“Since then you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” ~Colossians 3:1-4
I had the tremendous honor of baptizing into Christ yesterday my good friend Junior Doerue. Junior moved here from his native Liberia with his family about seven years ago when he was twelve. Jackie and Carolyn Nall moved next door to the Doerues about five months ago. And God has been working wonderfully and quickly through the Nalls and through our church family at Central to bring Junior into his eternal Kingdom.
What a blessing! What a great joy! Of course, because of my great friend Quincy, I feel a special fondness for Junior. The day I met Junior — a couple of weeks before I even preached my first sermon here — I called up Quincy to get some insights on Liberian culture and, particularly, the African tribe to which Junior belongs. Quincy’s been praying faithfully for Junior every day. And when I phoned Quincy Saturday night to tell him that his little brother — whom he’s never met — was going to put on Christ in baptism Sunday, he just about broke my phone with his loud laughter and praises and thanksgiving to God. What a blessing!
And, I suppose, now’s the time to explain to my Central church family why I baptize people the way I do. Over time, the giggling and question marks were replaced at Legacy by nods of understanding and affirmation. But I’ve not had the time to explain it yet here.
I’ve received the same comments after baptisms here that I did at Legacy. “Why did you hold him under the water so long, was he extra bad?” “I thought you were trying to just send her straight to heaven.” “What do you do, wait until you see a couple of bubbles before you bring them up?”
No, I hold them under the water so long to symbolize as much as we can the death and burial that’s taking place sacramentally in baptism.
A person who is giving himself entirely to Christ is said to participate in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection at baptism. At baptism, we put to death our old man of sin; we bury that guy. And when we come up out of the watery grave, we are brand new resurrected men and women. God has created in us a brand new person, full of his Holy Spirit, to experience everything in a brand new holy and eternal way. We are dead to sin, dead to ourselves, dead to everything that separates us from God. And he now lives inside us. The old is gone; the new has come.
So, when I baptize someone, I want it to be real. I want it to have impact. I want it to really symbolize what we preach and teach that it symbolizes. When they go into that water, I want them under in that grave for a long time — long enough for the church to notice, long enough that everybody notices, long enough that we have everybody’s attention, long enough for the church to even begin to wonder “is that guy going to come up?” “Is he going to survive this?” Long enough for there to be some question as to the outcome. Long enough to truly communicate to everybody involved that baptism is death. It’s a burial. Long enough that the person being baptized is anxious to be brought up and take a breath of real air.
And that’s what I really love about the five long seconds the baptizee is under water: the resurrection of the baptizee out of the water. There’s an audible sigh of relief from the congregation when the person is brought up. It’s almost celebratory in sound. Yes! Wow! Even some nervous laughter. I wasn’t sure there for a second! He made it!
For the baptizee, that first breath is a big one. A huge intake of air into the lungs, oxygen flooding the arteries and veins, rushing into the heart and brain. It’s invigorating. It’s a relief. That first breath is a memorable one. It matters. It’s different from the breaths that were taken before going into the water. It’s a life-giving breath.
The greek word for breath in the New Testament is pneuma. It’s the same word for air. And wind. And Spirit. The Holy Spirit. That first breath somebody takes when they come up out of the water is a Holy Spirit breath. It’s God by the mystery of his Spirit entering into that person as a fulfillment of the covenant to make his dwelling among us, inside us. It’s huge. It’s monumental. That first breath is everything. And if I can get the baptizee and the church to experience it together in a memorable way, the better.
The watery grave should resemble and feel like death. The resurrection should resemble and feel like deliverance from death, a brand new life, a gracious gift from a faithful Father.
Now, if we can just get the Lord’s Supper to resemble and feel more like a great celebratory banquet…