Stop De-Baptizing Jesus

While clearly a joke at an atheist meeting, this video of a "de-baptism" moment actually made me chuckle...then stop and think.

Did you watch the young girl?  When the "de-baptism" via a hairdryer was over she raised up her hands and said "I can see!" The people laughed at her clever correlation between baptism and healing miracles. 

I laughed too, even at my chosen religion's expense.  But as I laughed, I realized something powerful: remembering our baptisms is to reaffirm a God who heals us. I think like this video, many of us de-baptize Jesus and do not see what Jesus' baptism really was. If we connect healing and baptisms, then we fully understand what Jesus' baptism really was. 

When we talk about healing, we often conflate two terms: disease and illness.  In Arthur Kleinman's 1980s book Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture, we have a clarification between the two:

Disease refers to a malfunctioning of biological and/or psychological processes, while the term illness refers to the psychosocial experience and meaning of the perceived disease...Viewed from this perspective, illness is the shaping of disease into behavior and experience.  It is created by personal, social, and cultural reactions to disease. (pg. 72)
As John Crossan comments on the above passage in his book God and Empire,
Thus, diseases are cured, while illnesses are healed.  Sometimes a disease can be cured, but very often the best that can be done is to heal the illness that surrounds it.
Crossan goes on to talk about the movie Philadelphia, starring Tom Cruise as Beckett, a gay lawyer with AIDS.  He concludes with this connection:
My students all understood that Beckett's disease cannot be cured, but they could also see eventually that his illness is being healed by the support of his partner, his family...Curing is not available, but healing is still possible.
Seen in this light, the healing power of Jesus Christ may not come in wild moments when the blind can see, but comes in the constant care and concern given to healing the illness, the walking and coping that we struggle with daily.  When we offer love and care to those who find themselves unloveable, we are co-healing their illness with Christ.  Their disease is in the hands of God and of Science, but we can do something about their illness.

I have done one too many funerals for people that have passed away too early in life from cancer.  A God who heals disease is not my understanding of God, though I certainly leave room for God to act as God will.  However, a God who heals illness, who offers us pathways and possibilities that lead to a healing of the illness surrounding a disease and perhaps leading to a regression and healing of the disease...that's a God I believe in and that's the call to nurturing and healing that I understand to be part of Christian mission and ministry.

In summary, healing can be understood as more than a one-time healing of a disease, but as a process of coming to terms with an illness in helpful ways that bring forth the Spirit in another.

Same with Baptism.  I don't understand baptism as the washing away of a disease or the cleansing of Original Sin.  God has already done that with God's grace (prevenient, for the Methodists taking score at home).  Baptism is not a one-time event where the clouds part and a dove come down.  Rather, Baptism is a process that establishes the baseline and every moment after that is steps that remind us to seek personal holiness in our lives: to deal with the "illness" so to speak.  As my friend Will Green wrote yesterday:
Sometimes it feels that baptism is an act of entering a church and becoming a member. Sometimes people think that baptism is a necessary precursor to being saved.  Sometimes it is seen as a promise to be a good parent.  Sometimes baptism is thought to be an expression of mercy to children and newborns.

I think that baptism is way to claim the power of the Holy Spirit in one's life. Living as a disciple of Jesus Christ connects us to God and being connected to God affects our life.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus speaks of his two baptisms.  Really.  His first was in the river with John, yes.  But Jesus seems to speak of a second baptism in Mark 10:38.  The disciples ask to be on the left and right of him...not knowing that Jesus would be crucified between two criminals!  Jesus speaks of a cup from which he must drink, and a baptism with which he must be baptized.  Everything in this passage is prophesying his death and the most-likely end of anyone who wants to emulate Jesus.

I take from this passage what Marjorie Suchocki took from it in God, Christ, Church: that the baptism of Jesus began in the river with John and concluded in the rain on Golgotha.  His three-year baptism is his anointing as the Christ and it is in his life and death that we are made one with Christ.  It was not a one-time event but a process of discovery, faith, and fidelity to the God who walks with us.

So it is with us.  We are not baptized, dunked, made into cookie-cutter Christians and God is happy.  As Peter Rollins writes in How to (not) Speak of God, that's like giving a lover of nuts a thousand nuts without any center: giving to God the "saved" bodies of baptized Christians without the fearsome spirit of charity and missions that comes from a lifetime of identifying with Christ.  Our baptism must be understood as a process that nurtures, heals, and forgives us for a lifetime, and it is powerful to remember.  If God who acts in our lives acts in process not phenomena, then our baptism is not a one-time phenomena but a process of seeking personal holiness.

Do you see the connection?  Baptism is not the healing of a disease, but the coping with an illness: the power of the Holy Spirit given to us to help us cope with our troubles and feel connected to a God who is beyond our knowledge.  Because it is a process, the presence of a congregation affirming a baptism is necessary to say that "we will walk through this healing with you and be accountable to you and you to us."
This Sunday is liturgically the Baptism of Jesus Sunday.  Let's not give into the temptation to say that it happened as a historical event and be done with it. Remember that Jesus's baptism sustained a life of struggle, healing, teaching, and power.  Let us all remember our own baptisms and the waysin which we can live out ministries of healing, nurturing, and struggling for justice.  In doing so, we resist the temptation to De-Baptize Jesus and relegate his baptism to a one-time event, but instead fully recognize his baptism that carried him from the river to the cross and will carry us from whatever pits of despair we are in to the left and right sides of Jesus, our Christ. 

Whew.  That was two hours of writing I didn't expect. Time for bed.  Thoughts?


Stresspenguin January 9, 2009 at 8:23 AM  

The new liturgy reflects the idea that baptism is an ongoing event and not a one time deal. The old words, "Remember your baptism" has be replaced with "remember you are baptized."

I feel that your language is contradictory, or at least unclear, when you write that "I don't understand baptism as the washing away of a disease or the cleansing of Original Sin. God has already done that with God's grace (prevenient, for the Methodists taking score at home). Baptism is not a one-time event where the clouds part and a dove come down. Rather, Baptism is a process that establishes the baseline and every moment after that is steps that remind us to seek personal holiness in our lives: to deal with the "illness" so to speak."

As I understand Wesley, he took an Eastern approach to the idea of Original Sin as disease/illness which the sacrament of baptism has cured/healed. The process that Wesley employs to describe justification and sanctification can be used to describe the two step process of curing and healing. Perhaps the prevenient grace conveyed through baptism does cure original sin--inoculating us against its effects while the means of grace, particularly the Eucharist, continues to heal us. I think Wesley would argue that the benefits of our baptism continue by healing through Eucharist. Though baptism is not a spiritual discipline (as it's not repeatable in our tradition), for Wesley it is inseparable from the Eucharist. The body and blood keeps us well.

Therefore, curative Baptism paired with a healing Eacharist fleshes out your idea of a baptismal baseline for a continued seeking of holiness. As well as enriching our Wesleyan heritage.

Anonymous,  January 9, 2009 at 8:33 AM  

Tom Hanks starred in Philadelphia, not Tom Cruise.

Minor point in an interesting post.

Do we "claim" this faith or does it claim us?

Rev. Jeremy Smith January 9, 2009 at 8:47 AM  

@Kurt, I think my intention was to expose an understanding of baptism that expanded it beyond an event-that-cleansed to a process-that-empowers. It came from viewing that video and seeing how the parallel between baptism and healing as events was ridiculed. By seeing healing and baptism as beyond spectacle to being aspects of discipleship seems powerful. I think your contribution really fleshes out and gently corrects this understanding. Thanks.

@John, ARGH, that's what you get for posting at 2:30am. To your question, what I quoted from Will matches my understanding of being given the power of the Spirit to guide us through this process, to be claimed, not to claim. If I can ask, what in the post sparked the question?

Anonymous,  January 9, 2009 at 10:34 AM  

Two points raised the question.

You refer to Christianity as your "chosen" faith. And the quote from Green says baptism is "claiming" the power of the Holy Spirit.

The question is off the central point of your post - which is very thoughtful and interesting.

Rev. Jeremy Smith January 9, 2009 at 3:04 PM  

Ah, good notices. I think the "chosen faith", at least, is often my response because I was born into Methodism and thus I often have to assure people that I chose to remain Methodist, not simply going along with the flow of where I was born. Thanks for this conversation...any thoughts churning out from this experience?

Nathan Mattox January 9, 2009 at 4:04 PM  

Time well spent Jeremy--thanks!
I was inspired by Frank Yamada's lectionary reflection in the Christian century, and the way he spoke of the waters of baptism in an elemental type of way. Begins by quoting Norman MacLean's River Runs through it, "I am haunted by waters." Something that also struck me was the line in the hymn "When Jesus Came to Jordan," "come Holy Spirit, aid us to keep the vows we make. This very day invade us and every bondage break." I'm going to take Yamada's cue and speak about water eroding landscapes like the grand canyon. along the lines of your post, I think I'll speak about baptism eroding us and shaping us over the course of our lives of discipleship. Thanks for being a cog in the wheel.

Stresspenguin January 9, 2009 at 4:08 PM  

Sorry Jeremy.

When I woke up this morning I had no intention to be the Wesleyan orthodoxy police. Sometimes, ya just happens.

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