by Jill Robertson
It is very special for us to be celebrating the baptism of Ebony on the day that the church sets aside every year for us all to consider the significance of Jesus’ baptism and what baptism means in the modern church.
Earlier in the service I asked you to talk about the story of your own baptism. I am sure there would be many different stories to hear. I am not going to ask for stories, but just tell you my own story.
I imagine I am not the only one who sometimes doesn’t quite get things in the right order in life. I recognised that even though I had been one of Christ’s followers for many years, I had never in fact been baptised. I was glad that I was assured that God was still genuinely working in my life and didn’t mind if we got things out of order, even if the church should have minded! It took me 40 years to realise that the reason I hadn’t been baptised was because my parents were originally Baptists, and that church does not believe in infant baptism!
So, I was a committed Christian, had been confirmed and was even working for the church, but knew I had never been baptised, and I felt as though something was missing in my life. Then when I was in my early forties I was preparing some other people for baptism and the words that Jesus spoke to his disciples that we read at the end of Matthew’s gospel really spoke to my heart.
Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations,baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
I felt that I should be part of the group and reaffirm my Christian commitment by being baptised myself. That was done and was a very special time of my life.
On thinking about why it is was important to me I was looking at the purpose of Baptism. I see it as being threefold – a bit like God really! There is the human side, the church side and the divine side.
The human side of baptism is when we recognise that God came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ – the action of God that we have just celebrated over Christmas, and through his death and resurrection he enables us to recognise that there are no barriers to God, that love is stronger than death, and that this way of living is open to all humans.
Then there is the church side of baptism – this is where we accept and warmly welcome into membership of the church family, those who are presented for baptism. This is either for people who come because of their own stage of acknowledging their faith, or it is to accept the children of believing parents, as we have done this morning when we baptised Ebony. It was Naomi and Matthew’s response about their own faith, that made it possible for Ebony to be baptised. This is membership of the church universal, not just the Uniting Church. Baptism is recognised by many denominations.
Finally there is the divine side of baptism – where we receive the gift of God’s grace – the Holy Spirit. This is offered to everyone, but we recognise it is especially given at the sacrament of baptism.
The point about being accepted into membership of the people of faith with a physical symbol goes back a long way. At the time when the Old Covenant was made with Abraham, God told him that as a physical sign and seal of their membership of his chosen people, all the males should be circumcised. This was not an unusual practice at the time – many tribes and peoples performed circumcision, but God was saying to Abraham, let it act as a physical mark and constant reminder that you are my people. This happened and still happens in the Jewish community, when boys are about a week old.
The physical symbol, given to us as a sign of belonging to God’s people of the New Covenant is Baptism. This gives equality for both males and females. It is also available for young children even before they have any hope of understanding the significance of it. In fact, the more I read, the more I realised that no-one can really say they understand the full rich, significance of baptism.
However, the real significance of baptism is not that we are just welcoming people into membership of the church. It has a much deeper meaning than that. If we want to get down to the nitty gritty of baptism, it is all about life and death.
For when you were baptised, you were buried with Christ, and in baptism you were also raised with Christ through your faith in the active power of God who raised him from death.
Let us go back to thinking about Jesus’ baptism by John. I believe that here we see Jesus totally identifying his life with the life of sinners. He recognised and accepted that from that moment on, his life was actively dedicated to preaching the news of the Kingdom of God. He also put his former way of life behind him and received a very special filling of the Holy Spirit and began his ministry. He knew that this would inevitably lead to what he called another form of baptism – his death. He referred to this when speaking with his disciples.
Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking for. Can you drink the cup of suffering I must drink? Can you be baptised in the way I must be baptised?
For Jesus the word baptism held the promise of suffering.
When looking at the significance of death and resurrection in our baptism we see how Paul puts it in:
Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.
We are given no less than the power to live a new life.
This passage acknowledges that baptism is the true grafting into membership or union with Christ’s body.
We can also see the power of the imagery of being cleansed through washing, but Jesus was asking people to understand the significance of his death and then his resurrection. In the early church, the font was often in the shape of a tomb and the people were asked to go into the tomb and then come out as new people in Christ. I believe that in parts of Latin America today, infants are brought to their baptism in a coffin, and then symbolically raised to new life in baptism. That must be very powerful to witness. For us, when we have total immersion in water for baptism, it also signifies dying and rising.
The power of God for us to act for God in the world we live in is the gift of the Holy Spirit. This was made clear to Jesus at his baptism by John, and is the empowerer, companion, comforter, and encourager that is God’s gift to us for our ministry, as we continue to do Christ’s work in the world. It is from this bible passage that we find the image of the dove connected with the Holy Spirit.
The last aspect of baptism I want to talk about is the practice of baptism.
In baptism we are recognising that God is the active one in this sacrament. It is the sign of what God has done, is doing and will certainly continue to do in the lives of those who follow him. We are asked to accept the gift of God’s grace. We do not ask parents to make promises before their child is baptised. The promises come as a response to God’s grace in gifting the child with the Holy Spirit.
Accepting grace is something that is sometimes hard to understand. Maybe it would help if we think of is as being given a gift that has been paid for, and when we unwrap the contents of the gift we will be equipped and blessed for the rest of our lives. Some people choose not to unwrap the gift, and they miss out on the benefits that already have their name on them. Others are encouraged to keep unwrapping layer after layer of their gift, like a pass the parcel, so they gradually deepen their understanding and one day get to the stage of acknowledging their own faith. We call this stage confirmation or Reaffirmation of Baptism.
Some people ask if there is one right way of being baptised. Should it be by total immersion, by sprinkling or by using water as we did today. The answer is that all ways of using water in baptism are mentioned in the New Testament, so let’s not get hung up about that!
Baptism is a deeply symbolic sacrament of the church. As in our other sacrament – that of Holy Communion – when we use the physical bread and wine as symbols of something with a much richer deeper meaning, so in baptism we take the water and recognise it is a symbol of something much richer and deeper too.
To deny that baptism is real because we do not remember it is a bit like denying we belong to our family because we do not remember our birth. Worse than that – it is to deny that God’s action in baptism, that gift of grace from God, is real when infants are baptised.
Children are real members of Christ’s body, his church, and from the time of their baptism, we are asked to fulfil the vows we make to enable them to grow in the faith. For those who choose to ask for a Thanksgiving service for their young children and wait until they want to make the commitment of baptism for themselves, we are still responsible to ensure their knowledge and growth in the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We also need to make sure that as adults we continue to find ways of growing in our faith. The Christian life is a pilgrimage of growth, and in the words of St Richard of Chichester , we ask God’s help to:
know him more clearly,
love him more dearly
and follow him more nearly day by day.