To graduate, everyone at Oxford College of Emory University had to take drown-proofing. And most everyone dreaded it.
I learned to swim before I could walk. The water doesn’t bother me. In fact, most everybody in my class was at least an adequate swimmer. Spending time at the pool was not the problem as such. It was the final three tests of the class that gave it such a dreadful reputation.
This course was meant to help you survive no matter what. We learned to tread water for extended periods, swim a mile fully clothed, and even make a flotation device out of our pants.
All of this was tedious, but no one was shaken by it. But we all realized that this was just the buildup to the grand finale.
You see, when we say drown proofing, we really mean drown proofing. So we had to learn to survive in the water even in the event of an injury to our limbs.
First, we had to jump into the pool and swim some distance with our feet tied. For me, that was a piece of cake.
At the next class session, the teacher left our feet free and tied our hands behind our back. Strictly speaking, this wouldn’t be a problem at all if you didn’t need to breathe. But of course, to swim any distance at all you need air. We had to learn techniques for catching a breath without the use of our arms.
This was the first time when getting enough air was real work. Most of us experienced the beginning of the panic you get when it occurs to you that maybe, just maybe, you’re not going to be able to breathe.
You’ve probably already guessed what the last test was. With both hands and feet tied, we had to jump into the pool and swim to the other side. Mercifully, you could opt out of this test. Since I already had an A, I said no thanks.
We all attended that last class session just to see if anyone would actually take this test. One brave soul did, and we all cheered and clapped as he dolphin-kicked his way to the far side of the pool.
Nobody wants to drown.
That’s why there’s such a class and why we have lifeguards and personal flotation devices. Drowning is a terrifying way to die. Lack of oxygen triggers a desperate panic. But I think there may be something more. In drowning, we are very aware of losing our lives.
Nobody wants to drown.
That’s why Baptism is such a shocking sacrament. It begins with drowning.
Along with many other denominations, we Episcopalians minimize the shock of Baptism. We sprinkle baptismal candidates instead of fully immersing them.
And while I fully agree with our way of doing things, I also recognize that the subtlety of our symbols requires a little explanatory help from time to time.
Baptism sets the pattern for the whole of the Christian life. Life in Jesus Christ is the way of dying and rising. In the waters of Baptism we die to a narrower life in order to rise to a greater life. Every day.
For some who come to faith later in life and undergo Baptism as an adult, the pattern of dying and rising may initially take the shape of dying to a life of sin and rising to a life of moral integrity. They are going through a process of cleaning up their act, and for them Baptism feels like a spiritual bath.
That is their experience at the time. But as they mature spiritually, they continue to follow the same pattern of dying and rising, and the contours of the pattern no longer resemble the words of the much loved hymn: I once was lost but now I’m found. Dying and rising takes on greater depth.
We should know this already. After all, we baptize infants. Unless you have a lower view of human nature than I do, you’re unlikely to say that babies are dreadful sinners before they’re baptized. Something else is happening.
The Baptism of Jesus helps us to see what that something else actually is.
Jesus was not a sinner. Like all of us, he did boneheaded things, made mistakes, and learned through trial and error. However, none of that is sin. He just had to learn how to be a human being and how to be himself. Just like the rest of us.
Okay, this is all complicated by our abiding belief that Jesus is fully human and also fully divine. The doctrine of the Trinity is the only real help here, and we just don’t have time for that right now. So let’s just agree to get to those questions another time and get back to Jesus’ baptism.
Jesus is the very image of God. Not because he is God. But because he is human. In Genesis we learn that God created us in his image. So being a human and being yourself is all about growing into a richer, more winsome image of God.
For years I understood being the image of God on analogy with being a mirror. We reflect God, I thought. I now think that this mirror metaphor, though useful, can only take us so far in understanding the Christian life.
God created us not merely to reflect him, but to partake in his very life. In John’s Gospel for instance, Jesus says that he abides in us as the Father abides in him. Christ dwells in us. Permeates us. Infuses us with himself.
Who we are as human beings, and who we are as unique individuals, derives from our relationship with God in Christ.
We become more fully the image of God as we allow him more fully to inhabit our lives. This is the greater life to which we rise when we die to artificially narrow limits that we erect in order to define what amounts to a false self.
And there’s the hitch. We have to die to a self to whom we’ve grown accustomed—a self that we have nurtured and defended and promoted—in order to rise to greater life. And letting go of the life we’ve made for ourselves can be terrifying.
Any self that cannot love the Christ that it sees in the face of the other—and I mean every size, shape, orientation, social class, race, political affiliation, hygiene, dress code, and shoe size of other—is a false self. A self to which we must die if we are to rise to greater life.
Life is not about drown proofing. Preserving life at all costs. It’s about letting go of the life we can make for ourselves in order to receive as a gift a life of infinite and eternal worth.