Summary: Exploration of traditions of adult/infant baptism, and discussion of how we respond to our baptism. Do we run from it? Or do we turn toward God who is always turning toward us?
Baptism of our Lord (A), January 13, 2002
"Running from Your Baptism"
Today we hear about Jesus’ baptism as an adult. This baptism was the beginning of his official ministry, sort of his inauguration or commissioning as it were. John was baptizing people at the Jordan River as a symbol of washing away their sins. This was not Christian baptism; John baptized people for repentance and forgiveness. We don’t know exactly what it looked like, but there was probably a little more water used than that which is in our baptismal font. These baptisms had been happening for a while; Jesus was not the first to come. But perhaps Jesus was the most notable baptism that John performed.
John insisted that it wasn’t right for him to be baptizing Jesus; he could already tell that something was different about him. Certainly Jesus should be the one doing the baptizing. But Jesus convinced John that it needed to be this way. When John had baptized Jesus, just as he came out of the water, there were signs that confirmed Jesus’ mission: the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, the heavens opening, and a voice from heaven saying, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
Jesus’ baptism leads us into all sorts of questions about baptism. First of all, if Jesus was baptized as an adult, why do we baptize infants? After all, if it was good enough for the Son of God, then it’s certainly good enough for us. But the difference is the emphasis. If we were to say that people had to wait to be baptized until they could fully believe for themselves, then it puts too much focus on the individual’s actions. The act of baptism is about a pure gracious gift of God, not about an individual’s faith. Obviously adults who have never been baptized will probably come to faith first, and then be baptized (otherwise they wouldn’t ask to be baptized). But if we are to restrict baptism only to those who fully believe, it puts too much emphasis on the person, on what I bring to the baptismal font, on who I am and how prepared I have become, rather than focusing on the gracious gift of God given at baptism.
The Lutheran church and others baptize infants and children because it symbolizes the pure, grace-filled, unconditional love and promise of God granted at baptism. It’s not as if adult baptisms mean less, but the thought of a helpless infant receiving the same promise of love and grace as someone who has read the Bible - forward and back three times - points to the true meaning of baptism. At the deepest level, baptism has to do with a grace we receive as a divine gift. It is God’s action, God’s activity, not ours. Baptism is an unmerited gift of grace, not something we can believe hard enough or work our way into being worthy of.
Unfortunately, we in the mainline church have taken the doctrine of infant baptism and gone off the deep end with it - so to speak. We have so emphasized infant baptism that many people have their children baptized as a sort of holy fire insurance. They don’t worry about what faith instruction follows, as long as the child has been baptized. People have called the church to ask me about having their babies "done", i.e. baptized. "Having my baby done" is a crass way of speaking about what should be the stepping off point into a life of faith.
When we were baptized, we did not take out a divine insurance policy that guarantees us a reserved pew in heaven. Baptism is not a magic skeleton key that automatically ushers us into the courts of heaven. Our baptisms should lead us into a life of loving service to God and one another. We are baptized into a community of faith, and sent into God’s mission. Baptism is not the ending point, but the beginning point of faith and our calling by God. Instead of initiating us into a clubhouse, baptism draws us into a lighthouse where we are the lights that shine forth. Although the promises of God don’t change because we turn away, the future of our relationship with God is not automatically guaranteed by our baptism.
In our baptism, God establishes a new relationship with us. Though the love for us may already be there, somehow God’s connection to us is deepened through baptism. We are invited and empowered to live within that baptism relationship, and yet God still leaves us the capacity to try to live outside of it. It’s the catch-22 of free will. We are free to follow, but we are also free to stray. God’s promises to us are real. They take no achievement or accomplishment on our part; hence we baptize infants. Our baptismal certificate is not "Congratulations on a job well done", but an invitation into a deeper relationship with the One who brings us life. The promise of God, not our own power to believe or achieve, is the real power under girding the act of baptism.