The Rev. William Sloane Coffin: “Baptism”
Dean Nathan Baxter told me I was to talk of baptism. And, of course, his whisper is my command.
Not only Jesus’ baptism, but more especially our own. He also instructed me to pack an abundance of wisdom in an economy of words. Whether we succeed remains to be seen.
Before talking of baptism, I want for a few moments to return to Christmas, when as you all recall the Word of the Lord hits the world with a force of a hint. Why, in heaven’s name, we have to wonder why Almighty God wished to come to earth as a powerless baby?
The answer is suggested by the fable of a king of fell in love with a maid. His soul was deeply troubled because he didn’t know how to declare his love. When he consulted his counselors, they, in one voice responded, “Your Majesty has but to appear in all your royal raiment before the maid’s humble abode, and she will instantly fall at your feet and be yours.” But it was precisely that thought that so troubled the king. He wanted not his glorification but hers. And return for his love, he wanted hers, freely given. The one thing he did not want was her submission to his power.
Oh, what a dilemma when not to declare your love spells the end of love and when to declare it spells the end of your beloved!
Finally, the king realized love’s truth, that freedom for the beloved demands equality with the beloved. And so one night after all his counselors had retired, he stole out the side door of his palace and appeared before the maid’s humble abode dressed in the garb of a servant.
Clearly, the fable is a Christmas story.
But before we get carried away by the imaginative, loving king, let us recognize that the story, so satisfying to its hero and to its author, the Danish theologian Soren Kirkegaard—this story might well be anything but satisfactory to the maid. I think had I’d been the maid, I would have wanted to know more about this stranger at this door. Wanted to know more about his future and mine. Was I to be stuck forever in the servant’s quarters? I don’t mind a little submission. I don’t mind marrying a king. At Christmas the word of the Lord hits the world with a force of a hint.
And while we are profoundly moved by God’s love in person on earth lying helpless in a manger, still in our heart of hearts, still wouldn’t we really prefer God to be God rather than to become the frailest among us? What’s happened to God, our mighty fortress whose bulwark faileth never? I think it’s profoundly frustrating. We want God to be strong, so that we can be weak. And God wants to be weak so that we can be strong.
It’s frustrating. I understand the prophet’s anguish. “Oh that Thou would rend the heavens and come down that the mountains might quake, and that the nations might tremble at Thy presence.” But no such thing. At Christmas God is not only powerless. God is at our mercy.
Imagine yourself at the side of the manger. Suddenly Mary stands up and says, “Here, hold the baby. I’ll be right back.” And there you are, holding God’s goodness incarnate in your arms. God is not going to protect you. You are called on to protect God.
Why in heaven’s name would Almighty God ever want to come to this world in this fashion? It’s my feeling that God had to come to earth as a baby in order that we might finally grow up.
Now, let’s talk about baptism.
In the French Calvinist celebration of infant baptism the minister takes the child in his arms, or her arms, and says, “Little child, for you Jesus Christ came. He struggled. He suffered. For you he endured the darkness of Gethsemane, the agony of Calvary. For you he triumphed over death. And you, little child, know nothing of all this. But thus is confirmed in the word of the Apostle, ‘We love God because God first loved us.’”
Baptism, whether it be infant or believer’s baptism, is all about God’s unconditional love being poured out universally for everyone from the pope to the loneliest wino on the planet. Like the king in the fable, God wants not self-glorification, but ours. In the words of a church father, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
And in return for God’s love, God wants ours freely given.
Baptism is a call for obedience. No question. But what kind of obedience to what kind of God? Specifically, are we called to obey God’s power, or are we called to obey God’s love? If, as so many people do, you see obedience as obedience to God’s power, that will certainly provide a lot of order in your life. You will stress correct belief, right behavior. You will hold certainty dearer than truth. Put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love.
The trouble with this understanding of obedience is that it represents a childhood model of living. Fearing confusion, wanting direction, a child looks for supervision. A child wants a superior power to provide order, to direct its destiny. Most of all, a child wants legitimately, protection. And so it is with childish adults. They want God to do their thinking for them so that they slavishly search Scripture often for answers to non-biblical problems. And childish adults want God to keep their children safe no matter how fast someone else drives. And they want God to save the human race from self-destruction no matter what fiendish weapons we invent, deploy and threaten to use. Childish adults, like children, crave protection, not only from the elements, from fate, but from themselves.
To view obedience as obedience to God’s power is really a form of disobedience. For it is an attempt to return to God the freedom God gave us precisely so that our relationship with God and with one another would not be one of power but rather be one of love. Freedom is the indispensable precondition to love.
And how ironic it is when cars of our own making crash and wars of our own doing break out. We often think that God doesn’t love us because God won’t take away our freedom. God comes to earth as a child so that you and I might finally grow up.
Why are we so reluctant to grow up? I think it is because what we most fear in this world is not the evil in it, nor even the evil in ourselves. Rather, it is the good in ourselves we most fear—that good, being so demanding.
Nelson Mandela said as much in his 1994 inaugural speech. He said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be gorgeous, talented and fabulous?’ Actually—who are you not to be? You are a child of God.”
And didn’t, at Christmas, Jesus come to tell us the same? Christ came less to convict of sin than to remind us of the grandeur that lies neglected within us. Remember, it was to the most ordinary folk in the world that he said, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Has common humanity ever received so high a compliment from so informed a source?
Baptism is a symbol of God’s love, not a symbol of God’s power. And baptism promises minimum protection and maximum support.
God doesn’t want us to be safe, polite, subservient and sterile. God wants us to be fearless, joyful and loving. God wants us to be responsible, response-able, able to respond to love symbolized in baptism, remembering always that love, among other things, requires the utmost in clear-sightedness. God wants us to be creative, to repair a broken world, to empower the weak and scorn the powerful, to bring forth justice to the nations as Isaiah saw it and to work for peace as if the whole world depended on it, as indeed it does.
Let baptized Christians remember the glory of God is a human being fully alive.
“And not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy name be the glory.”
Let us pray:
“Baptize us with your Spirit, Lord, your cross on us be signed, that likewise in God’s service, we may perfect freedom find. In his name we pray, Amen.”