Today on Trinity Sunday and Father’s Day, we will have a baptism. A father will bring his young daughter to the front this day to be baptized. The mother and two grandmothers will also accompany this child to the front. I mention him first in deference to it being Father’s Day. This will be the first in many ways for the parents and myself. This is their first child. This is my first baptism to be done in the church. I have baptized people in the home and nursing home. I have provisionally baptized someone who was not sure they had been baptized as an infant because records had been lost. I thought about what may be needed to be said this day and pulled some thoughts from a talk that I have given several times at an Emmaus weekend among a gathering of ecumenical friends.
What is baptism for Christians?
Baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual gift of grace. Outward and visible because of the water used and the words read. And, yet, also invisible with the inward knitting of a person into the community of the Church, into the Body of Christ.
Baptism marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. John the Baptist baptized with water for the remission of sins. He baptized Jesus and told us of the one who would come after who would baptize with the spirit. Then, Jesus gave the great commandment, that we read today, entrusting baptism to the disciples. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:19,20]
We have understood that Christian baptism marks our new identity in Christ. In baptism, the Church proclaims that you are loved and wanted and a child of God. Baptism is a sacred moment of invitation. The water is a symbol of purification, a washing used to mark the beginning of a new life, which is the spiritual response. The congregation whispers God’s acceptance by promising to surround the one receiving baptism with love and support to enable this person’s journey toward wholeness.
Our denominations vary on their approach to baptism. All have the water and the Word. All have the person who is to be baptized. All believe that God is present and baptizes the person in a spiritual way as we baptize with water. The difference is in the emphasis. Some churches emphasize God’s action; other churches emphasize our actions. But we all agree that both are important.
In emphasizing God’s actions and the baptism with the Holy Spirit, some churches baptize at infancy, with the family and community of faith agreeing to care for and teach the child the Christian life. This emphasizes that it is God who saves, not us. This makes sense with a committed family and congregation who pledge to bring up the child, nurturing that baby Christian, and teaching her about God and Jesus. The amount of water is unimportant, even a sprinkling of water is enough because the emphasis is on God acting through the water and the Word. Who are we to limit God?
On the other hand, some churches baptize at an older age, because they want to emphasize the free will of the person who is deciding to come to God, making that decision for Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. They emphasize the importance of making that choice. Some churches use copious amounts of water, sometimes baptizing in a river, reminiscent of John’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins, insisting on immersion as the only true way to baptize. Immersion symbolizes being buried with Christ and raised with Christ to walk in newness of life (Rom 6:3-4) They want us to take our actions very seriously. Many denominations allow for either type of baptism, either at infancy or later in life. All are attempting to be faithful Christians.
Karl Barth, a devout Christian and theologian of the twentieth century, has said that our salvation is 100% God and 100% us. It is 100% God because we cannot even believe by ourselves. Our faith is a gift. It is also 100% us because we must accept what God has already done for us. God will not force us.
You may hear baptism called a Christian initiation, but it is more than that. Only we have to act to initiate, but in baptism we receive the grace of God. Because God is acting, it is far more than just an initiation.
The water should remind you that your sins are washed away. You have died with Christ and will be raised with Christ. You now have a new identity; you are now baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the entrance of many churches there is a bowl of water into which you may dip your fingers to remind yourself of your baptism. One of my Presbyterian colleagues has a small receptacle that can hold water that she placed by the entrance into her house as a reminder of her life in Christ.
Today, we celebrate the mystery of God, who is revealed in scripture as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We celebrate the mystery of Baptism, in which we are adopted into the Body of Christ. We celebrate the faith – one Lord, one baptism. And, always as we celebrate a baptism, we are reminded of our own baptisms. We belong to Christ.