April 14, 2006

A Good Afternoon

1510 page30 caphe call of the bellbirds echoes across the broad bend in the river, and the mild afternoon sunlight filters through the restless gum trees. The small group of people--some still dressed in their Sabbath best, others more Sabbath-afternoon relaxed--includes some of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the local church, as well as younger friends of the baptismal candidate.
As the group assembles at the chosen spot, the family playing cricket nearby on the riverbank chooses a tactical retreat and, when I look back, they are gone. But another nearby mother calls her sons away from throwing rocks out of respect for the group, and they continue to play in the shallows just a little downstream.
The younger minister speaks for a few minutes, and the quiet of the location allows him to be heard easily above the gentle breeze and the birdcalls. Then the local pastor and the about-to-be-baptized brave the uncomfortable chill of the water. It’s late summer, but these upper reaches of the river are fed by streams from the surrounding mountains and are rarely considered warm.
A few more words are spoken from midstream, and the pastor lowers the others below the water. As they make their way out of the river, the group on the bank sings sincerely but somewhat hesitantly. The group breaks up into quiet conversations and slowly disperses during the next half hour as friends, family, and other church members congratulate the newly baptized, who is wrapped in a large blanket but is soon warmed by the afternoon sun.
1510 page30It is a moment of peace and reflection--perhaps slightly less so for those braving the cool water; a time of well wishing, commitment, and warmth. It is a good afternoon, in the best and truest sense.
But the tranquillity of the occasion belies its profundity. Reference is made to the angels rejoicing in heaven (see Luke 15:10), but even in the more immediate location something almost unutterably significant has taken place. Despite the absence of prepublicity, record-breaking ticket sales, stadiums full of energetic fans, or live news television coverage, this simple act may well have been the most important event to take place that afternoon across the nation.
In A Peculiar People, Rodney Clapp refers to Paul’s description of “a new life begun” (see 2 Cor. 5:17) and describes baptism as an act of civil disobedience. The family, the nation, the market, the employer, the university, the advertiser, the retailer, the opinion maker, is “no longer the primary source of identity, support and growth” for the new believer. As such, Clapp argues, “baptism is profoundly subversive. Anytime the church takes baptism seriously, which is to say on its own terms, the surrounding society cannot help but see it as at least potentially politically threatening.”
Clapp isn’t focused on “political” as in the “politician” sense that happens in a capital city, election campaign, or media debate near you, although it is not entirely disconnected. Instead he is highlighting the real sense in which to say “Jesus is Lord” must also be a powerful statement that everything and everyone else is not. To choose baptism is to choose citizenship in a different kingdom--and a different type of kingdom.
Living out of step with the dominant society--creatively and with grace--is not necessarily easy. But that is the call of God, answered at the time of our own baptism and renewed with each baptism we share: “For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives” (Rom. 6:4, NLT).
It’s not quite Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus that day in 1955, thereby sparking the civil rights movement. But on the other hand, perhaps baptism is not so different an act of civil disobedience in a self-centered and self-destructive society. Seemingly small things can have big consequences, and the consequences don’t get much bigger than eternity.
It was a good afternoon, in the best, truest, and most powerful sense--whether we realized it or not.
Nathan Brown is editor of the South Pacific Signs of the Times and the South Pacific Division Record.