Near Fig Garden (the shopping center in Fresno) there is a medical office with a large sign that says something like “Eating Disorder Center.” It has always struck me as odd. It is certainly commendable that professionals want to help people overcome their problems. But something bothers me about this. Every time I see it, I feel uncomfortable for the people that may have to go there. How many people are hiding their faces beneath hats and sunglasses as they walk in the door, hoping that no one sees them enter beneath the big “eating disorders” sign? I wonder how many people decide not to get help there because of that sign, because they are worried about the stigma and shame associated with their problem?
And as uncomfortable as that situation is, it is a close representation for what Baptism means for Christians. The symbolism of water washing away the dirt of our sins is very powerful. But it is also shameful. Many times in the New Testament when baptism is mentioned (Acts 2:38), it is connected to repentance and the the remission (forgiveness) of sins. To get baptized is a very public admission of our sin and shame. It is acknowledging that we need a moral shower. It is confessing OUT LOUD, to the world and the church that we have failed. That we have not kept God’s law. In short, it is acknowledging the shame of our sins, and admitting that the filth is too bad for us to manage on our own.
To get baptized is a very public admission of our sin and shame. It is acknowledging that we need a moral shower.
That is the difficult side of baptism. But the good news is also present. Indeed, the good news is the whole point. We are dirty and the grace of God cleans and forgives us. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus we may be washed “whiter than snow” (Isa 1:18). Forgiveness is so real that we need the symbolic drama of baptism to appreciate it.
Only dirty people are desperate for the cleaning power of a bath
But only dirty people are desperate for the cleaning power of a bath. And so in order to come to Jesus and join the Christian community you have to acknowledge, from the beginning, your dirt and shame.
People that unwilling to admit the seriousness of their problem are NOT ready for baptism. They are probably not even Christians. In Luke 3:7-9, John the Baptist refused to baptize people that came for the wrong reasons. His language is very strong. But the message is clear, unless you are willing to acknowledge and embrace that you have a BIG BIG problem (you are so sinful that you are “fleeing from the wrath to come”), grace is not for you.
I mention this because this seems to contradict the self-righteousness that is latent in many churches. I know a lot of people that see the church as a place for those who have overcome their problems and achieved a certain moral status. Or worse, that the church is the last place they would want to be honest about their dirt, their moral failures. How many feel comfortable in the church confessing that their marriage is failing, their kids are on drugs, that they are groaning under crushing financial debt, or that they struggle with an “eating disorder?” No, to be honest about such things may be to guarantee that IF the “good” people do offer to help you, it will be as they look down from their perch. And I don’t mean to become self righteous about self-righteousness. I know there are times in my life when I thought I was occupying the high ground.
Here is the point: When we behave this way we are forgetting the meaning of Baptism. We are forgetting that we are dirty, filthy sinners apart from His grace. We are forgetting that in order to join the church we have to publicly acknowledge that we are the moral misfits, those who miss the mark. That we have failed God, others, and even our own consciences.
Maybe if we saw this more clearly we wouldn’t be tempted to hide our own struggles, or criticize the “dirty” people. Instead we would be both humbled and inspired. Humbled because WE are also the dirty ones, and inspired because we know the cleansing power of Christ.