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Baptism, resurrection and new life

Why we accept the baptism of infants

[Note: The purpose of this sermon is pastoral, not polemical. Christians with different practices should be regarded as acting in good conscience, and delayed baptism of the children of some members might be accepted in some congregations where the catholic tradition is followed, but people in those congregations need to know the biblical and theological foundations of their tradition and the conditions necessary for unity to be preserved. Baptism is especially closely related to the celebration of Easter. Another sermon, The Servant of Life, is posted which closely follows the lectionary for this Sunday.]

It is especially significant to have a baptism in the Easter season. In the ancient church it was common for people who were being prepared for baptism to be brought to the final stage of readiness through fasting and prayers through the night before Easter Day and then to be baptized on that Day, Easter Sunday, which is the highest and holiest day of Christian worship. They would have been prepared as "catechumens" over weeks or months of instruction in the faith, looking forward to the great event on Easter Day. Why was that? Why was the Day of Resurrection so strongly associated with baptism? The short answer is that baptism marks the beginning of a new life, not that a baby has been born, though that is something to celebrate, but a new life of belonging to Christ and being a member of his body the church. Just as Christ was raised to a renewal of life, so as we are made members of his body we too may have our lives renewed. As we read from Paul's letter at the beginning of the service of baptism this morning,

I want to look at the meaning of baptism today especially in relation to the practice of baptising young children in Christian families. It is a matter of great importance for several reasons.

1. Regardless of whether we are talking of children or adults, members of the church need a good understanding of the sacrament of baptism, because it is through baptism that Christians everywhere are made members of the church. If we do not understand the basis of our membership we are not in a good position to know what we should about the practice of baptism: who to baptize, and how to do it.

2. There is a lot of confusion about the meaning and purpose of baptism due both to false teaching and to carelessness or lack of discipline on the part of members. There are people who trade on this confusion trying to persuade others to do things they would not do if they had a better understanding of what it is about; and there are serious deficiencies in our church life which give credence to teaching that can be misleading and alienate people from the fellowship in which they have been nurtured.

3. We are at a critical time in the history of the church in this matter, because we can no longer rely upon the kind of community support for membership in the church which once strengthened parents in their Christian upbringing of their baptised children. Indeed the opposite is the case: the pressures on families in Western societies today take people away from the church and tend to set up conflicts with other interests. The change and the difficulties are so great that they raise questions about whether we should change our practices: for example, should we stop putting parents in a position where they make promises that many will find it extremely difficult to keep.

I cannot deal with the whole subject this morning but I want to bring two important aspects to your attention. Let us first go back to the basic meaning of baptism. It is the rite of initiation into the life of Christ. In baptism as in the holy communion, we believe that we share in the life of the risen Lord. Baptism celebrates the beginning of that relationship just as the continuation of it is celebrated in the Lord's Supper, through faith in Christ and through our membership in the fellowship of believers.

When we enter into the life and fellowship of Christ we must turn away from other ways of life. We die to an old way and rise to a new way. That is a choice that must be maintained throughout our lives, often with new commitments at many significant points as we face new challenges. The beginning of that pilgrimage, as we begin to travel through life with Christ, is marked by an initiation into the Christian life. Baptism is that rite of initiation, whatever the age or the situation of the person who is beginning the life of faith in Christ.

Can we put aside one little confusion? People sometimes ask, "Is Christening the same thing as Baptism?" Yes. It is the same thing, but in the church today we prefer the term Baptism because that is the language of the Bible and it is used generally in the universal church. "Christening" is simply the old English word that was often used for Baptism: it meant making someone a Christian, and that was done by baptising them whether they were young or old. Beware of people who try to confuse you by saying that there is a difference when there is none. There are people who have their own reasons for wanting to confuse others about the meaning of these plain ordinary English words. If you have been Christened you have been Baptized. People can still debate who should be baptized, and whether we should baptise young children, and there are differences of opinion about that in good conscience which we should respect, but to say that someone has 'only' been Christened is nonsense. Whether it is right or wrong that they should have been baptized, no matter what their age, they cannot be Christened without being baptized, for that is what Christening means. People are Christened by being brought into Christian fellowship through baptism.

So baptism is the rite of Christian initiation. It marks the beginning of a life of belonging to Christ. It has no other meaning. If a person is not related to Christ, so that he or she, however old or young, is not learning the way of Christ and being renewed in that relationship, then there is no point in saying that person is a Christian. How then, is that relationship brought about?

It is a gift of God

Firstly, we are related to Christ, and to God through him, because he took the initiative and reached out to us. As we have been reminded recently during Lent and at Easter,

The fullest expression of that outgoing love is shown to us in the way that Christ was prepared to sacrifice his life so that we could be reconciled to God. We did not do this for ourselves! It was done for us, because God loved us so much. We did not come to him first. He came to us. A great new beginning is possible for us because God in Christ put an end to the old ways and opened up a new way when Christ died and rose again. It was entirely an act of grace on his part. It is a free gift. It is not something that we have in any way earned:

It is just after teaching about this free gift of God's grace that Paul links baptism with the death and resurrection of Christ:

The new beginning we make by dying to the old way and rising to the new life when we are joined with him is made possible because he died first, by the grace of God conquering evil and death. Renewal of life with him is like beginning the creation of the world all over again, remaking it through a relationship with Christ, who was there at the beginning and through whom it all came into being. By the initiative of God, we now share in a new creation:

Paul goes on to emphasise again that it is a free gift of God.

That is why we in the Uniting Church in Australia now say in the service when we baptise children, speaking directly to the child:

We are joined with Christ in faith

The second important thing about our relationship with Christ, next after the fact that it is a gift of God, is that it is a relationship of faith. Yes, baptism does have something to do with faith. It properly marks the beginning of faith in Christ. There are two important things to think about here: faith itself is a gift of God; and faith is a matter of trust. Let us look at he second of these first.

By putting what we do in terms of a relationship with Christ, we are emphasising the aspect of faith that is personal trust. When we say we believe in Christ, we are doing more than saying what we believe about him. We do say what we believe about Christ: that he was the historic person Jesus of Nazareth and the Son of God, that is the sort of thing we say when we say a creed of the church like the Apostles Creed which is included traditionally in a service of baptism. And that is important. The Apostles Creed was developed originally as a statement made by new converts at their baptism. It summarises what was taught to the catechumens, those apprentice Christians, as they were instructed in the faith prior to their baptism, often at Easter. And so we still say the Apostles Creed at a baptism. It is important because it is a traditional way of saying what we believe about Christ. We go further though when we trust in Christ. We have to know about him in order to be able to trust him, but then there is the personal attitude of trusting him as a person and committing ourselves to follow him. There is nothing very strange about this. Trust is something we know about because it is a normal part of human life.

When I say baptism and faith are related I mean that baptism initiates us into a relationship of trust in Christ. It is often hard to say exactly when trust begins. Little children have an implicit trust in their parents. That is the kind of faith that Jesus taught his disciples to have in God and in himself. If a child is being brought up in a family where people do trust God, we may hope that the child will learn that trust too, and there will be no clear beginning. It will certainly be there long before it can be put into words.

The time comes when it is important to say what we believe. It comes in different ways to different people at different times. For those baptised as infants appropriate expression of faith comes in various ways as they grow up through different stages of life, and the kind of expression of faith that includes saying what we believe in traditional words like the Apostles Creed comes at confirmation; but all along faith is a matter of trust. We believe it is right to mark the beginning of that relationship and to recognize the membership of the child in the body of Christ. All those who are growing in a relationship with Christ are members of the Christian family because that is where the relationship with Christ is formed. For the same reasons we have the practice of admitting children to holy communion. They do not know what it is all about, but they have already begun to grow in a relationship.

It is different when a mature person who has led a non-Christian life and has never had anything to do with a Christian fellowship, comes to a point of commitment and confesses faith in Christ. Such a person coming to faith from completely outside the fellowship of Christian of believers, such as might happen in a missionary situation, will be baptised to mark the beginning of their discipleship. That only makes sense however, if they have never been part of a Christian fellowship; that is, if they have not previously been made a member of the church, the body of Christ. It would be quite wrong for a person who has previously been member of the church to be baptised, because that would be to deny that they had previously begun that relationship even if they have turned away from it.

People who return to Christ after a break in fellowship may be given an opportunity to re-affirm their baptisms, perhaps in Confirmation or in a different rite of reconciliation, but you can only be baptised once because it is the one point of initiation into the whole world wide fellowship of Christian believers. The unfortunate divisions in the body of Christ sometimes hide this important fact. On the back of the certificate for [Stephanie's] baptism which I gave to [Kate and Stuart] today it says:

In the service we said, Stephanie is now received into the holy catholic church according to Christ's command. We do not baptise people into the Uniting Church. Though people often speak loosely in this way, people are not baptised Anglicans or Catholics or Lutherans: people are baptised Christians, and made members of the universal church, the one holy catholic and apostolic church. It is now a divided church, but as we have it in scripture:

If people change from one branch of the church to another they should never be re-baptised, because they are already a member of the one body. To go through another service of baptism does not accomplish anything. The second baptism is completely invalid, and it denies the grace a person has already received. It is also a very divisive and sectarian act because it says that the person being re-baptised had not previously belonged to the church. By implication it also says that other people with whom that person had previously been in fellowship do not belong to Christ either. There cannot be anything more divisive than to deny that another Christian belongs to Christ.

There is only one baptism into the one church of God. Baptism is about initiation into a life of faith and faith itself is a gift of God. As Paul wrote:

Problems usually arise when people think that what they do as individuals matters most. It is an easy mistake to make when one is eager to witness to the faith. But, even if you want to put the emphasis on personal faith and commitment, that too is a gift, not something we generate ourselves. Nor is our faith commitment a once for all action. It will need to be renewed from time to time. The only once for all action that matters is Christ's once for all sacrifice, and we are joined with him in his death and resurrection through beptism.

There is not time here to go into the Biblical basis of all that we teach about baptism but there is plenty of it. It will be better followed up in a study group. As I was saying, we must respect the good conscience of those who differ from us, but the Uniting Church stands with the great traditions of the universal church in seeing the grace of God in Baptism as available to all who are beginning a life of fellowship with Christ.

We err on the side of generosity. That does put us in a difficult situation at times because parents will often make promises that they will not keep in terms of bringing a child up in the faith. We do not want to say to anyone, 'We don't believe you', when they say they are prepared to bring their child up in the faith, but as the wider community has moved away from supporting parents in these promises and will often put pressure on them to do the opposite, the time might come when we have to restrict the baptism of infants to the children of parents who are communicant members actively engaged in the life of the church.

We are reluctant to put barriers in the way not only because it is a dangerous risk to take if you presume to judge another person's sincerity. There is another reason at a different level. What we do is not entirely in our hands. The sign of the water is a sign of washing away the life of the sinful world and bringing a person into a new world of life and light and that is something we do not have the power to do. We can ask God to do it. The water is a sign of something being done by God. We use that sign not as a magical act, but with prayer. By prayer we believe God is able to accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine. All that is accomplished through baptism is the Lord's doing, and for that we praise God in the name of Christ. Amen.

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