Karygema, the message of the early Church, its stylized, directional, narrow preaching form included water baptism as a means of identification with the reformed Judaism of Jesus, the Crucifed Itinerant rabbi, in recognition of His Messianic sacrifice and resurrection from the dead.
Why bother with water baptism? Well, why pronounce the crucifixion of Christ as the gateway to spiritual salvation? That is, crucifixion, while practiced in some form by various cultures, is peculiarly Roman, not Jewish, not even barbarian, certainly not Greek. The Romans are the prominent practitioners of perfidious penalties in the Near Eastern world of the Common Era’s beginning.
Yet, If one hangs a cross around his neck, no one in Western culture, or around the World in this age, would question the memorial you have in mind. The cross around the neck, on the wall, high on the steeple, calls to mind the death of the one man historical whispers say went through naked, humiliating crucifixion and then returned.
If you hang a cross on your building or in your home you remember the death of Jesus Christ. Cross Christians ackowledge our guilt at the sin in our heart that made His death necessary. Cross Christians tremble at the thought of God’s mighty wrath, pale at the sight of His great sacrifice and then blossom like spring flowers when we recognize the offer God makes in the death and resurrection of His own dear Son, Jesus the Christ.
Cross-Christians repent of old life styles. That is, we change the direction of our lives when we regret our aimless wanderings, suffer pangs of remorse for our purposeless daily routines and offer God restitution for wasting our time in His eternity.
Still, once believing, why bother with a memorial rite like water baptism? Why go through the water if one has been through the blood?
The karygema, the explicit, straight-laced establishment of the universal congregation called the Church, requires water baptism in the name of Jesus, the Christ, as an early objectification of a faith system augmented inward change. It is not an option, to be taken if one feels it is the right time, or the right thing to do. Water baptism in the name of Jesus the Christ is as condemnatory as eating/drinking the Lord’s Supper elements unworthily for if one dips in the water unbelieving the door to grace may slam shut forever. Water baptism is not a substitute for faith in Christ.
Still, why bother? The trend today is to trivialize baptism. Local congregations take the rite of baptism out of the Church-meeting context to someone’s backyard pool or, outlandishly, move the baptistry to the Children’s Building and make baptism a silly event, like a birthday party gone terribly, terribly wrong.
So, why bother? Run through the usual arguments. Jesus submitted baptism, the early Church practiced baptism, the Apostles required water baptism, Paul even rebaptized some who had experienced water baptism by John the Immerser.
Still, why bother? That was then and this is now. We change the Scripture, at least in interpretation, in every generation as our perceived need of God changes. Why cling to an ancient, mostly Jewish practice, like water baptism by immersion as a means of identification with the Kingdom of Heaven and the Universal Church?
Harold Bloom, in his book of essays titled simply Genius, identifies Will Shakespeare as the number one literary genius of all time, at least among those we know. He notes, among other things, Shakespeare’s huge vocabulary, for Will used over 22,000 separate words in his plays and sonnets, coining many of them himself. Bloom cites the Shakespearean ability to create characters so completely different from one another from play to play but, still, each character seems more natural and real than a real person.
The primary proof of Shakespeare’s genius, though, is his unique ability to write in two genres capably; tragedy and comedy. The same pen that posits King Lear gives life to The Comedy of Errors. He is, the bard, eventually at home in the playground or the board room.
Baptism is that versatile identifying rite, at one with the Cross and at home with the empty tomb. It was Will Rogers, I think, who said, "Quit lookin’ back. We ain’t goin’ that way." In truth, we are not going back to the first century but we are going on by way of the Cross and the Tomb, for they are the central events of human history. You don’t settle your life until you decide about Jesus, one way or another, and you cannot settle with Jesus apart from the Cross, offset from the tomb.
We practice baptism by water, immersion after salvation, to identify with the Man/God, Jesus the Christ, in the tragedy of His crucifixion and the triumph, the happy ending of His resurrection. When we enter the water, we say we are willing to accept our guilt and His grace. When we accept immersion, we submit to Him in all His requirements of us. When we emerge from the water, it is to a new life, renouncing Satan and all his works.
So, we will go on practicing our ancient, time honored, practice proven rite. We will shroud it in holiness, cloak it in the supernatural, forswear the superficial and the silly. We will keep on with the new life but with the old identifying mark the early Christians found so necessary.