It’s worth noting at the beginning my sensitivity to this topic. It began in 2012 when a well-intentioned, but misguided church pastor literally walked away from my dying father’s request for baptism. There is no more anger. Over the years, I have understood this moment for what it was.
Fast forward six years.
Dana and I were working a three-month term of volunteer service at a facility in Santiago de Compostela, Spain known for its welcoming atmosphere, peaceful environment, and Christian foundation. This is not a place that pushes religion on you, but it ideally operates as if Jesus managed it. We often said we hoped visitors experienced Jesus when they walked through the door. It’s also worth noting that the founders of this facility were abroad on business during these three months, and had they been there, none of this likely would have happened.
As I mentioned, Dana and I were volunteers working with several full-time staff members. We greeted visitors, helped them with travel issues, helped them understand the city, and other basic needs. Volunteerism is a commendable thing, but you also have to remember your place. You are there to assist, not necessarily lead. You are on someone else’s turf.
Several weeks into our service, a young man from Portugal came in. After helping him with some logistical issues, he began a conversation along spiritual lines. The young man mentioned he’d been on pilgrimage for three weeks, stopped in three churches to request baptism, and was denied each time. He was confounded how this could happen.
“Can you baptize me here?” he asked.
I asked a few questions exploring his faith a bit more. My judgment was that he’d had a genuine experience out there that fully merited his request.
I should have handled it right then and there. It was so exciting. What a moment this will be, I thought. We will remember it forever. It even crossed my mind that this was the reason we were called so far from home. Yes, I should have handled it right there. Were it to repeat, that’s exactly what I’d do.
But in the moment, I decided the best protocol was to quickly explain the scenario to a full-time staffer and let him and others move this process forward. There was no question in my mind they’d do so, and it was the respectful thing to do.
So I led Carlito into a conversation with the senior staff member on duty and went back to the desk, listening intently, and excited about Carlito’s decision.
Carlito described his frustration with the three churches who would have no part in his baptism. He did not wish to be catholic. He wished to be baptized in the name of Jesus. I counted this a real sign of his understanding.
At this point, it might be helpful to explain what baptism is, and what it is not.
It is not:
•Membership in a denominational church
•A magical moment of conversion
•Even particularly necessary for one’s salvation
•A symbolic profession of faith carried out as a result of a previous experience
•Agreement that one believes in Christ Jesus, His deity as the Son of God, his death as atonement for sin, and his resurrection ,and place at God’s right hand today
•A milestone moment on which a Christian can reflect
Our staffer, a well-educated, deep-thinking scholar and Christian evangelical from Tennessee walked Carlito though conversation. I eventually heard him explaining how baptism is an act of community, and should be performed in community. He encouraged him to return home, find a church, explore his faith further and invest in a place where he could serve. There was so much talking, and so little acting.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It would be the fourth time Carlito was refused baptism. He left later that day never knowing the difference. I was sick to my stomach.
So much theology!
It doesn’t take a special set of circumstances or a certain environment to profess your faith in Christ. Jesus doesn’t care if you are fully immersed, or sprinkled, or if you are in a church of five thousand, or with a friend in the woods. Jesus cares for the condition of your heart, and asks that you take a step in faith to know Him.
Our faith has never been about the rules, or the guidelines, or the principles. Just as it is not about your resume or list of achievements. We come to the place where we realize that we are not enough, and we need a helper. A simple decision, not a ceremony.
Don’t overthink Jesus.