Summary: No matter the circumstances of baptism, it is God who does the work because God loves us before we love God.
We may not know the nine verses of Frederick Whitfield’s 1855 hymn, “O How I love Jesus,” but I’m guessing most of us know the refrain:
O, how I love Jesus; O, how I love Jesus;
O, how I love Jesus, because he first loved me.
Because he first loved me. Before I could do anything, before I could even think of needing to do something, Jesus loved me, Jesus loved you. Think of it for a moment: we were loved even before we breathed our first breath. In the book of Jeremiah, God tells us, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” We were known and loved and given a purpose before we were even born.
Throughout our lives, we are inundated with messages that we earn love by purchasing the perfect gift or making the perfect dessert or saying the perfect things, but from the beginning, God loved us first, and we were anything but perfect.
When Jesus came up from the waters of the Jordan, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ Now, you may not have heard that at your baptism or at other baptisms, but those are God’s sentiments, and they are not just for Jesus. Before we do anything, God loves us.
Before Jesus began his ministry, God was well pleased. Before he went into the wilderness to be tested, God was well pleased. Before he healed the blind and lame, before he cast out demons, before he preached and taught with authority, before he died on the cross for us, God was well pleased.
Increasingly, we are a congregation comprised of people from many different backgrounds: Catholic, Methodist, Pentecostal, Baptist, and the list goes on. And baptism is a little different (or a lot different) in other congregations. Because of that, we get a little teaching with the preaching today.
There are two basic types of baptism. One is believer’s baptism in which adults and children choose to be baptized after they have come to believe. This type of baptism usually involves a lot of water and actual dunking in it, but the amount of water is not a key difference. Scripture gives us several examples of believer’s baptism. There is the Ethiopian eunuch who tells Peter, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” And there is Cornelius in today’s second lesson.
The second type of baptism doesn’t require prior belief. All are welcome to this type of baptism – from newborns in the hospital to the elderly nearing death. We also know from Scripture that this kind of baptism occurred in the New Testament because, when one person in the family came to faith, his entire family, including slaves, would be baptized. Such was the case with Cornelius’ family.
From the time of the Reformation, the Lutheran church has practiced this second type of baptism. And, in my time, we also practice a lot of the first type of baptism. And whether the one being baptized is an infant or an adult who has been active in a church for decades, the sentiment of God is the same, “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Baptism is the pure, grace-filled, unconditional love of God in action. It’s easier for us to see that when a helpless baby is baptized, but it is always true. One of the questions I ask our confirmation students is “Who does the work in baptism.” It’s tempting to say that the pastor does the work by getting things ready and lifting the water to the person’s head. It’s also tempting to say that the parents and godparents who make promises on behalf of small children are doing the work, or that it is the one being baptized, when that one is an adult. But it is actually God who does the work, behind the scenes, before, during, and after the actual baptism.
Fifty years ago, baptism was often seen as a sort of insurance policy against hell. People who hadn’t been to worship since their own wedding called the church office to find out how to get their baby “done.” If it wasn’t done within six weeks of the child’s birth, many thought something was terribly wrong.
We’ve backed off of that “insurance policy” theology in recent years, and I’m glad, because baptism – both the believer’s baptism and the not-yet-believer’s baptism – is meant to be the beginning of a relationship with God. That’s why we are always baptized into a faith community. Occasionally, we baptize children who don’t live around here. We do this because there’s a connection to this community. Last September, Griffin was baptized here because his dad is in the military so the family hasn’t set down roots, but they have roots relating to Spirit of Joy because I officiated their wedding, and the whole family came to worship here. In July, Sion was baptized here because his mom and aunt and grandparents are part of this faith community. In May, young Naomi asked to be baptized here while she was visiting her grandmother. She had her baptism and her first communion on the same day!