What is Baptism?
Since the times of the ancient church, baptism has served as a rite of initiation into the community of faith. After baptism, Christians are permitted to receive the Eucharist, which puts them in communion with the church and other members of the body of Christ. Most churches recognize Baptism and the Eucharist as Sacraments, which are celebrated in the presence of the community in the context of the worship service.
Baptism means many things to various people. Since the times of the ancient church, baptism has served as a rite of initiation into the community of faith. In general, the word baptism means the rite of washing with water as a sign of religious purification and consecration. In the New Testament, baptism was equated with repentance and forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). John the Baptist, for example, performed the rite as a way of getting people to acknowledge their sins, this done in preparation to receive forgiveness through the profession of faith and the coming of the Messiah. In another sense, baptism represents a way for Christians to participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Rom 6:1-11). In the contemporary view, one becomes a member of the church by being baptized (Senn 2006, 29). In this regard, baptism represents the boundary between being an “outsider” and being an ‘insider” in the Christian community (Senn 2006, 30).
Baptism in many churches entails an outward and visible sign that a person is joined by God’s grace with the universal church and the body of Christ. Water is a visible and essential element of the baptismal sacrament. Water symbolizes cleansing and signals the beginning of a new life of discipleship with Christ. While water is vital, the mode of baptism can entail sprinkling, some pouring, and some immersion (UCC, 2007). The Book of Worship encourages the use of language recognizing baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. “In baptism, God works in us the power of forgiveness, the renewal of the spirit, and the knowledge of the call to be God’s people always” (UCC, 2007). Baptism, then, represents forgiveness, spiritual renewal, and calling to a life of Christian faith.
When I consider Baptism, Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus comes to mind (John 3:1-8). That passage tells us that to enter the Kingdom of God, you must be born again. While I remember hearing these words from the time I was very young, I didn’t start to understand their meaning until I began to reflect on the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. In this conversation, Jesus explained to Nicodemus that rebirth is both physical and spiritual – in other words, being born again involves being cleansed with water and receiving new life from the Spirit of God. In another sense, baptism represents a way for Christians to participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:1-11). Baptism symbolizes a new identity and initiation into the family of God.
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