Baptism is one of those events which has become rather formal in the Christian Church. It sometimes almost has the nature of a social event rather than a religious one. Even in the New Testament where baptism as a formal event in the Bible originated, there is something about it which assumes a great deal of those who read about it. It assumes, for example, that we know the why of baptism and how it originated. It is a powerful symbol that in the New Testament is explained almost in passing. But the whole Bible is concerned with this matter of Baptism. Paul spoke of it in the New Testament as dying and rising with Christ. The rest of the Bible is concerned with Baptism in a much less formal sense. It is concerned less with the symbol and more with the meaning.
line drawn across the history of the people of Israel. It separated very sharply the old life from the new. And that is a part of the meaning of baptism.
Wherever we find it in the Old or the New Testaments Baptism is either symbolically or actually a difficult experience, for to be baptized is to be buried with Christ and to rise in his resurrection, to partake of his suffering and death on the cross and to rise victoriously with him again. We generally assume two attitudes toward baptism. Either we argue about it, especially about infant baptism, or we never think about it, treating it as a social custom. But it is about the nature and meaning of this first Sacrament of the Christian Faith that I would like for us to think this morning.
For the Hebrews the Red Sea might very well have had another name, the Sea of Doubt. With the Sea before them and the Egyptians behind them what else could the people do but begin to doubt the wisdom of having come out here in the first place. They complained to Moses, “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die ignominiously in the sands of the desert?” The baptism of the Hebrew people began, significantly enough, with the experience of doubt.
I always hesitate to speak in absolute terms, but I do not hesitate to say that there is not a one of us who has not at some time or other, many more often than others, experienced this thing called doubt. We call Thomas the doubter, but each of us can apply that label to himself too. We were discussing this matter of doubt in a youth group once and we came to a general conclusion that one of the times that we experience doubt almost universally is at the time of prayer. But just as it is true that there would have been no promised land had there been no Red Sea, there is no faith without doubt. One philosopher has expressed it this way, that doubt is the rosy cheeks of a healthy faith. Although doubt may be a disconcerting experience, no Christian can afford to decide to believe uncritically, because he may not be able to tell the difference between faith and foolishness. In the book of Job, doubt itself seems to be productive of faith. Jesus said, “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it will not bring forth fruit.” Unless there is doubt there is no faith.
But doubt does not always occur in this stimulating form. Sometimes it occurs as a kind of ultimate doubt. And the hardest doubt of all to overcome is the doubt that God can do what he has promised to do. If the people who faced the Red Sea were concerned about proof then they didn’t need to be. They had been in Egypt just like the Pharaoh when God visited the Seven Plagues on the Egyptians. They had experienced the saving grace of the Passover, when the Egyptian first born sons were taken and their first born sons were left. But still they said to Moses, wouldn’t it have been better for us to die in Egypt than to die in the wilderness? For in Egypt they could have looked after themselves, but in the wilderness at the Red Sea they were entirely dependent on God, and it is a dreadful thing to discover that you are entirely dependent on God. All of us have a strong desire to be independent; we all believe that we can handle almost any matter that comes to us. It can be a terrible experience to discover that you are weak and there is only God left to depend on.
On that night when they crossed the Red Sea, the Hebrew people passed through the valley of the shadow of death, with the walls of water piled up on either side of them, and that night they died to their weak selves and to their mistrust. Baptism… a traumatic experience because it is the experience of death, dying to an old self.
The Red Sea was not only the Sea of Doubt it was the Sea of Hope as well, the the purpose of baptism is not death but life. The purpose is not to die but to rise. For the Hebrews the Red Sea was a means to an end. Baptism cannot fail to measure, at least symbolically, suffering and suffering itself can become an experience pointing toward a productive faith. There is a real danger in becoming enamored with the condition of suffering that it is almost as if we revel in it, that we glory in our misery and point to ourselves and say, “Look how miserable I am.” Perhaps it wasn’t their fault, but Egyptians make a wonderful illustration of the people who never got over their traumatic experience, they passed into the Red Sea too, but they never got to the other side, when suffering becomes a means and not an end then suffering is its own reward. When doubt becomes its own end then doubt does not free or motivate to action, it paralyzes.
All the things that we say about the experience of the Hebrews at the Red Sea can be said equally well of Baptism. For baptism is a kind of summary of that experience, a reminder, if you will of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but more than a reminder. It is like a kind of participation in the event itself. For whether we baptize an infant or an adult, baptism always is the symbol of having passed through death into life.
As was the crossing of the Red Sea, so is baptism, thirdly, the Seal of the Spirit. Through their history the Hebrews have celebrated the Passover as the birth of the nation of Israel. It was at the moment that they moved out of the land of Egypt that they became the people of God, but the experience of the Red Sea was like the seal on the contract, making it final and irrevocable. Just as the Passover was a matter of God’s doing, so was the crossing of the Red Sea a matter of God’s doing. It was not an act of faith that carried them across the Red Sea, but God’s grace. In just such a way, Baptism is the Seal of Something which has already happened. Deliverance came in Christ Jesus; it is made present, sealed to this one in baptism. It is not faith that baptizes, but God. Baptism is a matter of Grace.
In the days of the Roman Empire when a man had a slave he signified his ownership of the slave by marking him with a brand on the forehead, by marking him with his seal. Christian Baptism is the Seal of the Spirit, God’s mark which signifies to all the world that this one belongs to him.
The early Christians thought of Baptism with still another symbol in mind. They thought of it as the badge of the Christian signifying that he was an initiated member of the Community of Christians, the Church. We enter the names of those persons who have been baptized on the rolls of the Church as preparatory members. Because these children have this day been made a part of the fellowship of the church, we who are the Church have the collective responsibility for their Christian nurture. We have asked these parents and sponsors to assume that responsibility as our representatives and they have promised to do it, but we can never wash our hands of our responsibility to one another in the Church and especially of our responsibility to these little ones.
The way that we have sought to help parents to fulfill their responsibility in the matter of Christian nurture is through a Sunday School which formalizes the job of Christian education. It is sad but true that in almost all Churches the matter of Christian education is the concern of a small number of people, those who have children, perhaps, and a few others whose devoted efforts mostly go unrewarded. But the job of Christian education formalized in a Sunday School is an optional matter only if the Church is seeing to its responsibility to bring these up in the Christian Faith, teaching then the meaning and purpose of this Sacrament in some other way.
The Sacrament that we call Baptism is of such a profound nature that it is difficult for us to conceive of its meaning, and even more difficult to explain it. It is easier to talk about it when we tell a story or use symbolic language. Paul’s symbol of dying and rising with Christ has always seemed the most apt of all. And even the often misunderstood story of the Red Sea gives us some clue. For Baptism in the Christian Church is at least the symbolic experience of doubt, hope and the Holy Spirit. The Red Sea was for the Children of Israel the Sea of Doubt, the Sea of Hope and the Seal of the Spirit. Because it was what it was it signified both the beginning and the end of their struggle. In the end Baptism abbreviates the whole Christian life. The Christian Faith as signified in Baptism is both a comfort and a sorrow.
This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch in the summer of 1959 at Trinity Methodist Church in Stony Point, New York. This was a few weeks after arriving in Stony Point after serving three years in Missoula, Montana, as the Wesley Foundation campus minister at the University of Montana and at First Methodist Church in Missoula. The Stony Point appointment after deciding to return to Drew University to purse a Masters in Sacred Theology. It was also the first time to serve as the senior pastor of a church. Throughout his career Bill Crouch refered to Stony Point as the church that taught him how to be a pastor.