Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Why Baptism Matters, Part 3


I’ve been writing about baptism this week. This Sunday is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, which always falls on the first Sunday after the Epiphany. All of the readings and the collect seem focused on baptism, and, as I prepare to preach on Sunday, I’m enjoying an exploration of why baptism matters in the contemporary world. Monday, I wrote about distinguishing between the baptisms of John and Jesus. Yesterday, I wrote about baptism as a way of being claimed into the divine life of the Trinity. Today, I’m taking the end of yesterday’s post and expanding it to discuss infant baptism.

A short while ago, my friend and colleague Steve Pankey wrote an Advent blog piece about Mary. He started by identifying himself as one who “tend[s] to skew to the low-church side of Anglicanism.” Although the post was a great take on reclaiming the importance of Mary in our Protestant, low-church tradition, there was a line in his low-church résumé introduction that has stuck with me for these last few weeks: “I love the sacraments of the Church, but I don’t believe that baptism is, in and of itself salvific…” That claim has been rolling around in my head ever since. I like it, and, although it’s not really fair to take a part of someone’s work that wasn’t actually the focus of that work at all and make it something worth picking at, I want to use that as a starting point for my take on infant baptism.

For starters, let me say that in the lineup of churchpersonship (is that really a word?) I’m standing right next to Steve (he just cringed a little bit). I, also, don’t believe that sprinkling water on someone’s head in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit in and of itself has a salvific effect. I don’t believe that the taint of original sin has stained the souls of little babies and that the only thing that can wash it off is the holy water of baptism. (I should note that I do believe in original sin and that a tiny infant is just as sinful as a grown-up axe murderer, but I don’t think that the act of baptizing someone is what “fixes” that inherited condition. Now, it may take me a while to get to that point, so please be patient.)

So what is baptism? Personally, I believe that God’s love is what saves us. “For God so loved the world…” is a pretty good place to start. God loves us enough to send his Son to earth. God loves us enough to die on the cross. God loves us enough to redeem us from the wages of our sin through the power of resurrection. And baptism is a way of expressing all of that. Let me say that another way: baptism is a way of demonstrating God’s unrestricted, unmerited, unreserved, undeserved, unbreakable, unstoppable love for us. It isn’t a way to make that love happen. And it isn’t a way to distinguish between those whom God loves and doesn’t love. Baptism is merely a way to show us and the world just how much God loves us.

We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. As such, when we emerge from the waters of baptism (symbolically for those of us who were sprinkled or splashed, which is to say most of us), we hear God say to us the same thing that he said to Jesus at the Jordan River: “You are my beloved son/daughter. With you I am well pleased.” As we say in the proper preface for Baptism, which I’m a little surprised isn’t the appropriate preface for this Sunday, “…in Jesus Christ our Lord you have received us as your sons and daughters…” Baptism isn’t magic. Baptism is a sacrament, which means it is a way in which human beings encounter and experience a divine grace. It doesn’t manufacture the grace, but it does convey it. It might convey the grace, but it isn’t the sole source of it. In our baptism, we experience God’s love for us as his beloved children, but God doesn’t wait to recognize that fact until after we are baptized. That’s silly. We don’t believe in adoptionism for Jesus. Why would we believe in it for ourselves?

So why infant baptism? Because God’s love isn’t dependent on us. Baptism is the purest expression of God’s grace-filled love for humanity. We don’t prove ourselves to God before we are baptized. God proves his love for us in our baptism. If we believe in grace, then we believe that salvation doesn’t depend on us. And, if salvation doesn’t depend on us, we must believe that God’s saving grace isn’t contingent upon anything we do or say or think or even believe. Think about that for a second. God loves you whether you know it or not. God loves you whether you believe in him or not. If God’s love is the only thing that can save us, then why have we convinced ourselves that salvation is some transaction between God and those who say the right words or believe the right thing? Yes, belief and confession are integral to our ability to know and respond to God’s love (see Monday’s post), but God loves us first. Everything else is just responding to it.

That’s the beauty of infant baptism. In a little child’s baptism, we are declaring to a baby, to the baby’s parents, to the church, and to the whole world that God loves this child even before this child is old enough to know who God is or what love is or why Jesus Christ is the representation of God’s love for the world. To withhold baptism from infants and to claim that only those who are old enough to make a mature profession of faith is to make salvation a work. They rob the grace right out of the gospel. Or, at the very least, they fail to live fully into the grace of the gospel.

Be radically grace-filled. Let God’s love be the beginning and end of salvation. Think about baptism not as a magic trick that gets a kid into heaven but as a testament to God’s love. Does God love us whether we are baptized or not? Of course he does. Does God love us whether we believe in him or not? Absolutely. When you next find yourself at an infant baptism, take a look at what is really happening—not merely a Christ-mandated tradition or a ontological soul-washing but a visible, tangible, real expression of a love over which we have absolutely no control. God’s love is poured out on all of us just as it is poured out on that infant’s forehead—indiscriminately and richly.

1 comment:

  1. Evan,

    I grew up as one of those other folks in a different denomination who was baptized by immersion by my pastor father when I was 8 years old. However, now as an Episcopalian, I greatly appreciate your word: "So why infant baptism? Because God’s love isn’t dependent on us." So well said, because it's not the magic of the water but because of the action of God to love the whole world. Thankfully that includes you and me.

    Blessings, keep up the good work,
    Malcolm

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