Immersion Experience

Romans 6

Have you ever had an immersion experience? Mine was a month in Mexico, studying Spanish after my junior year in college. We went to language classes, learned about Mexican history and politics, and visited cultural sites. We lived with host families, shopped at the open market, and worshipped at the local cathedral. I even began dreaming in Spanish. It was an immersion experience into the life of the Mexican people, and it changed me – I experienced another way to live, and I appreciated the tenacity and beauty of the Mexican people. It broadened my perspective and helped me understand my place of privilege as an educated American. In this immersion experience I saw the truth that we are all interconnected—by history and culture, by the world economy—but most importantly, by our common humanity. 

The early church had its immersion experience, too – the initiation rite of baptism. Baptisms took place in rivers or in hot tub-sized baptistries built into the floor. Throughout the six weeks of Lent, people who wanted to be baptized participated in a rigorous process of spiritual formation. On the night before Easter, they stripped off their clothes and their old lives and went down into the water. The water closed in over their heads three times, and for these non-swimmers, it was like a death experience—a burial in a tomb of water. What died in that tomb was their old life, with all its futility and self-aggrandizement and shame. But it was also like a birth, because when they emerged from the water and came up into the air it was as if they had burst from the waters of the womb into a new life—a resurrected life where they lived with Christ and in his power. Born a Christian, they were now fully alive, no longer constrained by guilt and death.
It was a powerful rite, with deep symbolism in the very practice of the sacrament. St Paul picks up on this symbolism in our lesson from Romans today, speaking of burial and birth. He writes, “We have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Paul is describing baptism as the immersion experience that unites us with the death and resurrection of Christ: as St Paul says, “if we have united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” This union is not only about hope for eternal life in the hereafter; it’s also about a new life now – “walking in newness of life.” This immersion experiences changes the way we live: released from the fear of judgment and death and surrounded by a love that will not let us go, we are free to practice risky acts of love like forgiveness and loving our neighbors, welcoming strangers and even our enemies.

An immersion experience, however, is finite – it doesn’t last forever. Sustaining the changes of that experience requires constant maintenance. And that didn’t happen for me with my Spanish. When I got back to school, I didn’t have room in my schedule for a Spanish class, and I didn’t make time to have conversations with Spanish speakers. Without practice, my language skills quickly atrophied. I went back to Mexico two other times, but without use my Spanish disappeared.

The Christian faith is like that, too. I often liken baptism to a beautifully wrapped gift. On the day of baptism, a child of God receives the most wonderful gift of acceptance and love, and spiritual gifts that are meant to be exercised. These newly minted Christians are given a job description to grow in faith and serve the world that God loves. But sometimes we don’t do those things. We get off track and find ourselves walking in “old-ness of life” instead the new life Christ offers us. And in those cases, it’s like we’ve left the beautifully wrapped gift of Holy Baptism, sitting in its original packaging – unopened, and unused. 

That’s why it is so cool to have three baptisms today – Judah, Bailey, and Hannah – all at the beginning of this walk of faith. We as a congregation have the privilege of welcoming them and praying for their families. We also share the responsibility of helping them unpack the gifts of this day over their lifetime. That’s what it means to be church.

That’s also why it is so cool to have Pr Mark Shafer and Spoke Folk with us today. My understanding of what they foster in this weeklong bike mission trip is practicing the faith. Throughout the week they share music and testimony, biking from church to church, but they also explore spiritual practices that sustain the Christian life: solitude, prayer partners, sharing highs and lows in family groups. You’ll hear more from Spoke Folk directly next week when they lead worship at both (Far Hills) services. What I think is cool is that they teach faith practices that are portable and repeatable; that Spoke Folk participants can take with them throughout their lives.

Baptism is the immersion experience that begins our Christian life. It’s meant to change us so that we can change the world in Jesus’ name. So we have got to keep up our spiritual practices. We can return regularly to our immersion experience, go back to the waters of baptism and remember we are joined to Jesus. We are united in his death that we may live a new life – a courageous life of daring connectedness and compassionate service, all possible because we are secure in the knowledge that we are deeply, irrevocably loved: We are baptized. 

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