We love baptisms around here; the adorable children and sometimes adorable adults. (How many of you were baptized in this church as children? As adults?)
In Acts, the disciples Peter and John head to Samaria to pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon the newly baptized who had, the text says; “only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (v.16) Many Christians use this passage to shape a theology and practice of a two step process: baptism in water, followed by a baptism of the Holy Spirit; two unique and separate acts. Personally, I don’t think that is in any way definitive. But it influences: A woman who was brought up in the Presbyterian Church married a man who was a member of an independent Baptist church. When she wanted to join her husband’s church, she was told by the pastor that she must be baptized again, since, as the pastor said: “infant baptism is not a baptism of repentance.”
The Samaritans who are baptized we can assume are adults. And this raises another issue that places Christians in different camps of theology and understanding: adult verse infant and child baptism. If you are just going to add up biblical verses adult baptism wins. Although in Acts there are two examples of “whole households being baptized.” Households included children and slaves! Of course in the Presbyterian Church we baptize infants, children, teens and adults!
In this congregation we have a wonderful collection of born and bred Presbyterians, and many other amazing folks who have migrated from the Catholic, Baptist, Mennonite and every other kind of church.
And it is all good, but it leads to tension and confusion. I don’t think there is a right and wrong about this. Infant baptism emphasizes God’s initiative. God’s grace is prior to any act of ours. Adult baptism emphasizes our individual response to God’s grace. God’s act calls for a personal response.
Either way, Baptism is a happy moment. You love it when the child screams above Clover and me. I remember one time when a child wanted no part of me or the water and was thrashing around and I made three passes at her head and I think landed one. I assured her embarrassed parents that the baptism “took!”
Baptism raises lots of other questions too. I was reading a book about baptism last week and the first chapter started this way:
“Recently the members of a high school youth fellowship group in a local congregation were asked: ‘What does your baptism mean to you?’ Without exception all of them answered, ‘Nothing.” They couldn’t remember their baptism and they were not sure they understood what baptism meant.
A fourteen-year-old girl was asked by her parents to enroll in the confirmation class (by the way our new confirmation class with 12 outstanding young people and 12 outstanding adult confirmation adults are off on retreat with Liz Wollaeger this weekend.) She is told by her parents that the class will prepare her to ‘join the church.’ The girl answered; ‘I thought I joined the church when I was baptized.”
A sixteen-year-old boy asked: “Is one expected to act differently because of baptism?” His follow up question was profound: “Is racism accepted behavior? Maybe baptism doesn’t make a difference… it is just another empty ritual.” You may share some of these feelings or have other questions.
On this day when the church remembers the baptism of Jesus it is important, I think to consider baptism as the most defining radical act in the church’s life. You are branded for life with the indelible mark of Jesus Christ. And this mark is more important than any of the other ways we identify ourselves.
Listen again to what Clover and I say at a baptism:
“Obeying the word of our Lord Jesus Christ, and confident of his promises, we baptize those whom God has called. In baptism God claims us, and seals us to show that we belong to God. God frees us from sin and death, uniting us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made members of the church, the body of Christ, and joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice.”
This is a life-transformative claim.
“We baptize those whom God has called.” In the passage from Isaiah God speaks to an exiled Israel. God promises restoration: “But thus says the Lord, Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”(v.1) “Everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
While there is a particular call to the Jews, and a particular call to those who claim the name of Jesus – remember this: “So God created humankind in his likeness and image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them.”(Gen. 1:27) Everyone is called- everyone whose heart yearns to find its maker and redeemer and purpose and hope is called.
Do not fear! What a proclamation for today’s world – where FEAR is the great motivator. You are called by name. You are known. You matter. That is more than a lovely thought – that is salvation to folks who feel isolated, who have lost their identity and are in the exile of lost dreams and lost hopes, those who are discounted in our world. But to God no one is a statistic.
In baptism you belong to a story that from beginning to end is about God’s creation and redemption and salvation, justice and love. In baptism you have identity within a community.
In baptism you are freed from sin and death – wow. You are empowered… so shake off any “weight and sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
When life seems muddled and fear overwhelms, reclaim your baptism.
Isaiah reminds me:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; and when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flames shall not consume you… for I am the Lord your God.” (43:2)
God doesn’t protect you from the water and fire. But – God does promise that you will not be overcome and that there is another side to be reached! Keep hope alive!
By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made members of the church, the body of Christ, and joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice.
In baptism you are made a member of the church – the body of Christ and so we are called to act like it and show up at worship, and reflect that faith in all we do: at home, at school, at work, at play, in our politics and in our actions outside these walls. You are not alone! The work that we do is focused on three things: LOVE, PEACE and JUSTICE.
We see the likeness of God in every person (whether they deserve it or not).
We work, not only the cessation of war – but for profound peacefulness in the soul.
We strive for Justice – finding out what belongs to whom in order to give it back to them. We try to rearrange the world so that it looks like a world that God wants.
That is baptism – this happy but radical act of the church claiming God, claiming a story, claiming a life that matters.
Let me close with one of my favorite passages from Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and then offer an invitation. The passage from Wise Blood is a conversation between a blind man and Hazel Motes, the main character.
“You got a secret need.” The blind man said. “Them that know Jesus once can’t escape Him in the end.” “I ain’t never known Him,” Hazel said. “You got at least knowledge,” the blind man said. “That’s enough. You know His name and you’re marked. If Jesus has marked you there ain’t nothing you can do about it. Them that have knowledge can’t swap it for ignorance.”
You have, most of you, been marked. “Ain’t nothing you can do about it.” You have knowledge – don’t swap it for ignorance. Go forth and act like you believe you have been called and chosen to make a difference because you bear the mark of Jesus Christ.
And so during the singing of the final hymn, or as you make your way from this sanctuary today – I invite you to stop by the baptismal font and touch the water and make the sign of the cross on your head and remind yourself: God knows my name. I am loved. I matter. God is pleased with ME!