While clearly a joke at an atheist meeting, this video of a “de-baptism” moment actually made me chuckle…then stop and think.
Did you watch the young girl? When the “de-baptism” via a hairdryer was over she raised up her hands and said “I can see!” The people laughed at her clever correlation between baptism and healing miracles.
I laughed too, even at my chosen religion’s expense. But as I laughed, I realized something powerful: remembering our baptisms is to reaffirm a God who heals us. I think like this video, many of us de-baptize Jesus and do not see what Jesus’ baptism really was. If we connect healing and baptisms, then we fully understand what Jesus’ baptism really was.
When we talk about healing, we often conflate two terms: disease and illness. In Arthur Kleinman‘s 1980s book Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture, we have a clarification between the two:
Disease refers to a malfunctioning of biological and/or psychological processes, while the term illness refers to the psychosocial experience and meaning of the perceived disease…Viewed from this perspective, illness is the shaping of disease into behavior and experience. It is created by personal, social, and cultural reactions to disease. (pg. 72)
Thus, diseases are cured, while illnesses are healed. Sometimes a disease can be cured, but very often the best that can be done is to heal the illness that surrounds it.
My students all understood that Beckett’s disease cannot be cured, but they could also see eventually that his illness is being healed by the support of his partner, his family…Curing is not available, but healing is still possible.
Seen in this light, the healing power of Jesus Christ may not come in wild moments when the blind can see, but comes in the constant care and concern given to healing the illness, the walking and coping that we struggle with daily. When we offer love and care to those who find themselves unloveable, we are co-healing their illness with Christ. Their disease is in the hands of God and of Science, but we can do something about their illness.
I have done one too many funerals for people that have passed away too early in life from cancer. A God who heals disease is not my understanding of God, though I certainly leave room for God to act as God will. However, a God who heals illness, who offers us pathways and possibilities that lead to a healing of the illness surrounding a disease and perhaps leading to a regression and healing of the disease…that’s a God I believe in and that’s the call to nurturing and healing that I understand to be part of Christian mission and ministry.
In summary, healing can be understood as more than a one-time healing of a disease, but as a process of coming to terms with an illness in helpful ways that bring forth the Spirit in another.
Same with Baptism. I don’t understand baptism as the washing away of a disease or the cleansing of Original Sin. God has already done that with God’s grace (prevenient, for the Methodists taking score at home). Baptism is not a one-time event where the clouds part and a dove come down. Rather, Baptism is a process that establishes the baseline and every moment after that is steps that remind us to seek personal holiness in our lives: to deal with the “illness” so to speak. As my friend Will Green wrote yesterday:
Sometimes it feels that baptism is an act of entering a church and becoming a member. Sometimes people think that baptism is a necessary precursor to being saved. Sometimes it is seen as a promise to be a good parent. Sometimes baptism is thought to be an expression of mercy to children and newborns.
I think that baptism is way to claim the power of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. Living as a disciple of Jesus Christ connects us to God and being connected to God affects our life.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus speaks of his two baptisms. Really. His first was in the river with John, yes. But Jesus seems to speak of a second baptism in Mark 10:38. The disciples ask to be on the left and right of him…not knowing that Jesus would be crucified between two criminals! Jesus speaks of a cup from which he must drink, and a baptism with which he must be baptized. Everything in this passage is prophesying his death and the most-likely end of anyone who wants to emulate Jesus.
I take from this passage what Marjorie Suchocki took from it in God, Christ, Church: that the baptism of Jesus began in the river with John and concluded in the rain on Golgotha. His three-year baptism is his anointing as the Christ and it is in his life and death that we are made one with Christ. It was not a one-time event but a process of discovery, faith, and fidelity to the God who walks with us.
So it is with us. We are not baptized, dunked, made into cookie-cutter Christians and God is happy. As Peter Rollins writes in How to (not) Speak of God, that’s like giving a lover of nuts a thousand nuts without any center: giving to God the “saved” bodies of baptized Christians without the fearsome spirit of charity and missions that comes from a lifetime of identifying with Christ. Our baptism must be understood as a process that nurtures, heals, and forgives us for a lifetime, and it is powerful to remember. If God who acts in our lives acts in process not phenomena, then our baptism is not a one-time phenomena but a process of seeking personal holiness.
Do you see the connection? Baptism is not the healing of a disease, but the coping with an illness: the power of the Holy Spirit given to us to help us cope with our troubles and feel connected to a God who is beyond our knowledge. Because it is a process, the presence of a congregation affirming a baptism is necessary to say that “we will walk through this healing with you and be accountable to you and you to us.”
This Sunday is liturgically the Baptism of Jesus Sunday. Let’s not give into the temptation to say that it happened as a historical event and be done with it. Remember that Jesus’s baptism sustained a life of struggle, healing, teaching, and power. Let us all remember our own baptisms and the waysin which we can live out ministries of healing, nurturing, and struggling for justice. In doing so, we resist the temptation to De-Baptize Jesus and relegate his baptism to a one-time event, but instead fully recognize his baptism that carried him from the river to the cross and will carry us from whatever pits of despair we are in to the left and right sides of Jesus, our Christ.
Whew. That was two hours of writing I didn’t expect. Time for bed. Thoughts?