Thursday, 9 January 2014

Why do we baptise people?: a sermon (Matthew 3:13-17)

Today’s gospel lesson is about Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan.  It gives us an opportunity to think a bit about why the Christian churches baptise people.  Sometimes it’s useful to do this at a time other than at a service when we actually have a wet baby in front of us.

We find the baptism of Jesus in three of the four gospels, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  John’s gospel has Jesus turn up at an occasion when John was baptising, but doesn’t say that John actually baptised Jesus.

In todays lesson from Matthew’s gospel, an argument is recorded.  Jesus and John spent some time deferring to each other in terms of who should baptise whom.

In Luke and in Mark, no argument is recorded.  There is a report that John baptised Jesus.  This is followed by a voice from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I’d like to spend a few moments explaining the difference between John’s baptism and the baptism that the Christian churches practice.  After that, I’d like to reflect on two frequently-asked questions:
·        The first question is “Why do most Christian churches baptise not only adults, but also children?”
·        The second question is “Why do most of the Christian churches who do baptise children, baptise not only the children of ‘religious’ parents, but also children whose parents are not so ‘religious’?”

The gospels spoke of John’s baptism in terms of repentance.  Mark spoke of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.  The same phrase is found in Luke.  Matthew conveys the same idea, if not in so many words.  John’s baptism seemed to be similar in character to ritual baths that the Torah, the Jewish law, requires Jews to take at various occasions.  These baths convey a sense of repentance of sin and of the people being, in a sense, “washed” of their sins, as they were simultaneously washed in a literal sense.  By participating in such a public act of repentance, Jesus identified with the human condition in all its brokenness.

From the earliest years of the Christian faith, the Church baptised people to signify their entry into the Christian community.  While Christian baptism looked a lot like John’s baptism, it is different in significant ways.  

Firstly, the baptism of John was a very individualistic act.  The individuals being baptised did so in repentance of the sins of their own lives.  The baptism practiced by the churches is not an individualistic act.  In fact, it is a radically anti-individualistic act.  The sacrament of baptism practiced by the Christian churches is about being received into a community of faith.  It is about receiving the community’s story as one’s own story.  It is about receiving the community’s values as one’s own values.

Secondly, the baptism of John was past-oriented, focusing on the individual’s past behaviour.  Christian baptism is future-oriented, focusing on the on-going pilgrimage of faith by the community, including its newest member.

As well, the Christian churches baptise in the name of God-as-Trinity, “... in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  This language, and the theology behind it, would have been unknown to John.

So, there is a real difference between the baptism of John and the sacrament of Baptism practiced by the Christian churches. 

This, then leads to the first question:

“Why do most Christian churches baptise not only adults, but also children?”

Of course, not all Christian churches baptise children.  Some churches have a tradition of only baptising those who are old enough to speak for themselves. 

As well, those of us in the churches that do baptise children increasingly see more occasions when adults, who had not been previously baptised as children, seek baptism.  Increasingly, we have a diversity of baptismal practice.

Looking at the practice of only baptising those who are old enough to speak for themselves, those of us in the churches that do baptise children respect this alternate form of Christian practice, even if we do disagree with it.  In many ways, this practice has a link with the baptism practiced by John, a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.  The question then can be raised, and often has been, “What does a baby have to repent of?”  And it’s a good question.

And the key to the answer is that Christian baptism is not principally an individual act of repentance, as John’s baptism was.  Christian baptism is about a community of faith receiving and welcoming a new member into its midst, at whatever age that newest member would be.

Parents want their child to share their communities:
·        Parents who are Australian citizens will not normally seek French citizenship for their child.
·        Parents who support Collingwood will not normally buy a Carlton scarf for their newborn baby.

And, similarly, parents who identify with the Christian faith and community – however actively or inactively – will want their child also to develop an identification with the Christian faith and community.

Over the years, most Christian churches have agreed on a way to promote such a handing-down of the faith from generation to generation.  This is by including children in the single most decisive act of welcome into the Christian church, the sacrament of baptism.

As well, the act of baptising a child is also a profound statement of God’s love for all people, a love that always precedes our love for God.  We can do nothing to earn God’s love.  God’s love is already there for each of us. 

One of the most profound images of this love which is there for each of us is found in the act of baptising a small baby, a baby who is only marginally aware of what is going on.  Still, that child is:
·        just as baptised as John Wesley was;
·        just as baptised as Martin Luther King was;
·        just as baptised as Mother Theresa was.

The child could grow up to do great things, but it wouldn’t earn her a bigger share of God’s love. 

The child could grow up to do terrible things, but it wouldn’t leave him with a smaller share of God’s love.

This, then, leads to the second question:

“Why do most of the Christian churches who do baptise children, baptise not only the children of ‘religious’ parents, but also children whose parents are not so ‘religious’?”

In the past few decades, there has been a fashion in some churches to be more restrictive in terms of whose babies are baptised.  I am aware of some congregations in the Uniting Church (and in other denominations) where the minister makes it very difficult for parents who are not frequent worshippers to present their child for baptism (and this fashion is normally minister-driven in most cases).

I have real problems with this fashion.  A few minutes ago, I spoke about God’s love being seen profoundly in the act of baptising a small child who is only marginally aware of what is going on. 

That’s important in this context.  A church that really believes that God’s love for us always precedes our love for God would not really feel the need to “vet” a child’s parents in terms of their own level of practice before the child is baptised.

There is another important factor in all this.  Since this fashion of restrictive baptism began, there has been one big change in our society.  Civil marriage celebrants now actively offer “naming ceremonies” for babies.  These “naming ceremonies” have been well accepted in the community.  (I discovered the actual level of acceptance in a dramatic way once a few years ago when I was trying to buy a gift for a child’s baptism.  A lot of the relevant gift items now have a phrase such as “For your Naming Day” on the item.  The selection of items with the word “Baptism” or even “Christening” on them is much smaller.)  Today, there are plenty of opportunities for families to celebrate the birth of a child other than Christian baptism.  

There now is no longer the social pressure to have a child baptised that there once was.  The sense of social obligation to have the baby “done” is now being met by civil celebrants, and the celebrants (for the most part) do it very nicely!  (I also suspect that the fashion of selective baptism in some churches was a factor which contributed to the popularity of civil naming ceremonies for babies.)  In any event, social and family pressure on a couple to celebrate their child’s birth specifically through a service of Christian baptism is a thing of the past. 

Today we can safely say that parents who present their child for Christian baptism do so out of a sense of Christian spirituality rather than out of a sense of social obligation.  However uninformed the parents’ Christian spirituality may be, there is something there:  something to build upon, something to celebrate.  It is our privilege to celebrate the occasion of their child’s Baptism. 

As a result, let us never betray that privilege by speaking snidely to or about any parents presenting a child for baptism.

I personally believe that, whenever a congregation refuses to baptise a child, or whenever a congregation baptises a child grudgingly or ungraciously, the congregation brings the day of its closure that much closer.

Let us always celebrate the high privilege that God gives us whenever we are asked to baptise a child. 


Christian baptism is not the individualistic, past-oriented baptism of John.  Instead, Christian baptism is community-oriented and future-oriented.  This is the same baptism whether the person being baptised is
·        an adult who has come to a personal faith,
·        a child being presented by parents who are actively practicing  worshippers, or
·        a child whose parents’ faith is known to God alone.

It is the same baptism in each case, because each baptism starts from the same love of the living God, the love which is celebrated in every baptism.

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