I was baptized one Sunday afternoon, surrounded by my family and godparents, when I was just four weeks old. Not because I was sickly, but because the Vicar wanted a baby to baptize on Mothering Sunday. In contrast, Constantine the Great, the 4th Century emperor embraced Christianity when he was 40 but didn’t get baptized until twenty five years later, when he knew he was dying. As a teenager, I decided that my baptism was null and void since only adult baptism by full immersion was valid, and so my friends baptized me again, in a bathtub. Each of these three baptisms, different as they are, demonstrate a faulty understanding of the sacrament which is full initiation into the Christian church.
I’m talking about baptism this week because we are nearly at the end of our series on the Nicene Creed. Today we consider the phrase “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” In a couple of weeks, on All Saints Day, the first Sunday in November, we’ll finish up with “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
So, I mentioned three baptisms all with questionable theology. Let’s take a couple of minutes for you to talk with your neighbors about what you think was problematic about each one.
First of all, as an infant I was baptized on a Sunday afternoon with just my family and perhaps a few friends there. The problem, from our perspective today, although it was common practice then, was that this was not a public service but a private one.
The Orthodox and Catholic churches have always baptized babies. There is clear precedent in the New Testament where whole households were baptized, not just the adults. However, it is a somewhat puzzling custom, since when the child is baptized individually they can have no intellectual knowledge of what they are undertaking. That is why we ask the parents and god parents to take the vows on behalf of the child and to bring him or her up in the Christian faith.
The great North African theologian, Augustine, declared that since the church baptized infants they must be sinful. From this basis he developed the idea of Original Sin which led in rather a circular fashion to the fear that babies who died without being baptized would go to hell, or later, to limbo. Which meant that it was important to get your baby baptized early.
Then what about Constantine waiting for twenty-five years? He thought, as did many people at the time, that since baptism released you from sin, and since you could only be baptized once, if you sinned after baptism you were damned. So he delayed baptism until the last possible moment. Since baptism is initiation into the church, Christ’s Body, you can only do it once. But sin does not just stop at that point. We are not instantly sanctified. We continue to sin and we continue to need to turn back to God in repentance.
If it doesn’t stop us sinning, why do we say that we “acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”? when Jesus healed people he would often tell them that their sins were forgiven but he didn’t tell them to be baptized. Later, baptism became important for the growing church because it marked initiation into Christ, just as circumcision is initiation for Jews. This is mentioned in Colossians where we read, “In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”
Baptism is the way that we are buried and raised with Christ through faith in the power of God.
It is not baptism that forgives our sins. It is God. We have to beware of confusing the sacrament or the outward sign of God’s grace, with the actual grace. Amazing grace is that God loves us and God forgives our sins. We do not have to be baptized whenever we sin in order to receive forgiveness. Which is a good thing, or most of us would have to be baptized again and again. Baptism is the outward sign that we are healed and forgiven and raised into new life in Christ.
Some of us struggle with the idea of sin. Traditionally we have said that sin is that which separates us from God. Sin is also that which separates us from one another. Anything that breaks healthy connection with God, with one another, with our environment, is sin. It seems to me that much sin is not individual but endemic in human culture. Any organization that we humans create has a shadow side. Every project has some negative consequences. It is very difficult to avoid oppressing others, however unconsciously or unintentionally we do it.
Today I may eat a cookie. That cookie may have palm oil in it. That palm oil may have been grown in Indonesia where the forest is being cut down to make way for palm plantations, and in the process depriving orangutans of their habitat and their lives and, at the same time, increasing global warming. Global warming is leading, among other things, to more violent storms. As a result of that chain of connections, in eating the cookie I may be implicated, in a very small way, in the deaths of orangutans and of over 1000 people in Haiti.
We are all connected and we are all caught up in the sin matrix which keeps us sinning even when we don’t intend to. It is the sin matrix which keeps us caught in big agriculture with pesticides and over-cropping even when science is clear that we are wearing out the soil. It is the sin matrix which encourages us to create and perpetuate a political system which is fueled by hate instead of by mutual respect and courtesy.
Baptism is the sign that we are and one day will be free of the sin matrix. It is only the Holy Spirit working in us and through us in human society that can release us from this endemic sin.
But before I get too carried away, what about the third baptism – the one in the bath tub. Looking back now from the vantage point of age and a seminary education, what do I see wrong with my adolescent theology?
One, I didn’t need to be baptized again; two, it was done privately – it was not a confession of faith in the assembly of the church.
Infant baptism is valid baptism. But just like adult baptism it does not stop there. Our faith is not a passive spectator sport but one in which we are called to be active players. As adults, we get to re-affirm the vows made for us by our parents at our infant baptism. We do this through confirmation when the Bishop lays hands on us in acknowledgement that we are members of the worldwide church. We can also choose to make a re-affirmation of faith at any time, but especially when the Bishop is visiting. These vows, like our baptism, are not private affairs because they effect the whole Body.
Private baptism is reserved for when someone is dying and wishes to be baptized first. When it was believed that dying before baptism meant that you would go directly to hell, this was very important. But today we don’t believe that God is limited by the sacraments. Sacraments are real and they are powerful but they are symbols of the grace that is happening at a deeper level, not the grace itself. God’s grace is not limited to any ritual or any place.
During the 1970s, there was a time of significant liturgical change. New documents from the early church gave us a different perspective on some of the ideas and practices that the church had developed. Representatives from several protestant churches met to consider the implications of these findings on the eucharist and on baptism. Many of our services were significantly change to reflect this.
One of the big changes was to articulate our baptismal vows. Please turn with me to page 302 in the red (or black) Book of Common Prayer.
On this page (Page 302) we have the statements made by the one to be baptized or by her family on her behalf, that make it clear that there is a change in life. We can think of this as recognizing and renouncing the sin matrix in all its manifestations, both individual and corporate, and in repentance turning towards Christ. We accept Christ as Savior, trusting in his grace and love and promise to follow and obey him.
And then we spell out what that means. Please turn the page to our Baptismal Covenant. Whenever someone is baptized or confirmed we use the Apostles creed which originated before the Nicene Creed and has always been associated with baptism. In this ancient creed we have a statement about our Trinitarian understanding of God and God’s activities in the world. Just as in the Nicene Creed, the word Credo is translated as I believe but it means much more than an intellectual belief so we might better translate it as trust.
Then come the five baptismal vows which make clear what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ:
- Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
- Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
- Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
- Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
- Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
These vows make it clear that baptism is not just a private ritual, a family event to welcome a new baby, an excuse for a party. Baptism is a serious undertaking which requires a great deal of us. Our membership in the Body of Christ, our enrollment in the reign of God is a serious undertaking.
But with it come great privileges.
Look at the middle of page 308; “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
Sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own…
These are wonderful promises. Our baptism gives us a whole new connection with Christ and one another. We are members of Christ who is the living God. We are freed from the sin matrix – we can step outside and look at it and make new choices inspired by the Holy Spirit who has set her seal upon us. We are enabled to act in the world in the power of Christ.
Because we have died in the waters of baptism and been raised in Christ we have the ability to work in cooperation with the Holy Spirit moving in us and through us to take bold new actions which will change the world. Each one of us has a piece of the great quilt which is the reign of God, pieced together by the Holy Spirit into a thing of great beauty like these Long Green Season quilts made for us by Ann-Lining Smith, or our banners made by Donna Ross.
These are stitched together from many small pieces of fabric. The reign of God is all our small acts of love and gentle humility stitched together into something new. Each one of us is important. Each of our lives has great significance as we live into our baptismal vows, becoming more and more the Christ-like people we are made by our baptism.
The life of the baptized is one of adventure and learning and growing and transforming as together with the Holy Spirit we make the reign of God a reality in our world.
An election is a time when we have the opportunity to use our rights as citizens of this country to help bring the reign of God just a little bit closer. This is a time when candidates are especially open to hearing our opinions and when we can have direct input on who gets to represent us. Our votes are little pieces of fabric in the great quilt. If you are not registered to vote please do so – Danna in the church office can help you with that. If you are registered to vote, be active and engaged citizens in fulfillment of your baptismal vow to “strive for justice and peace among all people.”
What a privilege we have to be active participants in the unfoldment of God’s redemption of the world. Remember who you are… you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever.