Tumbling in the Sand
“And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” – 1 Peter 3:21
In Northern Wisconsin there is a bell in a church tower that has inscribed on it these words:
“To the bath and the table,
To the prayers and the Word,
I call every seeking soul.”
These words have become remarkably famous, particularly among any seminarian or pastor who has read any work by the Lutheran liturgical theologian, the Rev. Dr. Gordon Lathrop.The reclaiming of the word “bath” by Lathrop and many others (including myself) as a descriptor for baptism is a really great move — it breathes a certain life into our understanding of baptism. It makes it more concrete and claims something of the ordinary as holy. Baths are everyday things. Baths can be joyful and fun. Baths can be healing and calming. Baths can be difficult and frustrating (particularly for children who are much happier being dirty). And all of these descriptors are helpful to attach to baptism, that, at times and in ways has become a dis-embodied water-less rite of passage that doesn’t have much to do with anything related to life or living. So, the word “bath” is a good reclamation word for the living sacrament of baptism.
But, it runs a bit of a risk of making baptism a little too common and a little too easy, I’m afraid. And, it might lead people to believe that baptism is a safe thing rather than the dangerous act that it is. After all, as described here in 1 Peter and suggested in many of Paul’s writings, baptism is prefigured as a flood, as a drowning, as death and resurrection.
There is nothing safe about baptism. In fact, baptism is to be drowned, to be killed. Baptism is to join Noah in the ark, letting go of all that had been before, trusting in the chaos of the flood and the promises of God. Baptism is to join the Israelites crossing the Red Sea with only what they could carry into the wilderness of longing for a home. Baptism is to join Jesus in the waters of the Jordan and his death on the cross, even as we vaguely hear the whispers of resurrection in our ears. But, as we know, birth and death are closely intertwined and often hurt just as much.
Baptism is about God laying claim to a life—your life, my life, a child’s life—and there is nothing more wild, unsafe, and chaotic than having your life held in the hands of a living God seeking the healing of the world. After all, you never know where you might end up or what you might end up giving up or losing along the way—just ask the disciples. And yet, there’s no where quite so alive, quite so hopeful, quite safer to be.