever means. It absolutely does not mean cleaning.
The pattern of baptism, whether Noah, Moses, Joshua, John or Jesus-- or the entire world in creation-- is this:
-A group of people are trapped in a horrible nation or world, trapped by oppression
-God promises to deliver these people
-God leads the people to a body of water, which threatens suffering or death
-God delivers the people across the dangerous body of water
-On the other side is a new world, a new opportunity for freedom without oppression
We can see this as crossing water and delivering a nation to freedom, like Moses or Nelson Mandella. But it is more likely seen as immigration to a new nation of God.
Acts 2:36-38 For this reason the whole House of Israel can be certain that the Lord and Christ whom God has made is this Jesus whom you crucified.’
Hearing this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘What are we to do, brothers?’ 38 ‘You must repent,’ Peter answered, ‘and every one of you must be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Here is Peter preaching to the crowds, months after Jesus’ crucifixion. He is telling them that their leaders crucified Jesus, even though Jesus was an innocent man. He tells them “you crucified him”, because in a sense, this is true. They are part of a system in which crucifying innocent people, even the son of God, can happen. They all know this. They don’t see any way out.
But Peter offers them a way out. If they are baptized in Jesus’ name, they are doing two things: they are renouncing or “repenting of” the evil system they are a part of. And they join the kingdom of Jesus, a completely separate political entity. They leave the old, corrupt, oppressive, evil world behind. In their case, this world was the temple and priestly and Roman systems they were a part of. They knew that this system was oppressive, but they couldn’t do anything about it.
Peter’s answer is, “leave it and join Jesus’ kingdom.” The sins that Peter was telling them they get forgiveness of, are the sins of the system-- the actions of oppression and anti-love they are participating in. Once they are baptized, they are free to live in accord with the love and surrender of Jesus.
This is the same answer John the baptist gave. He pointed at the corruption of Judea and the high priest and Pharisees and Sadducees and he baptized to get everyone out of that system. He was pointing to a new nation, but he didn’t know what that kingdom looked like.
Jesus also had the same answer. But he showed us and explained to us what that new nation looked like. Who would be a part of it, and how it would operate. And he had people baptized so they would know that they were no longer in the old, corrupt system, but in a new world.
We need to recognize that we too are in a corrupt place, a corrupt nation. Our nation was built on the backs of slaves, of Natives whose land our ancestors stole, that they refused a living to the poor people they forced here. This nation continues to forfeit the rights and equal opportunities to African Americans, to Native Americans, to people who suffered from sexual abuse, to LGBTQ, to the homeless, to the mentally ill, to people whose only crime is to try their best to be a good citizen. This nation kills innocent people around the world. This nation is corrupt.
And Jesus offers us a way out. Baptism isn’t just a religious ceremony. It is a way of turning our backs on the corruption of this age and to live a life free from that corruption, if only we would take it. Jesus shows us not only a way to be free from our sin, but to be free from our nation’s sins.
To do this, we have to be involved in politics, the way Jesus was. The first way is to join Jesus’ nation-- his kingdom whose only law is love, which is not bound up by the corruption of humanity, which breaks the oppression of all evil systems, including the evil systems of the churches built in Jesus’ name.
We’ll talk about some other ways next week.