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Baptism and resurrection

[Note: In the early church baptism was commonly celebrated at Easter, and it is good it observe the tradition in the church today when circumstances permit. This sermon was originally preached on such an occasion, and the opportunity was taken to teach more thoroughly the church's understanding of what we were doing by making the link of a new beginning in the faith community with the Resurrection of Christ. It is being made available for similar teaching purposes. For an alternative sermon on the gospel for today see The faithful doubter which was prepared for Easter 2 in Year B when the gospel reading is the same.]

Baptism is a new beginning like resurrection to begin a new life after death. When people are baptised they begin a new life as members of the community of faith, the body of Christ. They are joined with Christ who was raised from the dead, and the new life they begin is a life which shares in his victory over sin and death:

This comes about as a result of his sacrificial death in which we are united with him through baptism.

So an old life is left behind and a new life is begun. Whether we are baptised as adults on confession of faith or as infants within the household of faith, we share in the new life which Christ began through his death and resurrection. The only times in the gospels when Jesus is recorded as speaking of his own baptism is when he refers to his coming death and resurrection [Luke 12:50 and compare Mark 10:38]

In Romans 6 Paul takes up this theme: the person being baptised is joined with Christ, dying and rising with him [compare 1 Corinthians 1:13], and thus benefiting from the general baptism he has undergone on behalf of others in his atoning death. The old life of sin is washed away and new life in the Spirit begins.

[Jesus himself linked the gift of the Spirit with both baptism (John 3:5 'water and Spirit') and the forgiveness of sins (John 20:22-23 in the gospel for today).

His resurrection is a new beginning [Acts 13:33 (see Psalm 2:7)].

The change was so profound when our ancestors were converted that they took new names, Christian names, when they were baptised, because they were really new people. Baptism was called Christening because through it people were made Christians, that is they were changed in their character and allegiance. Their new names were a sign of that profound change. They were changed by belonging to Christ, and the blessings they received were God's gifts to them.

The basis of our present day practice of baptism

It is for this reason that we say baptism is a means of grace, of blessing through the freely given love of God: the new life we receive is does not come from something that we do or we achieve for ourselves, but it is a graciously given unearned free gift of God. Just as Christ died for us without our knowing or caring about it and just as God raised him up without our knowing or deserving any benefit, so we are blessed by being united with Christ in baptism. That is why we said to the child in the baptism service of the Uniting Church:

Although we may administer baptism in quite different circumstances today, compared with what was done in biblical times or when our ancestors were converted from pagan religions or the conditions in the mission fields in the last century or this, its meaning remains the same as it was when Paul wrote to the Romans. It is essentially about a new beginning in life with Christ which is made possible through his death and resurrection. So we say in the service:

Baptism is the sign of new life in Christ Jesus. By water and the Holy Spirit we are brought into union with Christ in his death and resurrection. In baptism we are sealed with the Holy Spirit, and made members of the body of Christ, and called to his ministry in the world.

We are confessing a belief that membership in the body of Christ is membership in the universal church, the holy catholic church. That is much more important than membership in the Uniting Church, or any particular branch of the universal church. That is why after the minister says

"... from this day on the sign of the cross is upon you"

the new member is presented to the congregation with the words

"Stephanie [or whoever] is now received into the holy catholic church according to Christ's command."

On the back of the Certificate of Baptism which we often use in the Uniting Church there is a note saying that the Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran and Uniting Churches have agreed that a certificate used by them in this form is evidence of Christian Baptism. There are national agreements between the churches and world wide statements of common understanding between world communions which recognize that baptism incorporates people into the one universal church regardless of the denomination in which the baptism is performed. But, of course, it is not an individual matter. You do have to belong somewhere, in some particular branch of the vine: then through that branch you belong to the whole vine, to the body of Christ.

The Uniting Church's official understanding is contained first in The Basis of Union, and it has been reinforced several times in further decision by the Assembly which emphasise the validity of infant as well as believers baptism.

BAPTISM

The Uniting Church acknowledges that Christ incorporates people into his body by Baptism. In this way Christ enables them to participate in his own baptism, which was accomplished once on behalf of all in his death and burial, and which was made available to all when, risen and ascended, he poured out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Baptism into Christ's body initiates people into Christ's life and mission in the world, so that they are united in one fellowship of love, service, suffering and joy, in one family of the Father of all in heaven and earth, and in the power of the one Spirit. The Uniting Church will baptize those who confess the Christian faith, and children who are presented for baptism and for whose instruction and nourishment in the faith the Church takes responsibility. [Section 7 of The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia]

We will come back, in a moment, to the reasons why we baptize infants as well as those who confess the Christian faith. The key point is that it is a means of grace, not something we earn, but a free gift of God. What matters most is not what we do but what God does for us. That does not mean, however, that it can be done without conditions; which we will see. First let us reflect for a moment on the significance of new beginnings.

New life after old ways

New beginnings are always important. The news travels quickly when a baby is born. It is a time of excitement. Don't the telephones ring! The news is received with joy and thanksgiving. So it is also with a new beginning in faith. It, too, can be a time of excitement, joy and thanksgiving. Marriages, like births, are another kind of new beginning which we celebrate with joy. There are in human experience many ways in which a new start in life can made.

Sometimes new beginnings can be sad and joyful at the same time. If people have been through a time of struggle, they might have made a new beginning only after giving up an old way of life, or perhaps they might have renewed a commitment that they had broken. When things like that happen, we say they have repented. They have made a new start by turning around or changing direction. It was that kind of new start that Peter urged on the people in the crowd at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost [in Acts 2:38 just after the passage read today and which will be in next week's lessons]:

[You see the great themes of Christian faith that are together here: repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are themes which are constantly part of our worship, because they are constant themes in Christian life. Opportunities for repentance and forgiveness of sins are always available. There are also many times when we pray for and celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. And those who are members of the church should always by thankful that we are baptised.

Sometimes we celebrate the gifts of God in special ways. For example, the gift of the Holy Spirit which is part of Baptism is celebrated by prayer with the laying on hands especially at Confirmation when a baptised person confesses the faith in which they have been nurtured and accepts the responsibilities of discipleship. We always pray that baptised children will come to this point of commitment, just as those who are baptised as adults on confession of faith do at their baptism. Other points of commitment and commissioning include the commissioning of elders and the ordination of ministers. Other special services can be arranged: for example, when a baptised person who has been confirmed but has been separated from the church has a renewal of faith we can have a another kind service of Re-affirmation of Baptism like confirmation. Prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit with the laying on of hands can also be part of a healing ministry. There are many ways in which we can celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit at many different point of significance in the Christian pilgrimage of a disciple of Christ. Many new beginnings can be celebrated in this way. But Baptism is different because it can only be celebrated once in a lifetime. Why is that?

For anyone to be baptised a second time is a serious offense against the body of Christ, for it denies previous membership and the blessings already received; it also divides the body by denying the membership of others who were baptised as infants by saying their baptisms are not valid. There can only be one baptism as there is only one Lord and as he died once for all: as St Paul put it

Baptism is a once for all event in the same way that the death and resurrection of Jesus marks a once and for all beginning of the Christian community. We enter this community once. Those who choose to enter in response to God's call to them come in through the waters of baptism when they confess the faith. Children born into a Christian community are nurtured and grow in the faith from an early age so it is appropriate that their membership from that early stage of the their lives is marked also by baptism, for that is when their journey begins. There is no other beginning point although there may be many important steps taken later and many new commitments made which can be celebrated in various ways. The baptism of infants makes sense when it is realistic to regard children as members of the community that is the body of Christ. It is the rite of initiation, the way we make people members of the church. It has no meaning without that intention.]

New life in an old world

It is fairly obvious that when a person repents of an old way of life and starts living differently it makes sense to talk of a new beginning in faith; but what about the baptism of a young child? Such young ones cannot turn from old ways, repenting and believing what Christ has done for them -- not, at least, at that time. To understand what happens with the child it is important to see that baptism is not the act of an individual, but of the church: we do not baptize ourselves. It is something done for us, no matter what age we are.

Together as family and community we need constantly to look towards Christ and away from evil in the world. There is nothing more important in Christian discipleship today than to see that we are constantly being offered a choice between the new way of life in Christ and the old ways of the world which are the ways of sin and death. So in the service we ask the parents

"Do you believe that the gospel enables us to turn form the darkness of evil and to walk in the light of Christ? "

That turning and walking in the light is a commitment we make together in the act of baptism for the community to protect and nurture the child in the way of Christ, sharing in the new life of his resurrection.

We believe that children can be members of the church. They as well as adults can belong to Christ, and belonging is signified by baptism. That does not, however, make sense apart from the community of faith in which people accept responsibility for the Christian nurture of the child. That is why we say The Uniting Church will baptize those who confess the Christian faith, and children who are presented for baptism and for whose instruction and nourishment in the faith the Church takes responsibility, and why we normally celebrate baptism within a service of worship of a congregation. This applies to adults as well as children for all need to be nurtured in the fellowship. Apart from a believing and caring community a ceremony of baptism can be little more than a meaningless superstition. Seeking a baptism without the responsibilities of membership in the church is like wanting to have a wedding without finding yourself married to someone. We can only baptize children for whom there is a reasonable hope of their being brought up in the faith.

[Perhaps it is because old superstitions linger that people seek baptism for their children without any intention of keeping the promises they make. Perhaps it is just another illustration of the fragile nature of family ties and loyalties generally. It is a sad thing these days that parents often make shallow promises so that the church is deceived into accepting responsibilities which it is almost impossible to carry out. Yet, if we must take risks, we should risk erring on the side of generosity, taking people at their word and not judging their sincerity.

It is understandable in these circumstances in our individualistic and fragmented society with its unstable relationships that some families prefer to delay the baptism of their children until they are able to take some part in it themselves. Perhaps that might be in adolescence, but sometimes older children are baptised. In any case commitments made at such a young age when so much is changing and uncertain are often not very stable, that is unless they are very well supported by family and community, and the situation then is not very different from the nurture required when we baptize infants.

It is important to know that while there are instances in the New Testament of whole households being baptised (which have would very likely have included children) there is no case of the baptism of children being delayed. There is no known instance or even the slightest suggestion in the New Testament or in the early history of the church of children bought up in Christian families being baptised when they grew up. On the contrary there are a number of sayings which refer children as believers (Titus 1:6) and to their being allowed to come to Jesus (Matthew 19:13-14; Mark 10:13-14; Luke 18:16) or of their belonging to him (1 Corinthians 7:14).



In the Uniting Church we respect the consciences of those who delay the baptism of their children, but we do not encourage it because it denies the membership of children in the body before they are baptised. That is especially difficult when we admit children to holy communion, which is a family meal properly open only to members of the family. So all members of the church family should have been baptised, for that is how they become members. It can give rise to difficulties and as noted above there is no foundation in the New Testament for a practice of delaying the baptism of children. Nevertheless it is one of the points of diversity in the church that can be allowed for and we have a Service of Thanksgiving for the Birth of the Child for use in families who prefer it to the baptism of their new born children. Those children will be expected to be baptised later, perhaps when others are confirmed or sooner. That is very different from the re-baptism of persons previously baptised, which is not allowed under any circumstances.

But some will say, how can they become members without faith? Children can have faith appropriate to their stage of development; and none of us has complete understanding. To emphasise personal commitment of a particular kind, often in adolescence, is to make too much of one stage of development and to make too much of what we do, when the important thing is not what we do or what we understand but what God has done for us. If it all depends on what we do, it is no longer an act of grace.]

When we baptize a child we rejoice in the commitment to the new way of life in Christ that we and the parents have made for their child. We pray that she will come to know and love her Lord and will make her own promises at her confirmation. We believe that as a member of the body of Christ she will share in the life of the resurrection in which in the end all things are made new [Revelation 21:5-6] as we share in the victory he has won over sin and death.

all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? .... so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. {5} For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. -- Romans 6:3-5

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