Most people go to church for comfort. Everything about church is familiar and comforting: the music, the passing of the communion, shaking people’s hands, the prayers, the sermon.
In the tradition in which I grew up sermons on baptism were especially comforting. We had a litany of our favorite baptism passages: John baptized where there was much water, going down into the water, believe and be baptized, for the remission of sins, baptized into Christ, rise to walk in newness of life, baptism doth also now save us, passages that washed over us like reciting the alphabet in the first grade, or reciting the pledge of allegiance every morning at school. Our nation stood for truth and justice for all, and we were baptized correctly, and nobody else was baptized correctly. That was our comfort.
But why was that comforting? James Fowler, in his book The Stages of Faith, analyzes the underlying motives of each stage of faith.
Roughly the first stage and second stages of faith are “me first” stages: What can I get from God? Oral Roberts used to appeal to this kind of faith by his message of “seed faith”. He would tell the story of a man who put his last dollar in an envelope and mailed it off to Oral Roberts. Then he found ten dollars in a coat pocket. So he mailed that in, too, only to find an old debt repaid to him that day of $100. He promptly mailed that in to Oral Roberts, only to find a check for $1,000 in the mail from an insurance company. Oral Roberts loved to tell that story and comically rued the fact that the man had kept the thousand dollars; Oral Roberts couldn’t help but imagine what God would have done for the man if he had only mailed that check in as well. In the first stage promises from God are literal and concrete, so concrete in fact that one man insisted I re-baptize him because he wasn’t thinking of exactly the right thing when he was first baptized.
The second stage is also a bargaining stage: When Jacob dreamed about God as he was fleeing his brother, Esau’s anger, when he stole the blessing of the firstborn, Jacob responded by promising God that if God would go with him and return him safe and sound back home, then Jacob would have Jehovah God as his only God, sort of “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” Promises from God are still literal and concrete.
The third stage is the stage most of the world is in. It is a stage in which we want our group to hold our faith for us. The focus of our faith is our group, our church. If someone asks us what we believe, we will direct them to our church, or our preacher. If we want to convert someone, we will focus on converting them to our group, our church. In this stage we are focussed on people thinking well of us, so we strive to have a good reputation in our group, and we strive to climb the social ladder at church. Most people remain in this stage for the rest of their lives, patriotic and loyal, Mom, the flag and apple pie. Churches love having people in stage three. There is an us-against-them mentality in stage three. The disciples said they had found someone who was healing in the name of Jesus and they stopped him, because he wasn’t one of them. Jesus said to let him heal.
Stage four is a difficult stage; it is a stage that is half in and half out of the group. The person in stage four wants the group to think well of him, but he or she is perturbed by the inconsistencies in the group. So the person argues with his or her group, to persuade them to be more logical, more consistent and to follow the principles completely that they have been saying they follow. The person gets more and more frustrated. At first the church tells them that they are really getting a bad reputation in the group. Since this is a primary motivation for the person in stage three, they think this will be very convincing to the person in stage four. But this only infuriates the person in stage four, and they reiterate that they don’t want to be loyal to a group that is so inconsistent. Finally the church just tries to ignore the person in stage four, until the person in stage four becomes so obnoxious that the church hints or tells the person to leave. The person in stage four leaves in hurt and confusion. Why? What happened? How could they have been so blind all these years?
Stage five is a more peaceful stage. No longer wanting to convert people, or argue with anybody, the person in stage five is curious, wanting to know what other peoples’ faith is like, marveling at what motivates, moves and is transcendent, to each person. Rules fall by the wayside, and are replaced by principles. The person in stage five wants principles to be consistent across all instances. People in stage five also feel a separateness between themselves and others to such an extent that they do not mind worshipping with people with whom they disagree. The person in stage five loves the topic of baptism, but from a totally different perspective from a person in stage three: they want to marvel at how deeply symbolic a ritual can be, and how healing it can be to go through such a profound ritual that binds God to humanity. People in stage five are sought out to share their peace and tranquility, and the stage five person loves to mentor the next generation.
Stage six is a seemingly courageous stage. I say seemingly, because if you ask someone in stage six if they are brave in the face of fear, they usually reply that they don’t feel much fear. It is a stage that is set free from the usual cares and structure of life. It is a time when people are moved to give their entire lives to the underprivileged. They don’t seem to mind if their lives are endangered in the process. If you admire them, they ignore you; not motivated by admiration, they just want to give more to the poor, sick and downtrodden. Whereas those of us in the other stages want to make a donation or spend a two week ministry trip helping out, those in stage six seem to think that all that matters is to help the downtrodden.
Okay, back to the comfort of sermons about baptism: they are written and performed for those in stage three faith. And everyone shakes the preacher’s hand afterward and congratulates him on such a wonderful lesson, and wish that unsaved so-and-so had been there to hear it, too.
But baptism in the time of Christ was not a comfort. When John came commanding repentance and baptism because the kingdom was at hand, he was not well received by the self-satisfied religious people. Why? Because he was telling them they needed the same cleansing as the uncircumcised Gentiles needed. (When my daughter was baptized in the nearby lake, a hundred feet away a Rabbi was baptizing a convert to Judaism.) What an insult this was to those who thought of themselves as righteous Israelites, faithful to the Lord. Baptism was an essentially humbling experience to them.
But in the tradition in which I grew up we turned it into its opposite. We did it right, nobody else did it right, therefore we were the only ones baptized into Christ. We had turned it into a mark of pride.