In the church of my childhood it was taught that the “age of accountability” was somewhere around 12. To hit the age of accountability was to, like, spiritually go off of your parents’ insurance. At age 12 the clock starts ticking, spiritually speaking; you know right from wrong now and because of this you are accountable for every time you screw up. And if you sin knowing right from wrong and then die before you chose to be baptized, you might burn in Hell for eternity. So age 12, as you can imagine, is when kids start choosing to get baptized. The lag time between entering the age of accountability and having your slate wiped clean through baptism can be terrifying. Many of us kids would pray not to die in a car crash before we were baptized, like other people pray to not get sick before their employee benefits kick in. So basically, 12-year-old Church of Christ kids experience a wave of devotion like a Great Awakening comprised only of sixth graders. And this is partly because we were all terrified of the devil and temptation and sin. Since, as we were told, all the bad things we’d done may have been washed clean in baptism, but the devil was waiting right outside the baptistery to try and get us to be bad again.
While I am certain evil exists I’m not sure it’s in the form of a red man with horns and pitchfork and tail. That image that terrified me as a child is now a bit too cartoon-y for me to take seriously.
Thirty-one years later, I still don’t know what to do with talk of the devil and demons or that whole “powers and principalities” thing. Like a good middle-class mainline Protestant, I tend to arrogantly look down my theological nose at all of it as superstitious snake handling nonsense, as though it’s all the embarrassing spiritual equivalent of a Monster Truck Rally. At best I think the talk about demonic forces I hear in some parts of Christianity is no more than a result of ignorance and lack of education; at worst it’s just a way to externalize our own sin. Because if the devil made me do it, then I don’t have to face the reality that perhaps I made me do it. Not to mention it’s all so ripe for abuse: some of you guys have fallen victim to other Christians trying to cast out the so-called demon of homosexuality as though spiritual warfare and culture wars are one in the same thing.
Yet I know for a fact that evil exists. And more and more I think it’s dangerous to pretend otherwise. Call it the devil, call it darkness, call it what you will — it is out there. Darfur, Sandy Hook, Penn State. But it can be more subtle than that too: white lies, self-involvement, cheating. Addiction, compulsion, depression. There are forces that seek to defy God that swirl around us and even within us.
Which brings me back to baptism and the devil. How awesome is that [in our church service] we stood here and vowed to renounce the devil and all his empty promises. Take a moment to take that in. When else do you get to stand in public and renounce evil?
So were you to ask me what good is baptism to us, I would have to say that, in part, it is humans partaking in an event of God which defies evil and forever claims us as God’s own.
Which is nice theological language, but what good is it to us really? I mean really, really. Well, that’s where Luther comes in. Luther had some very real encounters with what he believed to be the devil. But for him, rather than the devil tempting him to do bad things, the devil mainly tried to get him to doubt the power of God’s promises. When Luther started to revert back to thinking that God was an angry hostile vengeful God, he knew that it was the devil trying to get him to doubt God’s grace. And when Luther experienced this despair and discouragement, he was known to throw an occasional ink pot at the devil while yelling "I am baptized!" Not I was baptized, but I am baptized.
To yell "I am baptized!" is to again renounce the devil and all his empty promises. To yell "I am baptized!" at the forces of discouragement and addiction and every other thing that tries to rob you of the peace that is yours in Christ is to again renounce the devil and all his empty promises. To yell "I am baptized!" when the power of fear and self-loathing and hubris and hatred creep in to try and tell you who you are, is to again renounce the devil and all his empty promises. And this is now at your disposal. It may sound crazy, but use it. It should totally come in handy.
Renouncing the devil is awesome, but if baptism is in some part about the defiance of evil and all of its empty promises, it is even more so about the receiving of God and all of his binding promises. So as the waters of your baptisms glisten on your head from the mark of the cross, may you know this: you had about the same chance of choosing your God as you had in choosing your parents. This God of Sara and Abraham, this God who so madly loved the world God created that God slipped into skin and walked among us as Jesus … this God who speaks through crazy prophets and kisses lepers and makes whole that which is broken, this very God has chosen you … claimed you and named you as God’s own. It’s a wonderful mercy, a wild mystery, to have a God who comes down to claim you in water and words forever marking you as God’s own.
These promises of God are forever bound to you and to all the baptized. It’s what we call a “done deal.” You can’t escape them. Because these promises will hunt you down and bring you new life as you die and are raised again and again in your baptismal walk.
And this will happen to you; this death and resurrection of the baptismal life.
So I really hope that you grow to love metanoia, which is repentance, changing your thinking and returning to God. For in the act of repentance there is the hope of new thinking, new acting, and new life which you simply don’t get when you still think you are right about something. Don’t listen when people say that following Christ means being right. To follow the crucified and resurrected one is to live as a people who get to be wrong –and be re-born to new life in Christ. So I hope you are often wrong … so that you might drink deeply from this grace of God which makes all things new. Because this is now a life of returning to your baptism.
So I hope in this baptismal life ahead of you that when you encounter water – this most common of substances which surrounds land and comprises our bodies … I hope when you drink it in; when you dive deep in a pool of it; when you wade in a stream of it; that even when you wash dishes with it; I hope that you are reminded of the promise of life eternal: a promise that life with God is as close to you as water and bread and wine and human bodies. Because to be Christian is to know that the eternal is always contained in the present.
So may you not neglect to gather around the table in the community of Christ with all the other blessed and annoying sinners so that there you might behold who you are and become what you receive: the very body of Christ for this hurt and broken and beautiful world.
And when voices other than God’s try to tell you your worth – when the categories of late-stage capitalism or the siren song of professional advancement or the various ridiculous ranking systems in society, or your own heads try to tell you your value — and trust me, this will happen — may you again remember your baptism; remember that you have renounced the devil and all his empty promises and are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit and that you belong to God, because nothing … nothing else gets to tell you who you are.
Nadia Bolz-Weber was the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado (www.houseforall.org)—an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination—when this article appeared on godspolitics at www.sojo.net. This post originally appeared on Nadia's blog, Sarcastic Lutheran.
Image: Baptistm, Jose AS Reyes / Shutterstock.com