We have all heard of a shotgun wedding and know what is involved in such a ceremony, but I wonder, have you ever heard of a shotgun baptism?
The story that I am about to share is true and comes from the ministry of one of God’s best, Rev. Al Hawkins. As he tells it, Al was working late one night in his church. He had picked up the things he needed to work on that evening and was about to walk out the office door when he saw a lady walking in from the parking lot. He did not know her, but still opened the door and invited her in. Once inside she said, “I want to be baptized. I’m getting on up there in years and likely to die soon, so I want to be baptized.”
Al was a good United Methodist pastor. He tried his best to explore her faith with her. He already knew what her motivation for baptism was. He soon learned that she was not interested in any of his question about her relationship with Jesus. She didn’t care about the ins and outs of baptism, what baptism really means, she just wanted to be baptized. So Al asked her when she would like for the ceremony to take place. He asked if the following Sunday morning was soon enough. It wasn’t. She wanted to be baptized then and there. When asked if the chapel would be all right, since it was just going to be the two of them, she replied, “Nope, I want the real church!” And so Al and the one about to be baptized headed towards the Sanctuary and walked down its center aisle.
When the two of them reached the front pew, he asked if she could sit for a minute while he got things ready. She agreed and Al headed toward the baptismal font to fill it with water. When he returned, he reached for her hand and led her to the altar. It was the dead of winter and the Sanctuary was a bit chilly, but still Al asked if she wanted to take off the full link fur coat she was wearing. She clutched it tightly and said that she’d prefer to keep it on.
So, with everything in place, Al began her baptism. He asked her if she believed in Jesus and if she would repent of her sins. She said that she did and that she would. Al prayed over the water, asked God to bless it, and then reached his right hand down, pulling up a palm full of water. He gentled placed the water on her head and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” He said a prayer for her and then looked down at her. There was a big smile on her face. She said, “That felt really good. Do it again.”
For most, once is enough. Al must have smiled at her. I know he explained that in our denomination one baptism is all you get and all, really, he could do. Our Book of Discipline says that re-baptizing is unauthorized conduct.
She took a step back and opened up her fur coat, revealing the gun she had been concealing. She said, “I really want to be baptized again.” What choice did he have? She was locked and loaded, so he reached for the waters a second time, placed them on her head, said the words again and prayed for her again. When he was finished she smiled sweetly, thanked him for his time, and made her way to her car.
Baptism is about God’s love for us. While we generally associate baptism with a personal choice, a personal confession of faith, or with a promise to raise a child in a household of faith, baptism is about much more than that. In fact, it is probably fairer to say that baptism is first and foremost a sign of God’s choice for us. It is about the love of God that precludes all of our own actions and choices. Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the church, the other being communion. The definition of what a sacrament is can be summed up in these words: an outward sign and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. In other words, it is a sign that we can, touch, see, witness. It is an action that we can understand, and that action points to the deeper ways that God is working. The act of baptism points to the deeper reality that God chooses us through his Son Jesus Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Baptism is in part, about human response to God’s choice for us. It is about saying, yes, I want to be a part of God’s family. We respond to God’s love for us. While we only need to be baptized once, every time we witness a baptism, and every time we reaffirm our baptismal covenant as a congregation, we are remembering our baptism, and we are making a continual choice to respond to God’s love for us. But what exactly happens in baptism? What is it really about?
Just prior to baptism, during the prayer of thanksgiving over the water, I prays these words: “Pour out your Holy Spirit, to bless this gift of water and those who receive it, to wash away their sin and clothe them in righteousness throughout their lives, that dying and being raised with Christ, they may share in his final victory.” In these words, we hear what is going on in baptism. First, we are recognizing that God gives the gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s own spirit to live inside of us, guiding us, sustaining us, transforming us. It is about having our sin washed away and putting on the righteousness of Christ, but it is also about being baptized into Christ’s death. It is about death to self and being reborn into a new life characterized by sacrifice and a willingness to follow Jesus. God says to us also, “You are my child, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.” Baptism is a radical act because it acknowledges the way that God changes us, and we acknowledge the way that we want to be changed, willing to be identified with Christ in his death, willing to put away the old person of sin and put on the new person of Christ. These are heavy words, with a lot of weight to them, and they deserve to be taken seriously.
Around here these days, we see mostly adult baptisms, and that is great. When adults are baptized, it is almost always because they were not brought up in the church, or they didn’t stay in the church. Adult baptism reflects a reaching out beyond the church walls. However, I also want to remind us of the importance of infant baptism. It is good to baptize our infants who will be brought up in church. Infant baptism only happens with families who are already in the church say that they want God’s grace to become a reality in the lives of their children.
Today as we reaffirm our baptismal covenant as a congregation, consider the significance of your own baptism: what it means for God to first choose you, and what your life looks like when you respond to that choice. What does it mean for the choices you make, the encounters you have? Maybe you were baptized as an infant, and the baptismal vows were made on your behalf by someone else. But today as we reaffirm our baptism, you can claim those words for yourself. Are you ready to claim the life that God gives to us? Are you ready to let the Holy Spirit transform you into a person who looks more like Jesus Christ?