One Thousand Baptisms

One Thousand Baptisms
Rev. Amanda Meisenheimer

According to the church calendar, today is the day that we remember the baptism of Jesus.
Jesus just aged 30 years in the past two weeks. Two weeks ago Jesus was born and now he stands at the water’s edge of the Jordan River, a fully grown man. On the edge of ministry, on the edge of notoriety, on the edge of rejection, wilderness, but first, baptism.

A few years ago I became responsible for the Baptism Orientation class at Riverside. This class is a requirement for those who would like to be baptized here. I was excited for this opportunity to flex my theological muscles, to prepare people for one of the most important parts of church life. So I read what I could find about baptisms at Riverside and quickly discovered a puzzle that I could not solve. At the time I would have called this puzzle : “Riverside Disagrees with Itself on a Theology of Baptism.” As an institution, The Riverside Church represents two very different theologies on baptism. So different that these two ideas have split Christians for centuries. So what is happening here? And how am I supposed to orient anyone to be baptized here?

Riverside is an ecumenical church – we value and listen to people with varying perspectives, denominations, and faith traditions. The people who surround you in worship at Riverside and online may be baptists, they may be Presbyterians. They may belong to the United Church of Christ, they may claim no affiliation. They may be Christians, they may be Buddhists, they may be Christian Buddhists, They may be Jewish, they may be Hindu. I know people in every one of these categories at Riverside. It is astonishing that the church has become what was imagined when the authors of this 1931 handbook of Riverside Church wrote:

“Membership in this church does not involve assent to any special creed or form of ritual practice. The doors are freely open to all Christians regardless of theological opinion or sectarian preference.”

It goes on to say that anyone who follows Jesus is an acceptable member of this church and does not have to “surrender any cherished traditions or preferences. A confession of loyalty to Christ suffices.”

“All this liberty for the individual is based not on the idea that what one believes is unimportant, but that it is too important to be arbitrarily regimented and controlled by external authority.”

So a statement like, “Riverside disagrees with itself on a theology of baptism” is not bold or catchy as a headline. We disagree with ourselves on a theology of almost everything and that is one of the great aspects of Riverside. Our diversity of belief is easy to see on an individual basis. But much of our diversity evolved from an unexpected union within the institution. A mysterious marriage that is now sixty-two years old.

Riverside the institution shares affiliation with two denominations: The American Baptist Church USA and the United Church of Christ. Riverside has been a Baptist church since before we were Riverside.
When a community of people began meeting on 5th Avenue in the mid-19th century, the church was Baptist. When that group of worshippers moved to Park Avenue in 1919, Riverside was Baptist. And in 1930 when Riverside became The Riverside Church on Riverside Drive, Riverside was Baptist.

Baptists hold that when a person believes in Jesus, they choose to be baptized. Baptism is one of two ordinances – or decrees – commanded in the bible. The other is partaking in the Lord’s supper. In other words, Jesus commands us to be baptized, and Jesus commands us to take communion. These acts are symbolic. They are initiated by the believer. You *choose* to be baptized.

In general, Baptists do not and will not perform infant baptisms. Baptism is not a mode of salvation, it is an act of obedience. And finally, baptism is performed by immersion. You go all the way under the water. And if you were baptized as an infant – you do not remember being baptized, generally speaking, a Baptist will baptize you as a believer.

There are scriptures and stories that reflect this view of baptism in the Bible. And we read them in our baptism orientation class.


On December 8th, 1960 the New York Times reported that The Riverside Church became affiliated with a brand new, three-year-old denomination. The Times quoted the Rev. Dr. Robert McCracken: “Because we are an ecumenically minded congregation, we are heartily in favor of church union at the national level.” Rev. McCracken said that the decision “raised high hopes in the minds of all who lament the divisiveness of Protestantism.”

In 1960, at the Riverside Church,Baptists married the United Church of Christ.

The United Church of Christ practices baptism differently. For the UCC, baptism is not an ordinance, but a sacrament. So instead of being commanded by God, baptism is an act of God, not human obedience. It is a moment when God is imparting grace to people. In other words, it is not a symbol. God is actually doing something.
In the United Church of Christ, baptism is available to all people at all ages because God’s welcome is available to all. It is a seal of the covenant between God and all disciples of Jesus. Parents and grandparents bring babies to be baptized into our faith community because we believe they belong. The UCC baptizes with immersion or sprinkling, and if you have been baptized before, you will not be baptized again. The United Church of Christ emphasizes that the work of God has been accomplished in baptism. There is no need for a redo. Most UCC ministers will not perform a second baptism.

There are scriptures and stories that reflect this view of baptism in the Bible. And we look at them in our baptism orientation class.

Do you see the disparity here? It is huge! Religious wars have been fought and denominations have emerged based on who should be baptized, by whom, how, and what does it mean? What is baptism? In the two thousand years of Christian history, this has been one of the most divisive, most violent, most terrible questions asked by well-intentioned people.

So, how HOW have we held together a faith community since 1960 (that is 62 years) disagreeing with ourselves on this question? Currently our clergy team of 7 represents five different denominations. How have 62 years of clergy worked alongside other clergy who embrace such different doctrines of baptism? How have 62 years of members worshiped alongside other members who disagree entirely upon what their baptism means? How have we held together on such a major question of Christian faith, while so many churches divide themselves over hymns, over preacher personality, over the color of the carpet in the sanctuary?
We Riversiders have divided ourselves on plenty of other issues. Some, very petty.

I can tell you that some critical onlookers might say that the reason we get along is because we really don’t care about doctrine. That we don’t know what our Bibles say or what our denominations stand for. That we are so focused upon social justice or some liberal agenda that we don’t realize our intermingled heresy on one side or the other.

But this is my seventh year at Riverside and I have seen us. I have seen that we are passionate about understanding the Bible, excited about learning more, and dedicated to exploring our faith, which is expressed in social justice and serving our community.

So it’s not because we aren’t paying attention or don’t know any better.

I have another theory.

There is something else happening here. Something bigger and more important than how much water is used, who does the baptism, what exactly is happening, Is God acting, are we acting, does an infant baptism count, can you do it twice…

Let me show you what matters.

[altar with baptism lists]

These cards and these books contain the names of every person who has ever been baptized at The Riverside Church. If you were baptized here, your name is here. Let’s choose a card from the first years of church life at Riverside:

When I read through these names, I have no idea if the person held to Baptist doctrine or United Church of Christ doctrine or any other view of baptism. These lists of thousands of baptisms represent thousands of understandings of what it is and how it works. And we welcome this diversity of interpretation because what matters to us, is the radical inclusion of God’s people. We are united under one baptism, and this baptism is offered by God to everyone.

Within these lists are infants, children, and adults
Able and disabled people
African Americans, Pacific Islanders, Latines, Europeans
Documented and undocumented
Gay, lesbian, queer, and straight people
Transgender, nonbinary and cishet people
Rich people and poor people
Fat people and thin people
Convicted and acquitted
Believing and doubtful
Married, divorced, separated, single
Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island
New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania
Northern and Southern states
Educated by books, educated by life
Baptist and United Church of Christ

They are all there. And they all belong to the waters of Christ’s baptism.
At Riverside we believe that the most important doctrine, the one that binds us all together in spite of our differences, is that God loves people. You rise out of the water and God says,”You are my Children, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God loves people radically. And that love inspires us to be radically inclusive.

As people stood in line to be baptized by John or Peter, or Philip, there was no questionnaire asking, “first tell us, how does baptism really work? Who performs the baptism, God or people? How young is too young to be baptized? What does true repentance look like?”

If you are standing on the shores, come to the waters.
If you are repentant, come to the waters.
Did your family bring you? Come to the waters.

On this baptism Sunday, we are all gathered along the shore and some of us have never been baptized. Your name is not in this pile, not in our church or any church.
Perhaps you are not sure about what you believe about baptism. Maybe you have wondered whether or not it is for you. Or maybe you just keep putting it off.

Is this one long commercial for baptism? Why yes it is. Not because I want anyone to feel pressured or left out. But because we want you to feel included.

February 27th is our next date for baptism at The Riverside Church.
You don’t have to know exactly what you believe. Come to the waters.
You don’t have to fit a profile or be a certain type of person. Come to the waters.
You don’t have to be young or a baby. Come to the waters.

Baptism is a fresh start, an act of repentance, an experience with the Holy Spirit, and either an ordinance or a sacrament or somehow both.

Whatever it is, whatever it does, you are welcome to the waters.