Water is an element of nature that has become a part of rites and rituals in many of the world’s great religions. This comes as no surprise, as many of the world’s largest and most influential religions have their roots in great river valleys – the Nile, the Hindus, the Ganges (and the Mississippi almost – the Cherokee religion would’ve perhaps become one of the world’s great religions if westward expansion had played out differently).
Christianity is certainly no exception, emerging out of a religion with roots in a river valley. One of the first things that Jesus does in his adult ministry is to be baptized in the Jordan River by John.
In the United Methodist tradition, we use the ancient words of Augustine in only two places – baptism and the blessing of wedding rings (or other symbols in lieu of wedding rings): “This/These is/are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
Water is indeed a symbol for purity, for washing, and for cleansing. We must have it to continue life, and therefore it is no wonder that it has become such a part of the religious experience.
I recently watched The Dark Knight Rises and noticed places that water was evident in the movie. At the beginning of the film, the villan Bain’s crews were hard at work in the sewer system, the place filled with water that keeps the waste of Gotham City flowing. Toward the end of the film, those exiled by Bain’s sentencing court must walk out onto a great sheet of ice – and must choose their steps carefully. And then there is this place:
Passing through the waters, one finds themself in an area dedicated to seeking out justice and resisting evil.
I was called as a 20 year-old Sophomore in my undergraduate career to serve in my first appointment as the pastor of a UM church. I lovingly called it being “baptized with fire.” Certainly the same can be said for Bruce Wayne, a boy who had his parents taken from him before his very eyes by the vile underbelly of Gotham City. And so, as he grew and matured and struggled with his existence and his philanthropic role in Wayne Enterprises, as he learned more about the death of his parents and the paths he could take to fight back against Gotham City’s bad guys, this
found his way into becoming this –
A hero arising from the shadows who works inside and outside of the law to bring villany to justice in the city that claimed his parents. The Batman truly becomes the alter-ego of Bruce Wayne.
Have we in the Church turned baptism into the creation of an alter-ego? Do Augustine’s words “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” coincide with sliding through a secret door in the bookcase and putting on the mask and the cape? The Batman wears the mask not simply to protect his identity, but to make justice faceless and as anonymous as the night. It is almost as if the very city is fighting back when the masked man stamps out evil. Is my baptized self faceless? Do I put on my baptismal vows when the bat signal calls me to church on Sunday mornings or compels me to action when a homeless person or an abused person or a forgotten/neglected person wanders into the church for help? Or should baptismal vows be different? Should they be vows that we carry with us all the time, so that the two identities (myself and my baptism) are not two identities at all, but one?
On behalf of the whole Church I ask you:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all kinds?
Renounce wickedness. Reject evil. Resist evil. Resist injustice. Resist oppression. These sound like the vows a hero would take. These are the vows that our members take in the United Methodist Church. However, the process is not a divine zap!
by the Holy Spirit, transforming you with divine magic. It is the ritualistic act of dying, being buried, and being raised with Christ conveyed by the pouring, sprinkling, or immersion in water and the rising out of that death and burial into new life.
Don’t keep your baptismal vows in the bat cave. This is not your alter-ego that you put on when the signal flashes in the sky. My baptismal vows are vows that compel my whole self and should be employed by me in all my actions.
When we pass through the water and enter the bat cave, filled with the tools and resources needed to uphold justice (for us, the church), we need not hang up a mask or a cape as we enter or leave. We need not commit to our weekly identity and our Sunday identity, putting on one and leaving the other behind. There must be the tension and the wrestling with the human and divine. There was certainly wrestling between the wants and desires of Bruce Wayne and the actions of Batman. The choices he made as Batman were invariably tied to the feelings and desires of Bruce Wayne. As baptized persons, the same can truly be said for us. The voice of the self that we supposedly died to still calls out to us, and our words and actions are often swayed.
But maybe that’s the point, of both Batman and Baptism. We aren’t superheroes. Bruce Wayne had no supernatural powers; he simply had created tools and honed physical and mental skills (and resources). As Christians, I would say we seek to have the same things in the community of faith. We develop tools, we hone our skills, and we support our mission by utilizing our combined resources. The water of baptism, perhaps, reminds us that while we seek after new life in Christ, we are certainly not Christ. “Saving the world” is something left to Christ, not the Church. The waters of baptism lead us to smaller areas, our own local mission fields – our Gotham City’s.
So, unite those two that may be divided – your self and the costume of your baptism. Make them be one in Christ, wearing both at all times, so that none may say of you that your discipleship is simply an alter-ego, a secondary personality.