Sunday, February 19, 2012

For Baby J___

I was not baptized as an infant. My parents were going to a Disciples of Christ church. They practice believer's baptism, the doctrine that only those who can choose to be baptized should receive that sacrament. Instead I was dedicated. I chose to be baptized later when I was a tween going to a Presbyterian church. But it does raise the question: why do some churches baptize infants when they don't understand what's being done to them?

The earliest kind of baptism we see in the New Testament is for adult believers. John is baptizing people with professions and jobs. In the Book of Acts most converts hear the Gospel preached first, repent and then come forward to be immersed in a river or some other body of water. But, of course, this is the first generation of Christians. The movement is too young to have children born into the faith. That's why there are no explicit instances of infants being baptized in the New Testament. So how did the church come to baptize newborns?

There is the curious incident of the jailor in the night. In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are in prison in Philippi, praying and singing hymns. Around midnight, an earthquake shakes the doors open. The jailor thinks his prisoners have escaped and is about to fall n his sword when Paul cries out that everyone is still in their cell. The jailor walks them out of the jail, falls on his knees and asks "What must I do to be saved?" To which they reply, "Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household." Paul and Silas explain the Gospel to him and we are told, "then he and his entire family were baptized without delay." It doesn't say if any children or infants were among them but it doesn't say that there weren't. And since there is a pattern in Acts of entire households being baptized, it stands to reason some children must have been baptized. In addition, on Pentecost when Peter calls for the crowd of believers to repent, be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit, he tells them, "for the promise is to you and your children…" There is also Jesus' saying, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these." Outside of the Bible there are Christian writings about baptizing infants and children by the early second century. By the third century infant baptism is common.

Most Christian denominations baptize infants. And while there are a lot of arguments for doing so, one has always struck me as particularly apt. When a Hebrew boy was born he was circumcised on the 8th day. That was done in observance of the covenant made by God with the people of Israel and this entrance rite made the child one of God's people. Why should not the people of the New Covenant include their babies in the people of God via the entrance rite laid down by Christ? If God's grace is shed abroad on those who cannot do anything to earn it, why not upon infants who cannot do anything at all?

But since the child cannot understand to what is going on, the questions we ask of older baptismal candidates we ask of the babe's parents and godparents. And so in a few minutes I will ask baby J___'s parents and sponsors some essential questions about themselves and their dedication to raising him in the Christian faith. Then I will ask you all some questions.

We will first ask if they commit themselves to bring up the child in the faith. Then we will ask a series of questions about their faith, namely do they turn from sin and evil and turn to Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord? Basically, that's the Old Testament definition of repentance: turning around, changing direction, returning to God.

Then, after the entire congregation recites the Apostle's Creed, the liturgy turns from what we believe to what we are going to do about it. I will ask everyone here a series of questions about practices of the faith.

I will ask, "Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers?" Basically, I'm asking if you will continue to go to church. You can and should read the apostle's teachings in the Bible at home. But in church you have a person trained in understanding the Bible explaining it week after week. You can ask him questions about it and argue with him, which is more likely to give you different perspectives than only studying it by yourself. In the same way, you can pray alone but there is something to being part of a community all praying together in one Spirit and with one heart. Your local church is also where you can celebrate communion among a large sample of the Body of Christ and enjoy fellowship with them. Ours is a religion of love; unless you practice it among real people with real flaws, you're just playing pretend. Here we learn to love others brought together not by our choice but by God's call.

Then I will ask, "Will you persist in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?" In other words, will you try not to do things that harm yourself or others or your relationship with God? And when you do such things (and you will), will you turn your life around and get back to following God?

Some Christians in the ancient world put off baptism until later in life. They thought, "If baptism will wipe out my sins, perhaps I'd better wait till the majority of them are behind me." The Emperor Constantine, the first "Christian" emperor, waited until his deathbed to be baptized. That way the bad things he'd done, like the execution of his eldest son and his wife, could be magically wiped out and he would not have to live a life of contrition. God, however, is not fooled by such stratagems. And as Christians, whenever we realize that we have strayed from God, we can ask God for forgiveness and start over. When J___ begins to walk, around a year from now, give or take a few months, his parents can expect him to fall a lot. That's OK. As long as he gets up and tries again, they will be pleased. If he gave up trying to walk altogether, they would not. Just so, God is pleased at our continuing progress however much we stumble. Giving up is the worst reaction we can have to our sin.

Next I will ask, "Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?" The good news or gospel is that Jesus frees us from the slavery of sin and makes all things new. And we are to spread the word not only with our lips but with our lives. The world isn't stupid. It knows you can say one thing and do another. And there have been a lot of high profile Christians who have been exposed for hypocrites. If we don't live out our faith, we can hardly blame others for not believing. This question is about our integrity and our intention to bring our behavior into alignment with our beliefs.

Next I will ask, "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?" Jesus boiled down the law of God into 2 commandments: to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And he said that what we did to the least of his brothers and sisters we do to him. Because he is the original image of God, which is present in all of us, even though it has been marred in us. So we are to look for Jesus in every person, no matter how broken, and we are to treat them as we would Jesus. The mark of a disciple of Jesus is our love for one another.

Finally, I will ask, "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?" God is a God of justice and a God of peace. If everyone were always treated fairly, we would have peace. But the history of this world could be seen as a list of unjust things we have done to one another and the neverending retaliation for each and every injustice. Jesus called us to be peacemakers and that involves restoring justice, offering forgiveness and working towards reconciliation. It's not easy but it is the mission we take on when we choose to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Christ.

Because it is not easy, our answer to each of these questions is "I will, with God's help." We cannot live the Christian life under our own power. We need God's power. Baptism is not only a channel of God's grace but also of his Holy Spirit. Baptism incorporates us into the Body of Christ and as he was filled with the Spirit, so we need to be. Baptism equips us by giving us the gift of the Spirit, which we need in order to embody Christ for others.

And the reason we will make these promises is because having such a powerful gift is not enough. You have to learn how to use it. And just as baby J___ will need help to learn to use the marvelous gifts of the body and brain God has given him, so we as a community, as his family in Christ, will help him learn to use the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit has bestowed upon him.

And J___ will help us relearn things we have forgotten, things we will see anew through the eyes of a baby. Some truths are best perceived by children who see connections and parallels we have lost the ability to spot. Small children are antidotes to cynicism, conduits of wonder. We need what they can teach us as much as they need what we can teach them.

J___'s physical life began just over a week ago. His spiritual life begins now. He entered a very big world when he was born. He about to enter an even larger one. He was born a citizen of the United States. He is soon to be reborn as a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Something unimaginably huge is about to happen in this small church. That's because we are doing this in the presence of our unimaginably huge God, who just happens to be our loving heavenly Father.

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