Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



B is for Baptism (modified)

Baptism is up next in the ABC’s of (modified) Theology.

You can see the whole A-Z lineup and join the learning cohort that is forming this week [here].

Enjoy this 10 min overview video below. Read the PDF: B is for Baptism (modified)

Let me know your thoughts and your experience about the practice of baptism.

Sacraments As Enacted Parables

Here is a way of thinking about sacraments that is congruent with the 21st century because it takes seriously both the way that the world works and the way that words work.

  • Baptism is an embodied metaphor
  • Communion is an enacted parable
  • Weddings are performed symbols

Let’s be clear about the difference between a sign and a symbol.

A sign is a signifier that points to a reality beyond itself. A symbol is much bigger – it is a sign that participates in the reality that it points to.

Sacraments are enacted symbols. In this way, they are both signs that point to a greater reality and they are performed signifiers that can never fully reveal or contain the antecedent they are attempting to signify. Sacraments are both significant artifacts of the church and they are gifts and graces (charis) that both form and inform our faith and practice.

In this sense, sacraments are symbols that participate at some level in the reality that they point to. When we are at the table, we are re-membering the body of Christ as the members of the body. It is beautiful symbolism. When we stand in the waters of baptism we have entered the body – like the waters of birth, we are now born of both water and spirit. The same is true for the wedding ceremony – the two become one in the company and community of witnesses. Wearing a wedding ring is an enacted-embodied-performed symbol.

Sacraments and corporate worship are then a parable of the kin-dom. Jesus used parables (not earthly stories with heavenly meanings but earthy stories with heavy meanings) to slide underneath the listener’s defenses in order to interrogate the ‘way things are’. Jesus did this to subvert the unjust status quo and turn upside-down the listener’s presumptions about the way things are and the way that God wants them.

Said a different way: Parables are often misunderstood. Not just the meaning of the parable – those are often elusive – but the very nature of parables.  Many have been told that parables are ‘earthly stories with heavenly meaning’. This is not true!

Parables are better thought of as ‘earthy stories with heavy meanings’. We error when we think that what Jesus was talking about was pie in the sky or the great beyond.

Parables cause the listener to investigate their assumptions (the Samaritan is the ‘good guy’?) and change their mind (literally: repent).

This is the prophetic ministry of the church – to imagine the world a different way and to image what that looks like to the world around us.

The next time you are preparing to come to the table, or enter the waters of baptism, or attend a wedding … remember that you are participating in an embodied metaphor, an enacted parable, and a performed symbol.

B is for Baptism

Baptism, like atonement yesterday, is one of those topics that is vitally important to the Christian tradition but which has developed and evolved over time to have a multiplicity of perspectives.Drop Falling into Water

Let’s talk about the second aspect first.

Sprinkling, pouring and immersing in water are the 3 main methods. There are churches that have fonts built in, others have a basin they pull out when needed. Some have baptismal tanks at the back of the platform. My favorite are the tanks built below the stage that can be uncovered when needed.
For groups that do no do baptisms during the worship service, some groups go to a member’s house and gather around the swimming pool. Other groups go to the nearest lake, river, or ocean.

Here are four aspects of baptism that intrigue me:

1- I grew up in a tradition that did ‘believer’s baptism’ and so we ‘dedicated’ infants to the Lord. I now work in a tradition that baptizes babies and then has confirmation for teens. I see the strength of both … and the weakness. I wish that we could combine these two and that churches who do A) immersion and B) believer’s baptism also had confirmation class in the build up. I’m sure somebody out there does this but I have not found them.

2 – My evangelical background doesn’t do ‘sacraments’ as much as ‘ordinances’. Baptism and communion we ordinances because Jesus A) did them and B) commanded them. I now work in a situation which is nearly ‘catholic’ by my evangelical sensibilities. It is not just sacramental but practically sacerdotal.*

What intrigues me is that for the nearly unanimous expression of baptism in the Eastern and Western, Catholic-Protestant-Orthodox, ancient and current churches … there is no unity or uniformity about how it should be practiced.

In fact, people have historically died over this. Christians have killed other types of christians over this issue! Even today, there are groups which will not recognize (or transfer) members of another group who practice baptism differently.

For something so central to the christian practice you would think there would be more continuity.

3 – Baptism is a great example of a major difference between Christianity and other religions like Islam. I find it really illustrative.

There is nothing geographic about the christian practice of baptism.

  • We don’t have to go to the Jordan River (like Jesus did)
  • We don’t even have to baptize in a river.
  • We don’t have to face East of Jerusalem when baptized.
  • We don’t have a specific time of year when we baptize.

I am fascinated with how little geography is involved in Christianity. I have written about it before. Sometimes people use the word ‘universal’ when they talk about some aspect of christianity. I shy away from that. Its not that it is universal so much as it is not earthly (or earthy).

This is something that concerns me very much.

4) The New Testament stories of baptism do not happen in a vacuum. Many people have no idea that part of the Temple worship of Jesus’ time involved frequent baptism – or ceremonial washing. There were actual permanent pools with two sets of steps – in and out – for purification.

This is so important to know and I am shocked at how many bible-believing people don’t know this biblical scholarship or background. John the Baptizer being A)outside of Jerusalem and B) in a river not a man-made pool is a massive critique and protest against the corrupt religious-political-finacial systems of the Temple religion.

What John and (later) Jesus’ followers were doing was not original to them nor was it the sentimental ceremony it is often portrayed as. What a fascinating way to begin a ministry. It is impacts the whole rest of the gospel … and most people I talk to read it without this context or knowledge.

I would love to hear your thoughts!


* whereas sacrament is concerned with elements (like bread or water) , sacerdotal is concerned with who have perform this sacred ceremonies. ‘Priests only’ is the elevation of certain commissioned individuals being the only ones allowed to. 

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