This morning we have celebrated Helena’s baptism.
In doing so we have done three things:
Firstly, we given thanks that she, a unique and wonderful human being [like every human being is], has been born into our world. One of my theological teachers used to say that the waters of baptism symbolize the world – and that we are baptised into all the wonder, mystery, pain and promise of the world. Welcome Helena to the community of all who inhabit this world.
Secondly, we affirm that she is loved, cherished, and accepted – not just by her parents and wider whanau – but by that which we call God: the mysterious life-changing, justice-invoking power of Love. We are acknowledging in this ritual that God first loves us, long before we might respond. And that God’s love for us is unearned. God doesn’t love us because we are bright or beautiful or rich or have the right parents and connections. Indeed, that is why most Christian denominations have asserted the importance of infant baptism – because the candidate, the infant, cannot articulate theology or morality. They cannot say the ‘right things’. They can only receive the love offered – that God first loved us.
Thirdly, in baptism there is a distant song to be discerned, a call on the wind. Just as that life-changing, justice-invoking power of Love embraces us, so we all are called to be part of that power and to offer to others the love that embraces, changes lives, and brings justice. This call is symbolized when Helena is offered a candle representing the love and warmth of God. The candle though invites her, as she grows, to represent the love and warmth of God to others. To be a light-bearer herself.
Now, these understandings of baptism are different from what you may have heard growing up. Some of you may have heard in churches that children are born sinful, marred by sin. I remember years ago a Catholic colleague who was a hospital chaplain at Greenlane/National Women’s. Every time a new-born was critically ill he would rush up to the hospital not just to give comfort to the family but because he believed that if he didn’t baptise the new-born – ‘wash away their sin’ - then the child’s post-life acceptance into heaven, hell, or purgatory would be affected. Baptism was a ticket to heaven.
Some of you may have heard that an infant’s acceptance by God in baptism was conditional upon the faith and morality of his/her parents, who in the ceremony made promises on the child’s behalf. So, parents were quizzed by the minister about beliefs and their frequency of attendance at services. If you didn’t measure up, your child wasn’t baptised.
The reformers of the 16th century would have agreed with the idea that baptism was conditional upon faith – but not the faith of the candidate, parents, or even the church – but conditional upon the faith/faithfulness of Jesus in living that life-changing, justice-invoking power of Love. So, baptism was not a ritual symbolizing our commitment to Jesus Christ, but a ritual symbolizing Jesus’ commitment to us.
This is understanding is reflected in the baptismal rite of the French Reformed Church:
For you, little one, the Spirit of God moved over the waters at creation, and the Lord God made covenants with his people. It was for you that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. For you, [Name], Jesus Christ suffered death crying out at the end, “It is finished!” And for you Christ triumphed over death, rose in newness of life, and ascended to rule over all. All of this was done for you, [Name], though you do not know any of this yet… And so the promise of the gospel is fulfilled: “We love because God first loved us.”
Baptism is contingent upon the faithfulness of God, not on anything we have done or will do.
The understanding of baptism that I have is of course not shared by all Christians. Indeed, there is a wide variety of understandings of baptism in Christianity, and also in the Bible.
Baptism was originally Jewish. Andrew McGowan, a leading scholar in early Christian worship, says that baptism emerged from washing practices and thus symbolized cleansing and renewal. Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan was this sort of baptism.
Jesus – at that time a disciple of John’s – was participating in a ritual of cleansing and commitment to John’s vision of preparing for a theological and political revolution in Israel. So, ‘washing away of sin’ [which scholars have struggled with in relation to Jesus having ‘sin’] is best thought of as a sign of having prepared oneself, or about to prepare oneself, for a race [think diet, physical training, mental preparation, etc]. John’s message was ‘Get ready for the avenging King is coming and we will be his army’.
Later, Jesus departed from John. Jesus did not want to wait for a future kingdom but enter a present one here and now. The kingdom Jesus realized was something already present. It was also something to be celebrated because it embraced everyone – Jew, gentile, slave, free, male, female… Everyone had equal and immediate access to God, anywhere and anytime. The religious brokerage system that Jesus had grown up with, having to go through priests and temples to get admission to and favours from God, was obsolete.
Interestingly we have no record of Jesus calling on people to repent, to ‘wash away their sins’, or to be baptized.
The text today from Luke, which is often used at baptisms, points to that kingdom of grace and acceptance that marked Jesus’ teaching. It was not uncommon in the ancient world for children to be rejected at birth, especially girls. They would be discarded, left to die or to be taken as slaves. It was the patriarch of the family who had the power of accepting the child – accepting them for life or death/slavery. In this story Jesus is portrayed as the surrogate patriarch: by touching the children he is accepting them for life. God accepts children, the outcasts, for life. Jesus accepts children unconditionally – regardless of their parentage, health, or likely prospects. Further, and controversially, he is saying that children, representing those on the impoverished margins, are what the kingdom of God is all about.
Andrew McGowan also tells us that baptism, though initially a Jewish renewal ritual, continued to change throughout the first centuries of the Jesus movement and beyond. Indeed, articulating today new understandings of baptism is consistent with the biblical witness that the meaning of our rituals [like baptism and communion] can continue to develop and change.
Initially the Jesus movement used baptism, like John had used it, as a sign of participation in God’s renewal – preparation for divine service. For Paul, the waters of baptism symbolized Christ’s death, and coming out of the waters, new life. Note that Paul’s theology contained that notion that baptism signalled the end of club-like privilege along class, gender, and religious/racial lines – for when you came out of the water you were in a new reality – what Jesus called the kingdom of God.
It is not difficult to see how these baptismal practices could develop into an entry requirement into a new select group. So instead of Jesus practice of welcoming and valuing all, particularly the least, the church began increasingly to demarcate between those who were baptised and those who weren’t; with privileges going to the former. Baptism was the line between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Within a few centuries the church became the new club.
There was a time, not so long ago, that many children in our society, whether their parents were on church rolls or not, where brought to be baptised. It was seen as a nice ritual to celebrate the blessing that this new child was in their families lives. That time, for most protestant churches in New Zealand, ended somewhere around the 1970s.
Some ministers found this practice of baptising children whose parents they did not know, or had ever seen before, very difficult. For most of those ministers I suspect, they saw baptism primarily as a commitment ritual of the child [or the parents as surrogates] committing him/herself to God and to the community of the church, rather than as a ritual celebrating the commitment of God, and the commitment of the church, to not only this child but to each and every child on the planet.
Yet I and other ministers have always looked forward to welcoming and baptising children who were not known to us, and not on any parish membership lists. Apart from the sheer delight in being and celebrating with children and their families the rite of baptism declares foundational truths:
Baptism this isn’t a ticket to heaven, you are already in heaven – in the embrace of God.
Baptism isn’t an entry into a select club, the whole of humanity belongs in God.
Baptism isn’t a signing up to a bunch of doctrinal formulas, it is a declaration that God loves you unconditionally, and God is faithful.
Baptism isn’t about wiping out a child’s ‘original sin’ – children aren’t born bad, they are born beautiful. There is no ‘original sin’, only ‘original goodness’.
Embrace, belonging, love, and goodness. These are indeed worth celebrating.