Archive

baptism

Here’s a great little video from ABC Justin on the grace and mystery of baptism, in light of the baptism of HRH Prince George of Cambridge.

What a great quote from the Church of Scotland:

“For you Jesus Christ came into the world. For you he lived and showed God’s love. For you he suffered the darkness of Calvary, and cried at the last, “It is accomplished!” For you he triumphed over death and raised new life. For you he reigns at God’s right hand. All this he did for you…though you do not know it yet.”

Advertisements

Scripture Readings

Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

 

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” (John 3:3).

 

Prayer

Heavenly Father,

Open my mouth, that I may proclaim your Word

Open our eyes and ears, that we may see and hear you

Open our hearts and minds, that we may joyfully receive you.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 

Earlier this week I Googled the term “born again”. The first hit was an advertisement for a Christian dating site with the tag line, “Meet born again singles – Find your born again soul mate!” Then there was Born Again Auto Sales whose sign was complete with a giant Jesus fish. Another good one was a website, jesus-is-savior.com whose header proclaimed, “Ye Must Be Born Again!” I then came across two interesting articles. The first asked, “Are Catholics Born Again?” Good question! The second was an article that came out in The Atlantic in the run up to the 2008 US election. The title of the article was “Born Again,” and it looked at the growing population of evangelicals in America. One comment on the media’s view of Evangelicals caught my eye: “Journalistic coverage of evangelical Christianity has oscillated between confident declarations that the Christian right is dead and horrified discoveries of its continuing influence.” True enough, the term ‘born again Christian’ conjures up all sorts of memories many, if not most, of which are terribly painful and rather embarrassing, and rightly so.

Yet, recall Jesus’ own words in our gospel reading from today: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (or, born again),” (3). In this scene we witness Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of Israel, come to Jesus at night and affirm that indeed Jesus must be a teacher sent from God, “for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God,” (2). Nicodemus has seen the signs but is missing an important piece. He has not yet believed in the name of Jesus. He has not yet been born from above. There is a difference, you see, between knowledge about Jesus and belief in Jesus. Here Jesus charges Nicodemus not only with a lack of understanding, but also a lack of belief, since what Jesus is teaching is beyond understanding, and so it is only faith that could comprehend it. What Jesus is saying to him is something like this: If you are not born again, if you do not share in the Spirit that comes through the washing of regeneration, everything you think about me will be from a human point of view, not a spiritual one (Chrysostom). It is impossible, Christ says, for someone who is not born in this way to see the kingdom of God. This saying of Jesus also implies that apart from this new birth we are exiles and complete strangers to the kingdom of God, and that there is perpetual opposition between God and us until He changes us by a second birth (Calvin). This is indeed a hard teaching. It is to say that we are not able to come to God on our own. It is to say that whatever it is God is doing to make the world new cannot be known apart from Christ Jesus, for his resurrection to new life is the first sign of what God has planned for the world. But more than this, it is to say that we are in need of being redeemed, that we are in need of being saved from the powers of sin and death. This is an affront to our modern sensibilities for we would much rather believe that we do not need to be born again. We are good enough the way we are, thank-you.

OK, so there can be no denying the weight of Jesus’ remark: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” This raises two important questions for us. First, how does this happen? Second, what does this mean? With regard to our first question Nicodemus himself is curious: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (4). Now, Jesus does not directly answer Nicodemus’ question here with a simple yes or no. Presumably, however, the answer is no, you cannot enter a second time into your mothers womb. Thank goodness for that. How is one born again, then? Jesus elaborates on his earlier statement: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit,” (5). So then, here we have it. One is born again, or born from above, by “water and Spirit”. The Christian tradition has, with a few notable exceptions, interpreted this to say that it is through baptism that one is reborn. This makes some sense in light of the surrounding passages of Scripture. Just prior to today’s gospel reading Jesus himself was baptized. Immediately following our passage John tells us that, “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized,” (22). Furthermore, all of this talk of water and Spirit and entering the kingdom of God would have rung clear to a scripturally aware Jew like Nicodemus. The combination of water and Spirit with a particular hope for the future was deeply rooted in the Jewish consciousness. Israel’s prophets often proclaim a future time when Israel would experience renewal, by water and Spirit. Hear these words from the prophet Ezekiel: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God,” (36:25-28). God promises to renew Israel, to cleanse them by the sprinkling of water and by the infilling of His Spirit who will enable them to live in faithful relation with God. All of that to say the need for cleansing and expectation of the renewal of the Spirit was in the air in the period of Jesus and the early Church. Here is the part not to be missed, that in Jesus this hope for renewal is fulfilled and through baptism our old self, enslaved as it were to sin and death, is washed away and we are reborn in a new life of freedom in resurrection power. Of course, it is beyond us to say precisely how this happens in baptism. We must say simply that it does happen. After all, the Spirit like the wind has a life of it’s own. It blows here and there and we hear it’s sound though we know not from where it comes or where it will go next. Furthermore, this is not our own doing. That you and I may be reborn, indeed are beckoned to be reborn, is a work of God for there is only One baptism, Christ’s. Thus, “our” baptism is really a participation in Christ’s baptism. As we go down into the waters we die with Christ. As we come up out of the waters the Holy Spirit comes upon us with a life that is powered by the resurrection of Christ Jesus. We rightly call this, eternal life.

And that is the answer to our second question: What does it mean to be born again? It means to see and enter the kingdom of God. Another way of saying this would be to say that it means to receive eternal life. To believe in Jesus, to be baptized into his Body, the Church, and to be indwelled by his Spirit is to receive eternal life. So proclaims John in what is perhaps the most famous of all Bible verses, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” We modern Western folks tend to think of time as a linear progression. The present is a blip on the line. Behind us lies the past. In front of us lies the future. And beyond the future of our life on earth, beyond our death, lies eternity. We tend to think of eternity as part of our linear time, the part of time which lies a way off in the distance and which goes on forever and ever and ever. However, this is not eternity as Scripture portrays it. Eternity is not ‘part’ of time. Eternity, as understood Scripturally, is without beginning or end. It is that which always has been and always will be. Therefore, “eternal life” can not be something that “begins” after we die. It may be more helpful then if we think of eternal life not in terms of quantity (it just goes on and on and on forever) but in terms of quality (it is a particular sort of life). Whatever eternal life is, it has no beginning and it has no end, it is everlasting, which of course makes it rather hard to think about and talk about since our language is itself bound in time and space as is all that God has created. Our language itself begins and ends. Christian language in particular, begins and ends with Jesus. That is not simply a cute saying. It is the truth of the gospel, that everything that is, everything we can possibly say, properly understood begins and ends and is sustained in Christ.

Here, many would object. How can we claim such a thing? It is by no means obvious to us that Jesus is the clue to understanding history. This is a bold statement open to challenge and critique. And that is precisely the point! For John, eternal life comes only by the indwelling of the Spirit whom we receive with the waters of baptism and who opens our eyes so that we can not only see but enter the kingdom of God. Indeed, no one can see the kingdom of God without experiencing the renewal of the Spirit. For when we are baptized with Christ in his death we are raised with him to new life, resurrection life in the power of the Spirit. As St. Paul writes in Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life,” (6:3-4). And again in the verse that preceded our NT reading for today: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you,” (8:11).

For John as with the other writers of the NT, central to a proper understanding of eternal life is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Arbitrarily acknowledging that God exists does not lead to eternal life. Even acknowledging that God exists and has something to do with Jesus does not lead to eternal life (as is evidenced with Nicodemus). To quote the great reformer John Calvin, the true faith which leads to eternal life is, “placing Christ before one’s eyes and beholding in Him the heart of God poured out in love.” Eternal life is to believe in the God whose originally wonderful and yet shocking love for us looks like the gift of His only Son lifted up upon the cross. Eternal life is to allow the God who loves the world in this way to penetrate our hearts and minds, renewing our entire being as the Spirit of the risen and ascended Christ lives and dwells in us. Eternal life is a blessed life that is freed from the confines and limitations of sin and death precisely because it is the bestowing upon us, or rather our participation in, the very resurrected life of Jesus. Furthermore, because the resurrection life of Jesus is central to our understanding of eternal life we cannot begin to grasp the effects of this eternal life apart from seeing the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as an event which paves the way for the resurrection and renewal of all things. The resurrection of Jesus and our experience of his eternal life right now points towards the time when the whole of creation will experience this in all of its fullness of glory. This is a time when the glory of the Lord will not only fill the temple, as Isaiah prophesied, but will fill the whole wide world: “Indeed,” writes John, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might saved through him,” (3:17).

How can we say that this is the sort of life available to those who would believe in Christ Jesus when our experience of the world is very often difficult if not seemingly mundane? Indeed, sin and death are still very much a reality for us, as they were for Jesus. This is because time as we know it is the time of our fallen world which is marked by decay and corruption and above all sinful history (T.F. Torrance). If you need evidence of this I might just point towards some of the news headlines from this past week. Or, lest we be tempted to think that the reality of sin and death only exist “out there”, we might turn our gaze inwards. Yet it is within this very time that the Father gave us His Eternal Son who is our very life (Gal. 2:20). The eternal life we experience now is in part. Then, when God renews all things and the whole world is filled with His glory, it shall be in full. Eternal life is life with God in his kingdom, whether that kingdom is on earth or in heaven. It is to share in the resurrection life of Jesus and, simply put, this transforms everything. The experience of eternal life is so unlike our usual experience of time, it is so unique and new, that the only fitting way to talk about experiencing it is to speak in terms of being born again, into a new world. Today we celebrate with Charlotte and her family as she, through baptism, is born anew. Charlotte, after your baptism you will be forever changed because your life will be connected with the life of Jesus and his Spirit will live in you so that you are a new creation. Friends, as we renew our baptismal vows along with Charlotte, may we see that at our baptism the Holy Spirit came upon us. May we see that together, the very Spirit of the risen Christ dwells in us. You are a new creation. Christ has made you his brother, his sister, and as such you are a child of God. This is true of you. Let us then live by the Spirit, being nourished by the same source which brought us into being (Augustine), and anticipate the life that is to come for all. Amen.

Father and daughter.

This past Sunday, April 22nd, 2012, our daughter Charlotte was baptized.

To many of our friends and family who are more evangelical in orientation this was unfamiliar territory, if not theologically errant!

I think I became convinced of infant baptism when I grew into a higher view of the church. Interestingly, infant baptism is usually practiced by those churches with a high ecclesiology and avoided by those churches with a low ecclesiology. Needless to say, (infant) baptism is very much tied to the sort of community the church is.

Here is a post I wrote almost one year ago outlining some popular evangelical arguments against infant baptism.

Here is a post I wrote shortly after to counter some of those arguments and put forth a different understanding.

Here is another related post on the language of decision and response and how that relates to baptism.

OK, so a short debrief.

Some brief reflections:

(1) Charlotte’s baptism was done by sprinkling. Father Ajit held Charlotte over the baptismal font and poured three cupfuls (?!) of water over the crown of her head. I think there is a lack of theological support for this method. I would rather have seen Charlotte baptized by immersion, though I think there is a lack of scriptural support for that as well. While there is certainly theological significance to immersion (dying and rising with Christ) I think the real thrust of baptism in the New Testament is that it’s a bath. Baptism is, most properly, a washing. This is Robert Jenson’s view as argued in his book Visible Words and that would have been my preference. No worries though, I do not think that the integrity of the event was diminished, it’s mostly just a matter of my own preference.

(2) I was somewhat uncomfortable with a few of the prayers said during the ‘Presentation and Examination of the Candidate’. In particular, I am thinking of the following questions that the parents and sponsors were asked on behalf of the candidate (Charlotte): Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Saviour? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Do you promise to obey him as your Lord? To all of these, we answered on behalf of Charlotte, “I do”. Maybe it’s just that low-protestant itch I have but I admit I felt ever so slightly uncomfortable with these words. It just felt strange answering those questions on Charlotte’s behalf. That being said, I understand the significance and the theological mandate behind them and ultimately I am comfortable with that! Yet, there was also something beautiful and significant about it all. After all, is not the Incarnation Christ Jesus acting and answering on our behalf?

(3)Just prior to the ‘Thanksgiving over the Water’ the entire community prayed the following prayer for Charlotte:

Let us now pray for this child who is to receive the sacrament of new birth. Deliver her, O Lord, from the way of sin and death.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Open her heart to your grace and truth.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Fill her with your holy and life-giving Spirit.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Teach her to love others in the power of the Spirit.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Send her into the world in witness to your love.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Bring her to the fullness of your peace and glory.

Lord, hear our prayer.

It was very moving to be part of the community as we together prayed this for Charlotte.

(4) Many of the other prayers that were said were deeply moving. For example, after Charlotte was baptized Father Ajit prayed: “I sign you with the cross, and mark you as Christ’s own for ever.” And then: “Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon this servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised her to the new life of grace. Sustain her, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.” Truly, this is our prayer for Charlotte and we will try to make a habit to pray these words for her each day.

Family and friends.

Anyways, those were just some thoughts that I have had since Sunday. It truly was a wonderful day and we are grateful to our family and friends that were able to join us on that special day.

Mother and daughter.

With the Godparents.


“If it is really true that a man, however timidly and uncertainly, may be a Christian, and that even with the greatest qualifications he may be seriously addressed as such, this means that even as the man he was, is, and will be, he cannot be the same man but has become a very different man. He now lives with a new character in which he is strange to himself and his fellows. For all his identity with himself, he is also different from himself. He has become the bearer of a new name. The compass of what it means for a man to become faithful to the faithful God is not merely underestimated but completely missed if one does not ultimately stand before this fact with helpless astonishment.”

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.4.1.

Robert Jenson writes in Visible Words,

“All aspects of Jesus’ presence to us are the same as of any other person; but they work together very differently. When I hear the gospel, I am addressed with the implicit or explicit claim that it is Jesus with whom I have to do. When I say I do not see him, that our communion lacks an object on one side, I am referred to the objectivity of the speaking and hearing community. If I then suppose that “Jesus” is here just a label for the community he founded, I am corrected and referred to the historical personage. And when I then ask how these two—the objectivity of the community and the historically objective Jesus—can be the same, the answer is that the gospel address, in which all these realities appear, is an eschatological promise and therefore beyond the divisions and incompletions of time,” (48).

In other words, Jesus really is present with the community gathered round him (and inseparably so). He is present with us as we are present with one another and yet as one who is distinct from our “one another”. And because the gospel is an eschatological (a present reality with a future fulfillment) proclamation and promise these two realities (Jesus’ presence in the objective community and his own historically objective body) must be held in tension.

This is helpful for me at least because I am often left feeling as if Jesus doesn’t really bother with us. The historical disconnect between Jesus’ life 2000 years ago and our life today is a real disconnect and yet there is something truer still, so that we can proclaim Christ’s presence with us. Christ is truly present with us as we bother with one another and allow others to bother with us. Christ is truly present with us as we eat the bread and drink the wine and as we are washed in the waters of baptism.

In this post I’d like to make an attempt to argue for infant baptism. Specifically, I want to counter some of the main evangelical arguments against that I outlined earlier in this post. Thus, the argument I want to make here consists of 3 main points: 1) A focus on the communal/relational nature of our faith, 2) grace, and 3) baptism as a real event.

1) Community over individual.
The evangelical community treats baptism as the public display of a decision made by a particular individual. To be baptized one must “own” their faith and make a cognitive “decision for Christ”. I would argue that the individualism so prevalent in this persuasion is rooted in Western (post) Enlightenment thinking wherein “the individual” became the preeminent being. Against this the Judeo-Christian faith is not an individualistic faith. While always personal it is never private. While we can really have a relationship with God this is a relationship that takes shape in a real community of believers rather than locked away in your bedroom with your bible (nothing against personal devotions here). Fundamentally as human beings we are not individuals. Our very being is constituted in relation (with God, others and the non-human creation). If then our very being is relational it is harmful to frame baptism with the individualism we inherit from the forefathers of Western thought.

I would argue instead that baptism is entrance into the people of God. While this is most evident in the NT we see it also has effect in the OT (i.e. 1 Cor 10:2). To be baptized is to be baptized into something. We descend in the water with Christ and in so doing participate in his death with him and with our brothers and sisters who have gone before us. When we come up out of the water we are raised with Christ and with those who have gone before us into the eschatological community which surrounds Jesus. As such, baptism is much like the eucharist in which we are consumed and become  a Body.

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ,” (Gal 3:26-28).

2) Grace over cognition.
The evangelical community makes the content of one’s baptism their “decision for Christ”. Thus, what becomes important (and must come prior to baptism) is a cognitive decision that is made for Jesus (believe and be baptized!). Yet, in contrast with this view I find myself sympathetic with Luther on the matter of baptism. Luther viewed infant baptism as pure grace. For here is a tiny helpless infant, she cannot make any sort of cognitive decision for Christ nor can she publicly proclaim her faith yet she is initiated into the people of God. She could do nothing to earn this. Grace.

The Meeting House is doing a series at the moment in conversation with various Christian traditions. The first talk in this series was in conversation with Anglicanism and featured a dialogue between Bruxy and John Bowen (a prof of mine from Wycliffe). Bowen asked the question, “What if we think of baptism as the way you register in the school of Jesus Christ?” So, perhaps you enter the school of Jesus at 13, 25, 60. Naturally, you are baptized. But suppose you raise your child in this school from day 1? Why not baptize them as well? This is the view that I have become convinced of myself. Baptism is not the medal you get for crossing the finish line and arriving at all the right conclusions about Jesus. Rather, baptism is the gate through which you enter into the people of God and journey with them to discover and be formed by the God revealed in Christ Jesus.

My friend Jason gave this as a counter argument to the “cognitive decision” that evangelicals argue must come before baptism: “A related test case might be the baptism of mentally challenged people who are unable of making adult decisions. Do we baptize people who are incapable of uniting their faith with the water? Or do we baptize them as a sign that God’s love overcomes even this weakness?”

Baptism is not earned by confessing the right thing. Rather, baptism is entrance into a community where we learn to confess the right thing. Grace.

3) Real over symbolic.
Thus, where evangelicals speak of baptism as a symbolic action that points to the inward (real) faith of a particular individual I would argue that baptism is a real event (not just a symbol) and a real sacrament of God’s grace in our lives whereby we actually are baptized with Christ into his death and resurrection and actually are raised to new life in the midst of a community of resurrection. Baptism is thus important. It’s not simply one possible option that a cognitive individual can add on to their faith like adding power windows to the base model of your new car. Baptism is not just another possible choice at the buffet of religious goods and services. Baptism is, rather, a real event with real bearing in the life of faith.

In closing and in relation to all 3 points above consider this. Christian parents do not bring their children up neutrally. They do not bring them up so that one day they may make a decision (at age 16, obviously) and become part of the Body, rather, they bring them up as part of the Body. Faith is not merely a decision, it is a habit that you learn and children are capable of learning the habit of faith long before they ever “make a decision”. Thus, Christian families should baptize their children as infants because they are being enrolled in the school of Jesus from Day 1.

John Bowen published a book on the life of the Catholic missionary Vincent Donovan (actually the book was a collection of Donovan’s missionary letters). In some of his letters Donovan recalls how he would meet a new tribe (he was somewhere in the African continent) and teach them the faith for a year. Then, at the end of the year he would ask them to be baptized. Of course, there was a problem. You see, that old gentleman over there, well, he slept through 3/4 of the classes and that young girl over there, well, she ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed. So everyone else could be baptized but not them. The chief of the tribe then approached Donovan and said something to the effect of, “Either you baptize us all or none of us will be baptized. We will help each other along.”

Thoughts?

ps – While I agree with all of this in theory the real church community that we are part of does not practice infant baptism, unfortunately. Since that is our community it looks like little Charlotte will be unable to be baptized although I hope that in the future denominations that hold to “believers baptism” will recognize that this does not necessarily require a “decision for Christ” on behalf of the person being baptized. Charlotte, despite the fact that you are fed from a breast and constantly poo yourself, despite the fact that you can’t decide what you want to do for the day let alone decide to follow Jesus, God’s grace is extended to you anyways. You are a part of God’s people and no decision could earn that reality for you.

I recently posted the following status update on facebook:

“Thinking of infant baptism. Evangelical arguments against just don’t sound as convincing these days. What say you?”

It didn’t take long for people to chime in with their responses. There were all sorts of opinions on the matter and, not surprisingly, most evangelical leaning folks argued against it. You can read some of the responses here.

The Evangelical argument against.
Most folks I know who argue against infant baptism do so on the basis of “believers baptism”. As I see it there are 3 main points which make up the argument for believers baptism: 1) A focus on the individual believer, 2) the importance of a cognitive “decision for Christ”, and 3) baptism as symbol.

1) Focus on the individual.
Believers baptism is the decision of a particular individual who has made particular choices and confessions. The decision to be baptized into the Body of Christ is one that cannot be made by others on your behalf. You must make that decision, consciously, on your own. Folks must “own their faith”.

2) The importance of a cognitive “decision for Christ”.
This is closely connected with the first point. Here, the focus is on the individual’s confession. The individual must “believe and be baptized”. First there is belief, then profession, then baptism. Of course, central to belief in this sense is a cognitive assent to the fact that “Jesus is Lord” or whatever. And, in order to chose one must properly understand. As one commenter put it, one must have “the ability to thoughtful choose Christ” before they can be baptized. This is common sentiment among evangelicals. Baptism must “mean something”. What is important is that the individual has chosen Christ. Baptism signifies this choice.

3) Baptism as symbol.
Once the onus is placed on the individual to believe and make a decision for Christ then the door is open to view baptism as a mere symbol. And, indeed, this is what we see happen in evangelical churches across the globe. Baptism, we are told, is a public act that signifies an inner faith. The public act isn’t all that important. The waters of baptism aren’t all that significant. They simply point to something else. They point towards the inner faith of the individual. A faith which they have “made their own” and now desire to publicly demonstrate in front of others. It is a “declaration of faith”. And, since infants cannot publicly declare their faith, it would be inappropriate (or, meaningless) to baptize them. Finally, since baptism isn’t really all that significant in and of itself we are free to either chose to be baptized or not. Water or no water, what is important is the individual proclamation of faith towards which baptism is said to point.

Of course, I think this is all rather problematic. In my next post I want to put forward an argument for infant baptism, an argument that I believe counters the 3 points laid out above.

In the mean time, what do you think? Have I accurately summarized this? Is this fair? Of course I’ve probably missed some things. What other arguments are there for “believers baptism” and do you think they are problematic at all?

Peace.