An act of God
Text: Isaiah 43:3 The Lord says, “I am the Lord your God, the holy God of Israel, who saves you”.
On a cold winter’s day the congregation gathered at the river for the baptism of a young man. The preacher began by reminding those gathered that with baptism comes adoption as God’s child, the washing away of sin and the change that this brings to everyday life. After the man had been standing in the water for a while and the preacher had completely drenched him with the icy river water, he noticed the man turning blue and said to him, “Are you feeling cold?”
“Naa!” the man bravely replied not wanting to be disrespectful or spoil the moment.
Then a loud voice was heard from the congregation, “Dunk him again preacher, he’s still lying.”
We know that a voice was heard the day that Jesus was baptised but not from the crowd gathered at the River Jordan. It was the voice of God that came from the heavens saying, “You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you”. The gospel writers leave no doubt that Jesus was baptised by a man known as John the Baptist in the Jordan River. This happened as Jesus was about to begin his ministry of teaching about the Kingdom of God, and doing acts of love and mercy including suffering and dying on a cross.
Today focuses on the baptism of Jesus and gives us an excellent opportunity to centre our attention on the meaning of baptism. It’s a real shame that the sacrament of baptism, like Holy Communion, has created division among Christians over the centuries. What constitutes a “valid” baptism has been a point of contention. Fortunately a number of the churches have agreed on what baptism is but there are still disagreements amongst certain section of the Christian community.
The disagreement sometimes focuses on whether the Bible allows children to be baptised. The argument might go something like this, “Show me solid evidence in the New Testament that the early Christians baptised infants. When whole households of adults were baptised, children are not specifically mentioned”. The counter reply to this goes like this, “Show me undeniable proof that the people of the New Testament didn’t baptise infants. Are there any passages that specifically forbid the baptism of infants or state that children must reach a certain age in order to be baptised?”
You see, we can argue over this till the cows come home but it won’t bring us any closer to an understanding of who is or who is not allowed to be baptised according to the New Testament.
Another disagreement focuses on the way the water is applied. Some argue that the New Testament word for baptism means to immerse and that’s undeniable. In fact, there is great symbolism in baptism by immersion. It visibly demonstrates the drowning of sin, Satan and death as the person is immersed under the water, and the rising of the new person, the new creation, the new child of God as the person emerges from the water. Luther draws on this image in his catechism when he says that baptism is a drowning of the old nature in us, everything that is sinful and selfish dies and a new nature arises that seeks to do what is right and good – a new life that will extend beyond the grave into eternity.
On the other hand there are those who say quite correctly that baptism also means to wash, like washing dishes, washing our bodies, the washing of a baby, and the ritual washing of hands before performing sacred rites where only a very small amount of water is used. There is plenty of evidence in ancient writings that supports the ‘washing clean’ aspect of baptism. When a baby has water poured over him or her in baptism, this is a visible sign of the power of God’s grace. The baby has nothing to offer God, no self-righteousness, vows of commitment, or promises of loyalty and yet God is there for that child giving his grace and bountiful love.
You can see whether we talk about the age a person can be baptised or whether baptism is by immersion or by washing or by pouring we can get all uptight and say that one form is more “valid” than another and argue about words and their meaning but in actual fact not get any closer to understanding what baptism really is.
What makes the matter even more complicated is when we look at some of the attitudes toward baptism.
When it comes to baptism of an adult whether by immersion in a river or creek, or by pouring at a baptismal font, I get really uncomfortable when the emphasis is placed on the repentance or the commitment or the discipleship or promises of loyalty and dedication of the person being baptised. It’s as if the person in some way has earned the right to be baptised and made a child of God through some kind of righteousness and holiness that has been achieved through the person’s own repentance and rightness before God.
The grace of Christ which seeks us, calls us, heals us, claims us should always be the primary focus. The sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion celebrate God’s free generous grace that loves us and accepts us even though we are stained through and through with sin and evil. We are accepted in baptism not because of some kind of “worthy” repentance or correct understanding of faith or somehow feeling especially close to God.
We fall into the same trap when it comes to Communion and what makes a person ready to receive the body and blood of Christ. We can easily focus on our worthiness or the commitment to discipleship of the person being baptised that we lose sight of what baptism is all about. It is not a human act but an act of God and all that counts is the grace of God. Paul writes, “God’s love for us is so great, that while we were spiritually dead in our disobedience he brought us to life with Christ. It is by God’s grace that you have been saved… It is not the result of your own efforts, but God’s gift (Ephesians 2:4,8).
When it comes to the baptism of an infant, whether by immersion or by pouring, we get somewhat uncomfortable with some of the attitudes that people have towards this sacrament. Parents casually fulfil some kind of family or social expectation to “have the child done” and when they say they will bring up their child to know Jesus and his love for them, bring him/her to worship, and teach them about God, how to pray and what their baptism means we wince with disbelief thinking that they don’t have any intention of carrying out what they are promising.
Over the years members of congregations have expressed their concern that this wonderful sacrament has been degraded by the attitudes of parents and godparents to baptism. Some parents have considered the lack of understanding that a child has about what is happening in baptism and so have opted for a dedication of their children and “let them decide for themselves when they are older”.
This is a very real concern. What do we do with this kind of uneasiness?
Some churches have laid down some rules like – parents need to attend worship 4 Sundays in a row before their child can be baptised. Others have decided that parents need to attend 6 weeks of preparation classes. Others have ruled that only people above a certain age can be baptised. Others have decided that only children of active members of the congregation can be baptised. The trouble with making rules is that there needs to be other rules to define the rule; like, what is an active member of the congregation?
I can understand why this line of thinking is followed and sympathise with those who want to protect the sacrament of holy baptism.
But all of this leads us into the trap of self-righteousness again. We focus on the lack of commitment and faith of the parents. We only see the flaws in the beliefs and the casual attitude of the parents to the Christian faith. We fail to see the magnificent and complete grace of God that is being celebrated in baptism. We fail to see that the grace of God doesn’t need human assistance to be effective. We fail to see that sin doesn’t neutralise the grace of God – it’s the other way around.
I struggle with all this when I baptise a child whose parents I know from our pre-baptismal chat that their understanding of baptism is flawed and their commitment to following through on what they promise is quite shallow. However, I have decided that I can live with the inadequacies of parents just as God and you as a congregation have to deal with my inadequacies. If the effectiveness of baptism depended on the worthiness of the candidate or the parents then who indeed would have the right to claim the grace of God?
The grace of God is not claimed it is given. And in baptism we focus on what God is able to do regardless of human effort. Let’s not sell God short on what he can do in the lives of people either in the immediate future or way down the track.
In the Old Testament God makes a covenant with his people. Yes, they are disobedient, proud, self-righteous, eager to follow the path of evil rather than God’s ways and yet God promises, “I am the Lord your God, the holy God of Israel who saves you. … You are precious to me. Do not be afraid – I am with you!” “I have called you by name – you are mine” (Isaiah 43:3-5, 1). That’s what I want to focus on when I conduct a baptism or witness water being poured on a person’s head in holy baptism. This is an act of God who loves us dearly even though we are imperfect, blemished, disobedient, uncommitted and often far too slack when it comes to acknowledging God as the Lord of our lives.
God knows all that and yet he calls us and claims us with his grace. In baptism, as in Holy Communion, the focus is on God and what he does for us. In the times when we give up on God, despair about our own sinfulness, are frustrated by the turn of events, we remember God’s baptismal promise to us that remains firm and sure regardless of how unworthy we may feel. His promise is certain, “I have called you by name – you are mine”.
© Pastor Vince Gerhardy