For the older churches it is the forgiveness of sins, a mystical participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus, re-birth, and entry into the community of the church.Three stories:
For more modern communions, like the Baptists, it is an ordinance signifying obedience, but little else, a sign of the more important prior personal embrace of Jesus as Lord.
In speaking of baptism, it is certainly appropriate to phrase the question in terms of "Am I acceptable to Jesus?" But it is just important, for a Christian, to ask the converse, "Is Jesus acceptable to me?" "Do I take seriously his claims, and the claims of the God to whom he points?"
In so many of these discussions the focus is upon the question, "What is the least I can do, become, believe?" It is a legitimate question, one of outside boundaries, perhaps, but what do we think of an employee always asking "What's the least I must do to keep from being fired?" or a husband asking, "What's the least I must do to prevent a divorce?" or a father asking "What's the least I must do to keep my children from being taken away from me?" The record of the gospels would seem to indicate that that is not how God looked upon his relationship to us.--Rick Allen
In seminary, we engaged in "field work" which usually involved serving a church, or church-related activity (like day care, where I served before serving a church as a student pastor, and then serving a church as its' only pastor, still a student). This also involved meetings in assigned groups, to discuss our ministry, to analyze what was done and why, and to uphold and challenge each other. One student, a solo pastor at a small church, brought the story of a baptism. He had been asked to baptize an infant by someone whose parents were members of his church. His church council backed the request, but he had misgivings. In good Reformed tradition, he understood baptism as, among other things, membership in the church, but "church" meant, in UCC polity, the local congregation, the autonomous unit. It did not mean the larger church, of which the congregation was merely a part, an appendage. He was not comfortable with the request, but neither was he comfortable with crossing his church council on this issue.
When I was a student pastor myself, my license permitted me to administer the sacraments (in good Reformed tradition, there are only two: baptism and communion) only at the church where I served. As we used to joke, the Holy Spirit was bound to that place, and left us when we drove away, returning to us only when we walked through the doors. This became an issue because I had a member dying of cancer. Well, he wasn't a member; his wife and family were. And a few days before he died, she called me to her house, not far from the church, to ask me to baptize her husband.
He couldn't remember being baptized as an infant (when we usually "do" baptisms), and while his mother was alive, she was suffering from the late stages of Alzheimer's, so her memory was unreliable. His wife wanted to be sure; and she wanted me to do it. But it had to be done in their bedroom, as he was too ill to move.
Adult baptism requires the answering of questions; questions he was unable to answer, as between the cancer and the drugs to relieve his pain, he was nearly comatose. I baptized him anyway, using a bowl from the kitchen, water from the kitchen sink, and his wife and two children as witnesses. And in his bedroom, not at the church, where the Holy Spirit was authorized to be with me.
My last pastorate was at an old church, in both age of membership and age of church. It reached it's 150th Anniversary my first year there, and still had the 3rd chapel, built in the 1860's, as a worship space (indeed, they had worshipped there until the 1960's, when they built a space large enough to hold 300, although by their 150th anniversary they were down to 70 on Sunday morning again). Being an old church in both senses, some members were descendants of the "founding families," and of course took that status very seriously. There were also few children to baptize, and so baptisms were rare.
It was my preference, in a congregational polity, to baptize in the worship service, among the congregation. However, one of the "descendents" (who would, within a few months of this baptism, be instrumental in my removal from the pulpit) wanted me to baptize her grandchildren in the "historic chapel," as they called it. It was a space barely large enough to hold the families, much less the congregation. And only one of the three grandchildren attended that church; the other two didn't live in the city, one didn't even live in the state.
Baptism is taken, by the laity, to be at least a rite of membership, an entry into the church rolls. But it is also a mere ritual, something done to children, but with no particular meaning. The baptism in "The Godfather," where Michael Corleone becomes "godfather" in fact, is a perfect example. Even as he renounces the works of Satan, people are being killed on his orders; and he doesn't blink at the contradiction. This baptism was purely for the grandmother: for her sense of identity, and connection to the buildings of that church, and what those buildings represented to her and her ideas of her family, even her self-worth. Even the ritual itself meant nothing to her, except as a photo opportunity. It was the nearest thing to baptism as a marriage ceremony (which is not a religious ceremony at all in most Protestant circles anymore) that I ever came, or ever want to come to again. It wasn't even, in my mind, a baptism; but she had the tacit backing of the Church Council, who wouldn't have understood my objections anyway. And one quickly decides whether you entered the ministry to fight for your opinions, or to bend to the will of God. And then you spend the rest of your time trying to discern when the will of God, and your will, coincide, and why. And so we end up speaking of our congregations as "baptized heathens."
What is baptism for? Interestingly, I'm reading Harvey Cox's When Jesus Came to Harvard, (New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2004), and this is what he says about the baptism of Jesus:
After the brief mention of his visiting the Temple with his parents at the age of twelve, Jesus reappears only when he joins a highly suspect movement led by a shabby wilderness rabble-rouser named John the Baptist. John's followers were all harshly critical of the religious leadership at the Jerusalem Temple, and John had seized on an ancient Jewish purification ritual of submersion in water, which is still used by Orthodox Jews today, and adapted it for his own purposes. To be baptized by John was an act of protest against the religious establishment. But the religious establishment was the vehicle by which the Romans ruled their disorderly province, so it should not be surprising that King Herod had John beheaded. Cox, p. 94As Sweeney Todd said: "But that was many years ago, I doubt that anyone would know."