Summary: John Wesley gave a definate slant on what Baptism should mean and does mean in the context of the Church of England and later the Methodist movement. This Sermon briefly covers this theory.
Mister Wesley’s Methodism
A sermon by Thomas F. Bracewell at St. Luke United Methodist Church, Enterprise, Alabama on October 23, 1994.
Scripture Lesson: NT: Matthew 28:18-20.
The Introductory Statement
In his book This We Believe, Dr. Norman P. Madsen writes,”The word sacrament comes from the Latin word sacramentum. For Roman military legions, this word designated an oath or pledge or promise. The word was probably first used with a Christian meaning in North Africa. There Christians used sacrament to translate from the Greek word mysterion, which meant secret rites. For the early Christians, mystery meant a secret. This secret was known only to those who were part of the church and meant a special teaching, truth or insight that was far more significant than it appeared.”
Tonight I want us to explore together one of the mysteries of our Methodist heritage in looking at the sacrament of baptism and, in particular, that of infant baptism. Again the insights of Bishop Mack Stokes lead us through this very Christian and very Methodist practice.
The Sermon Proper
If you were baptized as an infant, you probably have no recollection of the event other than what you have been told by your parents or others who were present during the ceremony. I can look at my own little certificate of Christian Baptism, its pages now yellowed with age, and see the time and date as well as the place and the names of the clergy involved and thus be assured that the event did indeed take place.
We Methodists believe in infant baptism. Originally infants were baptized because it was believed that their human nature was so tarnished by original sin that if they were to die they would be lost forever. If we turn this thought around and look at it from God’s side, we come to the heart of the matter. All through the ages, Christians have believed that infants are profoundly precious to God, and that God did not want them to be lost. Christ, above all others, emphasized this in the teaching he passed on to us when he said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” I would remind you that infant baptism goes much deeper than any supposed cleansing for the pollution of original sin.
To see the point of infant baptism we need to understand the very issue of baptism itself. The answer to the question of what it is, is very simple. It is the incorporation into the community of faith within the Christian family. It means that those baptized are in the true sense in Christ. They are claimed by him for training and nurture within the community of the faithful, and it begins a new life in Christ. It is true that we may begin this before baptism, but baptism is the Church’s way of recognizing the profound reality of incorporation into Christ and his community. It is also the public recognition of this Christian identification, and it is the beginning of the new life of the spirit. At the baptism of Jesus a new era of grace was begun and announced by the Holy Spirit. Even so today, the Holy Spirit works mysteriously in the heart of the believer as well as in the community of the faithful to bring home to us all the benefits of a new age.
Methodists believe that God has set his seal on little children and has claimed them for himself and his people. We believe in infant baptism also because of God’s mighty redemptive work in Jesus Christ. Again, we believe in infant baptism because the whole community of faith, along with the family, needs to lift up each little child and claim him or her for Christ and his church in advance of the age of accountability. In all things, including religion, the infant believes as the family believes.
Within the church, baptism is a community event. In infant baptism the community does for the child what, with prayer and proper guidance, the child will do when confirmed and brought into the membership of the church.
Methodists deplore certain errors in thought and practice pertaining to infant baptism. Most strongly, we deplore the error of thinking of this as a ceremony for the benefit of the parents. It does and should give them an increased sense of responsibility before God for the Christian nurture of their child, but the sacrament goes far beyond that.
Also we deplore the thinking of the act of infant baptism as a mere ceremony of christening. We Methodists baptize babies and christen ships. While it is true that at the baptism ceremony the child is given a Christian name by the church, infant baptism is a real baptism and is, therefore, not required to be repeated.