“Any Questions About Baptism?”
Rev. James Rausch
The 30th president of the United States was, of course… What? You can’t come up with the name? We might have to start having some history classes. It was a Protestant Reformed cousin in the faith to us Presbyterians, Calvin Coolidge, named in honor of the 16th century reformer, John Calvin. He was also known as “Silent Cal,” because he was very frugal with his words. He was famous for one- and-two-word answers to questions, which endeared hm to the public, even while it frustrated his journalistic interviewers.
It is said the he attended church one Sunday when his wife was unable to attend. She later inquired what the message was about. Coolidge replied “Sin.” His wife pressed for an elaboration: “What did the Minister have to say about sin?” Coolidge replied “He’s against it.”
So today if someone asks you what the message was about, I picture you all saying, “Baptism.” And if you’re asked what the pastor had to say about baptism, that you would follow by saying, “He’s for it.” With that in mind, I certainly have a lot of work to do today to make sure you have more to say about baptism than that. Lucky for you, I’m up to the task!
That concludes my preamble to the sermon. You may now start the clock.
Baptism is a Sacrament of the church. A Sacrament is an outward sign of an inward reality. Presbyterians believe that baptism is our mark of entry into the church, God’s one true church in the world. The other Sacrament of the Two that are acknowledged and accepted among Protestants is… Correct! Thank goodness you knew that one – Communion, the Lord’s Supper. The Sacraments are God’s sign and seal on God’s Covenant and Gospel promises to be our God and claim us as God’s people. Think of them as God’s signature on the proclamation of our adoption, inclusion, and salvation.
When I teach about the Sacraments, I like to bring out my stamp and wax that can be used to seal envelopes. In ancient times, when a king made a proclamation, it was written on scrolls to be delivered throughout the kingdom. The rolled scrolls would be stamped with the king’s unique signet ring, so that when the people received the scroll with the king’s seal intact, they new it was authentic. It is a wonderful thing to read in Scripture that we belong to God and nothing can snatch us from God’s hand. But it is even better to be able to remember our baptism as God’s signature on those promises.
Martin Luther, who, even s a priest, was, for a time. tormented by doubts of his salvation because he was acutely aware of his own sinfulness and unworthiness, was able to withstand excruciating despair because of the fact of his baptism. He struggled with his own demons frequently, in ways that we might categorize as anxiety or paranoia, however fear of the devil and demons was quite common at that time. While translating the Bible into German at Wartburg, he was awakened one night, terrified by what he perceived as Satan taunting him as irredeemably sinful and lost to God. It is said that he raged back by throwing his inkwell at the vision of Satan he was experiencing as he shouted, “But I am baptized!” The ink splatters apparently remain visible on the wall even today. Baptism is a big deal. I’m for it.
As mentioned earlier, baptism is the sign of our entry into the church, it’s God’s signature on our citizenship papers in the Kingdom of God. God’s people are identified and claimed. Thousands of years before baptism became the identifying mark of God’s people, there were different indicators that marked the identity of the Hebrews, the chosen worshippers of Yahweh. Do you know what they were? One was a physical mark, and the other was a strict set of cultural observances? The one that most Christians and Jewish people can name is circumcision. In a male-dominated social structure where each clan was under the authority and protection of an elder male chief, the clan’s identity was taken from that chief.
The second identifier is less well-known by most Christians. It is found in the food laws listed in the Old Testament. It was never a matter of just saying that you were a worshipper of Yahweh, rather, that was known by what you did? If you were a male, were you circumcised? And for everyone, did you observe the food laws, shunning what was said to be unclean. Those were the marks of your identity. At that point in history, God established a people to prepare and shape for the task of blessing all the families of the world; a people through whom God could become flesh and dwell among us. When this was accomplished, God would then establish a new covenant, opening the door to citizenship to the kingdom to all peoples.
No longer were the marks of citizenship circumcision and food laws. Those marks prefigured the much more inclusive sign of baptism.
There are things we all need to know about baptism so we can value it, give thanks for it, and be bolstered in faith and protected by it from doubt and despair.
Why do we use water to baptize? What is signified by the used of water?
1] It is among the most simple and common of components of creation. It is available and known and used wherever humans dwell. If water is not available for baptism, in a pinch, the water in one’s saliva is sufficient.
2] Water cleanses. In baptism, we are promised that Jesus cleanses us of our sins.
3) Water refreshes. It brings joy, and relief from the heat. Do you remember running through the sprinklers as a child? Did any of you ever get to experience an open fire hydrant on a hot day? God’s promise of love and acceptance relieves us from the heat of judgment and brings out our childlike joy and exuberance.
4] Water sustains life. Without it, we cannot go on. Jesus provides for us living water to sustain us, that we might indeed go on and be with him eternally.
5] Finally, water also symbolizes death. That’s right, the same thing that sustains life can also be deadly. The Hebrews were not a sea-going people. The came to view the great seas as places of chaos and death. The tiny little Sea of Galilee was about all they could handle, and even that was approached with caution and fear. Why would we want our baptism to signify death? Because it is the sign for us that Jesus has shared his death with us in order that we may also share in his resurrection and eternal life.
I was asked about baptism after a Bible Study class recently, and that prompted me to want to spend a Sunday answering any questions you may have, and a good deal of questions you don’t have.
When we were invited to consider moving to Michigan, my family traveled there for my interview with the Pastor nominating committee. We met at a beautiful old chateau on Lake Michigan on a day that they admitted was about as perfect in terms of weather that you can get in Michigan or anywhere else. During my interview, my daughter was discovering Lake Michigan and claiming it for her own. She was hoping it could be renamed Lake Jennica, and she asked me if she could be rebaptized.
Do you know the Presbyterian and Reformed answer to that question? Rebaptizing is a hard “no.” in our understanding. That may seem a bit harsh, and trust me, saying no to one’s own daughter for such a request is not an easy thing. First, I’ll explain why we are so committed to one baptism. Then, I’ll explain some pastoral ways to accommodate people like my daughter that I think you’ll find more than satisfactory.
In short, Presbyterians don’t re-baptize because we believe baptism originates with God, and God gets it right the first time. Not everyone shares our understanding. Baptists and other denominations lean in the direction of emphasizing the human component in baptism. They won’t baptize infants, for example, because an infant is incapable of choosing baptism. That human action of approaching God first is, for them, a necessary component. It’s called, “Believer Baptism.” Makes good sense to a lot of us, and they do have a pretty compelling argument. Why would we differ from them?
It lies in our understanding of God’s sovereignty. For us, God is the primary actor, and we are always responders to God’s action. We do not initiate baptism. God does that. It can be compared to prayer. Have you ever felt the urge or inclination to pray? In our understanding, you didn’t conjure that desire up by yourself. That fact that you want to pray, and every time that you do pray, is your response to the invitation to relationship that God has extended. That’s very reassuring in times when we feel we are crying out to God who seems to be absent. In fact, we could not cry out to God without God’s presence and prompting.
You didn’t decide to come to worship today because you’re great at initiating fabulous ideas. You may indeed be great at that, however, we understand that God reached out to you in some way and you responded. Sometimes that comes as a private inner nudge from God, or it can come in other ways. God often prompts Joy through Mickey when she says, “You’ll attend worship today or I’ll send you to bed without supper.” Whatever it takes to bring us to worship, you were responding to God’s prompting. And you had a choice to come or not. Well, Joy doesn’t dare disobey Mickey, but the rest of us do have a choice.
When we were baptized as infants, we were named and claimed as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. We were marked as God’s people in a way that follows on the older tradition of circumcising male Jewish babies on the 8th day of their life. God has invited, and God’s people respond. Parents acknowledge that their child is God’s child. We parents love and care for them as our own, but we know that we can only hold on to them temporarily. That would be tragic but for the fact that, as God’s children, we and they can never be lost from God’s communion.
So, our Hebrew ancestors believed that God marked God’s people even in infancy, but they were wise enough to know that with our citizenship came responsibility. So, at the age of decision, of knowing right from wrong, generally 12 or 13 in their culture, a bar-mitzvah or bat-mitzvah was a rite of passage in which children became recognized as adults with responsibility for knowing and practicing their faith. We now provide confirmation for our young people at that approximate age in order that they may confirm for themselves what they received in baptism.
The jailer of Paul and Silas in Acts 16 came to believe, and it says that they baptized him, and it goes on to say his whole household was saved. We take from this that women and children were included, and they ate a meal together to celebrate. Finally, we take very seriously Jesus’ admonition to his disciples in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, “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.”
Based on these things, we happily baptize infants when a parent presents them in response to God’s prompting. But what happens when your daughter decides she wants to be re-baptized as a way of affirming her faith. Presbyterians always have the option of “Remembering our Baptism,” in various ways. If anyone comes to me wanting to do this, it can look very much like a baptism, just utilizing the phrase, “Remember your baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” instead of “I now baptize you in the name of the Father…”
Presbyterians happily baptize people of any age who have not previously been baptized, and we can do so by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. For us, it is not the form of the ritual that makes it effective. God makes it effective. Some churches insist on immersion. Again, they have a compelling case. There is something that truly emphasizes being baptized into Christ’s death, especially when the pastor holds you under for a while. When you come up and gasp a great breath of air, it is truly a memorable occasion. If you seek that, I’ll happily do a “Remember your Baptism” rite and hold you down until you turn blue. Eric, I bet that would do you a world of good.
Immersion is a little more challenging in the desert, so I’ve been contemplating making us of the regular irrigation the church grounds receive. Apparently for decades our property has been mildly flooded with some canal is diverted our way, and it’s a sight to behold. Some places get to be 5 or six inches deep for several hours, and the birds come and play like kids. I may decide one day that Larry needs to remember his baptism, so if you see me holding him face down in the much our by the big trees, you know I’m looking out for his spiritual well-being.
Actually, I could only do that if we were to hold a worship service out there. You see, Presbyterians don’t do private baptisms. Why? Because baptism marks one’s entry into the church, the body of Christ. It isn’t a Lone Ranger king of thing. It’s communal, and the baptized believer are there to welcome the newly baptized. Baptism also is the occasion of the profession of faith before the body of believers. In the case of infants, it is their parents’ profession of faith until they make their own profession at confirmation. In the case of those who are old enough to make their own profession, that is done publicly, not privately.
The advice of one of the wise parishioners I served in Kansas was to endeavor to baptize children as early as possible, and by all means before they could talk. She told of her younger brother who, for whatever reason, was not baptized until he was three. Their house was situated near an area where local men would come out to play sports. It was close enough that they could hear the louder conversations and exclamations. Apparently, her young brother developed a good bit of his early vocabulary by listening to those men. So, there in the 40’s in this stately Presbyterian Church with everyone in suits or dresses and hats, the pastor baptized her brother. And apparently the water was cold, because when it touched his head, he shouted, “G-D-it!” Only he say the words completely. My parishioner friend said she would never forget her mother’s mortification as she tried to melt into the pew.
That brings me to the last thing I’ll share about baptism today. (Stop applauding.) Because baptism is a gift of God, initiated by God, and made effective by God, we don’t have to be afraid that it can be rendered void if we don’t perform the ceremony perfectly or if the pastor doing the baptizer turns out to be a phony or axe-murderer. The form of the ritual and the lack of character of the presider are things we really want to get right, however, the Sacrament does not derive its meaning or power from them.
It’s why I still dare to officiate weddings even though I am far from the model husband. By the way, I will also happily preside at the renewing of any of your vows for those of you who are married. Just in case you need to be reminded of those vows.