One day a man is stumbling through the woods, totally drunk, when he comes upon a preacher baptizing people in the river. He proceeds to walk into the water to see what’s going on. The preacher turns around and is almost overcome by the smell of alcohol, but asks the man, "Are you ready to find Jesus?" The drunk answers, "Yes, I am." So the preacher grabs him and dunks him in the water. He pulls him up and asks him, "Brother have you found Jesus?" The drunk replies, "No." The preacher shocked at the answer, dunks him into the water again for a little longer. He again pulls him out of the water and asks again, "Have you found Jesus my brother?" The man again answers, "No,” By this time the preacher is at his wits end and dunks the drunk in the water again -- - but this time holds him down until the man begins flailing his arms and legs, and then the preacher pulls him up and again asks, "For the love of God have you found Jesus?" The drunk wipes his eyes and catches his breath and says to the preacher, "No, are you sure this is where he fell in?"
Today we begin a new sermon series on what Christians believe and we start with a two-part set on the sacraments, which in the Protestant tradition are baptism and communion. Now we begin with the sacraments not because these are the two most important beliefs, although they are certainly important. But the real reason is a little more practical, and that is because on the first Sunday after Epiphany every year we read about Jesus’ baptism, and so in keeping with that tradition we will start there today. Now we could spend weeks covering each of these topics and still not get to the bottom of everything and so what I hope to do is to teach you more about baptism then you’ve ever known, and maybe more than you’ve ever wanted to know, in order to try and deepen our understanding of these issues so that they might begin to make more sense and give more meaning to us.
But before we dig into what baptism means, let’s take a look at what a sacrament is. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said that a sacrament was, in the words of his Anglican tradition, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace”. This is a definition accepted by the Roman Catholic Church as well. A sacrament is a means of grace, a way that God offers and gives God’s love to us, which is inward and invisible, and which have accompanying sign-acts, or outward and visible sign which accompany them. The term sacrament was first used by Tertullian, one of the church fathers, in the third century.
Before entering the military Roman soldiers took an oath of allegiance and then after the oath was taken they were given a tattoo as a reminder of that oath. This oath was called a sacramentum. In observing this, Tertullian said it was similar to what occurred in Baptism, and so he began calling baptism a sacrament. Over time that term began to be applied to everything that could be used to convey God’s grace, but this began to cause more problems for the church. In the 13th century the church began to establish some rules for what was and was not a sacrament. What they decided was that a sacrament must be something that was specifically instituted by Jesus, and they came up with seven that seemed to meet this standard, namely baptism and communion, confirmation, marriage, ordination, penance and extreme unction, which is now sometimes referred to as last rites, but was really about anointing with oil for healing.
At the time of the Protestant reformation in the 16th century, Martin Luther and other reformers began to judge everything that the church did against scripture, and if it wasn’t in scripture, then it would be removed. In looking at the sacraments, Luther said that if something had to be instituted and commanded by Christ, then he could only find two sacraments in the Bible, baptism and communion, and so they the other five were removed and that is why we only have two sacraments while the Roman Catholics have seven.
So where did baptism come from and where did it begin? Most people’s answer is that it begins with John the Baptizer, as we have in today’s scripture. John is calling people out to the Jordan River to be baptized in repentance of their sins, but baptism, or at least a similar practice, is older than John. In last week’s passage we heard that following the birth of Jesus Mary was going to the temple for purification as required by Jewish law. One of the steps would be for her to enter a ceremonially bath, which are called mikveh, and be bathed in order to be purified. There were several different reasons and acts which would require people, both men and women, to enter mikveh in order to be ritually cleansed. In addition, some Jewish sects required that gentile converts not only be circumcised, but that they must also take a ritual bath in order to be cleansed and die to who they were and be reborn into something new. Orthodox Judaism still requires this for converts. So Baptism was not something with which Jesus and his followers would have been unfamiliar.
In addition, they would have also understood having an initiation rite as a means for entering a covenantal relationship with God and for having an accompanying outward sign of that covenant. In Genesis 17, God commands Abraham and all of his descendants be circumcised as a mark of the covenant that they have entered into with God, and this was to be done on the 8th day for infants. Jews become people of the covenant through circumcision. Now ladies, there is no outward and visible sign for you of entering the covenant, because under Jewish law women were incorporated into the covenant through their male relations, which we will come back to.
In Colossians, Paul writes, “In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” (2:11-13) Now what is Paul saying in this incredibly dense passage? Well he is saying that baptism is to Christians what circumcision was to the Jewish, it is the initiation rite, it is the means by which we begin to participate in the new covenant, but in addition, he is highlighting the first of the things that baptism does for us which is the cleansing of our sins.
In baptism, we are cleansed of our sins, but not just the sins we have already committed, but, and this is important, we are also forgiven for sins we have yet to commit. In the early church, some people believed that they should wait until their death beds to be baptized so that they would then be forgiven for all their sins. But, this is not a covenant of the past and present, but of the future as well. In taking the water of baptism we are cleansed of our sins, those we have committed and those we have yet to commit. God promises us forgiveness with repentance. That is one thing that baptism does. But, as the reading from Acts this morning indicates, baptism is much more than that. John was doing a baptism of repentance, but being baptized into Christ gives us more than just forgiveness.
The second thing that happens is that through baptism we are adopted as children of God. We die to who we were and are reborn into Christ. After Jesus’ baptism, what does God say, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” When we are baptized, God says the same thing to and about us. We become children of God, different than the way that Jesus is the son, but we become adopted children of God. We were born into the world through the water of the womb, and through the water of baptism we are also reborn, God claims us as his own. We die to who we were and are reborn as children of God. Some early baptismal fonts recognize this reality through their design, which often took the shape of a sarcophagus, or coffin, and later were made in the shape of the cross. We issue baptismal certificates, just like your birth certificate, and if you have ever done genealogy research you know how important these records are. It is because of this understanding of adoption that we don’t rebaptize. Like the prodigal son, “we may live in neglect or defiance of the covenant, but we cannot destroy God’s love for us. When we repent and return to God, the covenant does not need to be remade, because God has always remained faithful to it. What is needed is renewal of our commitment and reaffirmation of our side of the covenant.” (By Water and the Spirit)
So through baptism we are cleansed of our sins, we are reborn and become children of God, and we are also given eternal life. When Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well and he asks her for a drink, she is astonished that a Jew would ask a Samaritan for something, but Jesus tells her that if she knew who he was she would be asking him for a drink because he gives “living water… and everyone who drinks from… this water will never be thirsty. The water that [Jesus gives] will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” This is the water we receive. Jesus says that he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. God gives us unconditional grace which extends for all time.
The final gift we receive through baptism is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Immediately following Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit, in the shape of a dove descends upon him. On the day of Pentecost, people ask Peter what they need to do to receive Christ, and Peter tells them “repent, and be baptized every one of you so that your sins may be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” After we baptize, we lay hands on the person and pray for the Holy Spirit to work within them, that having been born by water and the spirit, they may live as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. The Spirit is God’s gift to us through our baptism.
Through baptism we are forgiven our sins, we are reborn and made children of God, we are given living water which gives us eternal life and we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The final thing baptism does is to incorporate us into the body of Christ. We do not believe that baptism is an individual thing. Except for extreme circumstances, baptism is a communal activity. We not only enter into a covenantal relationship with God, but we also enter into a covenantal relationship with each other. The church in its simplest definition is a body of the baptized. This is not just some cute ceremony to make everyone feel good about church, or to appease grandparents, this is a significant covenant which we are entering in which God pledges allegiance to us and we in turn pledge allegiance to God, and it is something that we should remember every day of our lives
We will conclude our look at baptism with the issue that those who asked about baptism the most, which is about infant baptism versus adult baptism, and sprinkling versus full immersion. We’ll start with the one that’s a little easier, and that is conducting baptisms that are not full immersion. In the United Methodist church we practice sprinkling, pouring and full immersion, although certainly sprinkling and pouring are more prevalent. The argument that is made is that unless the baptism is full immersion, then it’s not a legitimate baptism, but let me provide a little background. Baptists, and other groups that practice only adult baptism, come out of a group that formed after the protestant reformation called the Anabaptists. The prefix ana coming from the Greek ava meaning to do again, but originally Anabaptists did not require full immersion instead they did it through pouring. The idea of full immersion as necessary for proper administration did not come until later.
Now there are some who argue that not only is full immersion required, but that you must be baptized in living water, that is water that is moving. So some say that if you get full immersion in your Jacuzzi tub at the local Baptist church then it doesn’t count either because it’s not living water, and the arguments continue to become even more obscure, but here is an argument that I think is better. This is a work called the Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. Scholars estimate that it was written somewhere between 60 and 110, that’s not 1860, but the year 60. If it was indeed written in the year 60 then it predates some of the books we have in the New Testament, and there were some early church fathers who argued that it should be included in the New Testament, but here is what the Didache has to say: “Regarding baptism. Baptize as follows: baptize in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water. But if you have no running water, baptize in other water; and if you cannot in cold, then in warm. But if you have neither, pour water on the head three times in the name of the father, and of the son and of the Holy Spirit.”
So as early as 30 years after Jesus death, the church was saying that while full immersion was preferable it was not necessary. And why were they saying that? Because they understood the imagery in being washed clean and in dyeing and being reborn is better when using full immersion, but they also understood that the water was not the acting agent. The amount of water doesn’t matter. It would be like saying that if you are baptized in the ocean then you are more baptized then if it’s done in a pool. The early church understood that baptisms that were not done full immersion were okay, and that has been the practice for nearly 2000 years, and we understand that the quantity of the water does not make a difference because the water is merely a symbol, it is not what actually cleanses people, that work is done by God not by the water. So that leads us to the issue of infant baptism.
The people who argue against infant baptism tend to be the same ones who argue for full-immersion, and the reasons typically given are because an infant cannot consent to the baptism, and therefore it has no meaning, and they also tend to argue that there is no scriptural witness for children being baptized. But, if baptism is a sign of the covenant, if it is the initiation rite in which people enter into the body of Christ then where do children who are not baptized belong? Under circumcision, women were incorporated into the covenant through their male relatives, but baptism doesn’t work that way. My daughters are not incorporated into the baptismal covenant because I am baptized, they too must participate in the covenant.
Circumcision was the outward sign of the covenant of God and it took place eight days after birth. Now did these children consent to being circumcised? Did they say, “I’ve read the law, I understand the story of the people, and I consent to undergo circumcision to become a part of the covenant people?” Of course they didn’t, they were circumcised as a symbol that they were God’s, and with the understanding of their parents that they would raise the child up in the faith, and would tell them the stories, and would train them up in the way so that when they were older they would not stray. They understood that it was a process, the same way that we understand that becoming a Christian is a process, it does not happen immediately whether you were baptized as a child or as an adult, we all grow into our faith.
God commanded infants to undergo the initiation to become people of the covenant, but somehow that commandment doesn’t apply to us because I guess maybe God changed God’s mind about the logic of having children participate in the covenant. In addition, you might remember that the disciples get upset at one point because people are bringing their children to Jesus to be blessed, and the disciples tell the people to take the kids away, and what does Jesus do? He rebukes them and says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs,” and then later Jesus says that we must become like children if we want to inherit the kingdom. Clearly children had a special place in Jesus ministry and understanding of the world, so why should they be excluded from the covenant?
Now one of the other arguments made is that in the baptisms in the New Testament there is no direct mention of children being baptized, that instead its adults and since it’s not in the Bible it shouldn’t be done. But the answer to that is sort of evident on its face because there were no children being born into these churches in order to be baptized, because there was as yet no church. But what we do have is three occasions in which we are told that someone is baptized and their entire household is baptized along with them. We can find two of these stories in Acts chapter 16 in which Paul baptizes Lydia and her household and also the jailer and his household. Now the word for household used here usually included children, but that of course does not mean that it included infants, but it does not say that Paul baptized the household except for those who were under the age of 10.
For those churches that practice only believer’s baptism, as it is called, most do a dedication of their children when they are infants and then work to prepare them to make a profession of faith and be baptized when they are 8, or 10 or some other age. They don’t baptize infants because they don’t think it’s scriptural, but they undertake a practice which cannot be found anywhere in scripture either. But my final point is from the practices and statements of the church.
In the second century, in opposition to those who opposed infant baptism, Origen said that infant baptism had been practiced by the apostles. In 254 the Council of Carthage said that infant baptism went back to the apostles. Augustine, who is foundational for much of church theology, including those who oppose infant baptism, supported infant baptism and said that it was practiced by the apostles. At the time of the protestant reformation, both Martin Luther and John Calvin said that they were going to remove any practice which did not meet scriptural witness, and they removed a lot, but they practiced infant baptism. John Wesley said that he too would remove anything which did not match scripture, and he practiced infant baptism. When Wesley was asked how God’s grace worked through baptism in infants, he said that he could not comprehend it, but “neither can we comprehend how it is wrought in a person of riper years.” Today more than 80 percent of the church, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants practice infant baptism.
For those who still may have a problem with infant baptism, or with sprinkling, that’s fine, I merely want you to understand that we do not practice these things because we don’t know what we are talking about or have no theologically basis for doing so, and for those who do support them I hope you now have a better understanding of them and why we do them so that you can better engage in conversation with those who question you about the process. The water does not convey God’s grace. The person performing the sacrament does not convey God’s grace. The age of the person receiving baptism does not convey God’s grace. When we begin focusing on those things as being important than we move the action away from God and say that the power of baptism is found in the things of baptism. God is the actor and we are the recipients.
In By Water and the Spirit, which is the official position on Baptism according to the United Methodist Church, it says that “Baptism involves dying to sin, newness of life, union with Christ, receiving the Holy Spirit, and incorporation into Christ’s church.” Baptism is a gift from God which is freely given by God to us. God’s grace is always available even before we need it, and is always with us. Even when we may go astray God remains ever faithful and waits for us to return. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he says “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God,” notice that he doesn’t say and all this is done in one hour, which today it won’t, but through the one baptism we are all united for we are baptized, born anew into the body of Christ which does not know denominational boundaries, we are claimed by God who says “this is my child in whom I am well pleased.” Amen.