“Journey to Jordan: Early Christian Baptism”

March 19, 2017


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Mar. 19, 2017

“Journey to Jordan: Early Christian Baptism”
Acts 8:35-38

“Why is that thing out here? And full of water?”
“Its right in the way of where we welcome people and hand out the bulletins!”
“Prayer pebbles?” Hurmph.
“The water is dripping on the rug. Goodness. Everything is wet!”
“My hands are wet. Do you have a towel?”
“It’s holy water. Like the Catholics. Geez.”

I watched with excitement, enthusiasm and a bit of astonishment the first week we put the baptismal font in the foyer. It really is small – but out in the middle of the walkway – it seems well, in the way.

I mentioned to one usher that the foyer is where a baptistery belongs. We come into the church – into the family of God – through the waters of baptism. Whether we got dunked, or doused, or just dribbled on, it was water that did the initiation. So, when we come into the worship service, it isn’t all bad to have a reminder of our baptism right there.

We all come into the world surrounded by water. Our mother’s bodies protect us with water. We also:
• Bathe in it
• Swim in it
• Drink it
• Cook with it
• Wash with it
• Play in it
It is no wonder to me that our forbearers used it as the symbol to represent life itself. We are continuing our theme on the Journey to the Jordan and talking about early Christian baptism today.

We know that Jesus was not the first person baptized. His cousin, John, was already known to baptize people… it was a defining role for him. Last week you heard about the early Jewish traditions surrounding baptism. And then we have this story of the early Christian movements continuing to baptize:

Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. Acts 8: 35-38

This question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” is rich with voice. Imagine a child on his way to the first swim of the summer. “Are we there yet? Can I jump in when we get there? I can’t wait to get in the water!” Take a moment to picture the toddlers enjoying the surprise of a water fountain that squirts on a hot August day. The giggles and surprised squeals of glee. Children who can’t wait to get wet.

But this was a man. “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Let’s be honest: no one gets that excited about a religious sacrament.

Eric has often repeated his horror when his own mom decided that he should be confirmed in the United Methodist church in downtown Hutchinson as a young boy. According to him, she had to drag him to the classes at the church and on the day of confirmation, he ran yelling and screaming out of the building and across the street to avoid being a part of the worship service.

The ruler Charlemagne (742-814) forced baptism on his subjects. On one occasion, 3,000 Lombards who resisted baptism were slaughtered. Charlemagne actually attempted to Christianize his society by laws. The death penalty was legislated for a large range of offenses that included killing church officials, robbing a church, refusing to be baptized, and eating meat during Lent. The death penalty!

During the Crusades, many Jews were forcibly baptized… and others took their own lives to avoid baptism. At the same time, there were Christian bishops who tried to protect the Jews and took them into their fortified palaces and then sent them to safe hiding places in the countryside.

But that was all much later than our story about Philip and the eunuch in Acts. This man is identified as a “court official” and a eunuch, but never is he called a “man.” Eunuchs were castrated before puberty and trained to take sensitive positions not entrusted to males, like working directly for the queen. This man would have been beardless with a high voice. He was likely torn from his birth family and enslaved at a young age and he could never have a family of his own. Even Philip was not thrilled to be in his company.

But the man was thrilled to jump at the chance to be baptized. You see, baptism meant entrance into the Christian community. To be blunt, his physical state disqualified him for circumcision and full conversion to the faith like the other converts. He didn’t qualify. The doors were closed to him. He was seeking God and found barriers.

Then, the miraculous happened. Water – rare in the desert – just appears as if it was provided straight from heaven. The religious rules excluded him. But water was his salvation! He could confess his faith and be baptized. His thirst for God was quenched. Water was the great equalizer.

Baptism was a part of the early church – before and after Jesus’ ministry. After Jesus, we know about the practice of baptism from art, scrolls, church history, and ancient writings. Many of the statements of belief (or creeds) actually emerged from baptismal liturgies.
Some new Christians underwent 40 days of moral and religious instructions, including fasts, prayers, and abstinence from bathing. Adult baptism was the rule – but infants were baptized if they seemed in danger of dying. Some adults (including Constantine) postponed their baptism until they were close to death, but when Augustine came along, he encouraged people to be baptized earlier.

Although Jews and Christians prohibited nakedness in other places, baptism was often done naked. This was likely a connection to the Garden of Eden stories when the first people were naked and unashamed. And yes, the full congregation was present to view baptism.

The candidate for baptism entered a pool and was asked traditional questions about belief in God, the church, forgiveness of sin, and new life in Christ. The newly baptized appeared before the bishop and were anointed with oil and then clothed in a white linen robe and slippers. Finally, they were given a small portion of milk and honey – the ancient ritual food of a newborn.

Women sometimes had official ministry positions in churches at least by the 2nd century and assisting in the baptism of other women.

Can you imagine standing on the bank of the Jordan? Can you see John the Baptizer there with people streaming into the water to be washed and freed? Do you see Jesus walking toward water’s edge, removing his sandals, and walking gingerly into the water?

Jesus and his followers visit this water again and again. Sometimes there are only a few of them. Other times, it seems like the crowds have followed them out into the water – pressing in on Jesus as thirsty souls parched by dessert sand who cannot drink enough of his life-giving words.

Philip and the eunuch are there later. In another pool in the desert. The eunuch is jumping and splashing about in excitement and joy! He is part of the great mystery and will now be allowed to share his faith with others.
Tens of thousands follow into the water. Each one with a story. Each one looking for new life. Each one seeking this fresh, re-energizing pool that symbolizes another beginning. People speaking words in other languages and times step into cold streams and warm pools.

Water purifies. It washes and cleanses and changes us. Through the centuries, it serves as a reminder. Whether we were carried in our mother’s arms or arrived at the water on our own, we all need the water of baptism. We get into the water with John and Jesus,
Resources Used:
Miles, Margaret R. “The Word Made Flesh; A History of Christian Thought”. Blackwell Publishing. 2005.
Ferguson, Everett. “Backgrounds of Early Christianity”. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2003.
Smith & Williams. The Storyteller’s Companion; The Acts of the Apostles”. Abingdon Press. 1999.