Rev. C. Dan Brand – JULY 31, 2016
Baptism is the symbol for our initiation into the Christian faith and church life. It is one of God’s means of Grace. This morning we had planned to be baptizing Kennedy Gail Dilks as you as a church make a commitment to help rear this child in the Christian way of living. However, do to the death of of Steven’s brother, we will postpone until next week.
We probably don’t teach often enough about baptism in the church. Although there is a story about a a pastor who was fond of preaching on water baptism. Week after week he would preach about baptism. Finally in desperation, the church leaders requested that he allow them to pick his scripture text for the following Sunday’s message. He agreed. They assigned him the text Genesis 1:1. “There“, they said, “let us see him get a sermon on baptism out of that verse.” When he got up to preach, he announced the agreed upon text. His opening sentence then followed, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth is two-thirds water. Today’s subject is Water Baptism.”
Let’s talk about “what do Christians believe about baptism?” All Christian denominations believe in the two main sacraments as God’s means of Grace: Communion and Baptism. So what is a sacrament? A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of God’s covenant with us and God’s special relationship with us. A covenant is a promise, a promise between two parties that is binding, that has certain requirements and responsibilities on the part of both parties in order to make it work. That covenant establishes a new relationship. A Covenant does have God’s terms.
An example of a common everyday sort of covenant is marriage. When two people marry, they make promises to each other & to God. They enter into a covenant relationship, which forges a new relationship. Each one in that relationship is responsible for accomplishing certain things, for doing certain things in order for that covenant to work. There is an outward and visible sign of the marriage covenant–the wedding ring. The wedding ring is not the marriage. It isn’t the love in the marriage. It is an outward and visible sign of the marriage and the covenant and the promises that have been made between the two parties and with God.
So it is with holy communion and baptism. They are outward and visible signs of a covenant that God has established with you and you with God. They are, in the words of Wesley, means of grace. By looking at these outward and visible signs, we understand God’s grace, we understand God’s mercy, and we understand our calling from God on our lives. Baptism, you’ve got to understand what came before it—what is the history and origin of baptism? I want to look at that very briefly.
Go back to the 17th chapter of the book of Genesis. Verses 11 and 12. That’s the very first book in the Old Testament. And there we find that God is making a covenant with Abraham. God makes a promise to Abraham. And he says, Abraham, I have chosen you among all the people of the earth. You will be my special person. I have a special relationship with you. You will be my child and you will have many descendants. In fact, some day your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. And I will bless your people and they will become a blessing to all the nations of the earth and they will be a light to the Gentiles and I will watch over you.
On God’s side that was his promise to Abraham. But he was entering into a covenant relationship which also had responsibilities for Abraham and Abraham was responsible to be obedient to God, to follow God, to teach his children about God. And then in Verse 11 and 12, we read that God gave Abraham a sign for this covenant, an outward and visible sign of this promise that he was establishing. Listen to this, “The flesh of his foreskin must be cut off. This will be a sign that you and they have accepted this covenant. Every male child must be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. This applies not only to members of your family, but also to the servants born in your household…”
To this very day, the Jewish people practice circumcision. When a boy child is eight days old, they are circumcised and that is the outward and visible sign of the covenant that this child belongs to God, has received the inheritance of Abraham, is bound by the terms and the promises made in the Old Testament both by Abraham and also by Moses. So this is the outward and visible sign of a covenant. It is the rite of initiation.
Now, what is the rite of initiation for Christians? What is that sign that we have entered into a covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ? That right of initiation, that sign of the covenant is not circumcision; it is baptism. Baptism is the outward and visible sign that we have entered into a covenant with God through Jesus Christ, that we belong to him, that Christ’s promises are ours and that we belong to God’s covenant people.
Apostle Paul helps us make this connection between circumcision and baptism with more clarity in Colossians, Chapter 2, Verses 11 through 13. “When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. It was a spiritual procedure–the cutting away of your sinful nature. For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to a new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead.”
Baptism has taken the place of circumcision for Christians. It is our sign of the covenant, our entrance to a relationship with Jesus Christ and becoming a part of God’s covenant people. We have received the new covenant in baptism.
Of course, Jesus set the example for us by beginning his earthly ministry by being baptized which we read about in Matthew 3 :”13Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. 14But John didn’t want to baptize him. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?”15But Jesus said, “It must be done, because we must do everything that is right. ” So then John baptized him.
Peter makes this clear that the first act one goes through when one becomes a Christian, is to enter into that covenant of baptism. Acts, Chapter 2, Peter is preaching the very first sermon ever recorded by an apostle. It’s the day of Pentecost and he’s preaching to all the people in Jerusalem. Thousands of them are there. And he tells the story of what Jesus has done in his death and his resurrection. And then he says now it’s time for you to choose to receive him as your Messiah.
And the people cry out, “What must we do, Peter?” and he says, This is it: You repent. You turn away from the life you once had. You turn towards Jesus as your Savior and then be baptized. Repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins. You will become a part of God’s covenant people. And that day thousands were baptized. There was a real simple sign that they were joining the church, and that was to be baptized. This is it. It was that simple. If you want to be a part of God’s covenant people, if you will be a part of those who are in Christ, then you must follow in this act, for this is the rite of initiation. This is the sign of the covenant that you make with God and God makes with you in Jesus Christ. That’s how it worked—-Baptism.
Now, you might ask the question, “Okay, I understand, baptism is the rite of initiation. It is the sign of 4 the covenant, the promise between God and those who are Christians. But what does it really mean? What are the promises that God is making to us in this covenant and what are the promises that we are making to God?” That’s very important for you to understand. And the water baptism is a wonderful vehicle for conveying what these promises are that God makes with you.
The movie O Brother, Where Art Thou shows how the water is a powerful element in baptism. Three runaway convicts, Delmar, Everett, and Pete, are at their campsite when a group of worshippers in white robes walk past. The drifting worshipers are heading down to the river to be baptized. after George Clooney asks “what the hell is that singing” and people dressed in white and marching in woods after Delmar says “Come on in boys the water is fine.”] Delmar had it right. Through baptism we are buried with Christ, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
Here are God’s promises to you in baptism.
1. God will forgive my sins.
He will forgive your sins. So that when Peter says repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins, he’s not saying the water itself forgives your sins, he’s saying the water is a sign of God’s primary promise in baptism, that your sins were nailed to the cross when Jesus died on the cross. He carried the weight of the world’s sins on his shoulders so that you might be forgiven and set free. When one gets all the way into the water, as the first baptisms were performed in rivers, in streams, no less, as the water would pass by, the water symbolically carried your sins away. Now, the water doesn’t forgive you. God forgives you. The water is a sign of that forgiveness. Now, listen carefully. It’s not only a sign of the forgiveness of your past sins, it’s a promise of forgiveness for your future sins. When you get married, you’re not saying I used to love you, I have always loved you in the past, up to this point I have loved you.
You are saying when you get married, I promise I’m always going to love you. I am always going to do these things towards you. And so it is when God makes a covenant with us. It isn’t only to forgive our past sins. And in the case of babies, of course, there is no forgiveness of past sins. It is a promise that when you ask for forgiveness, every time you come before me, I am going to remember your baptism and I will wash you clean and make you new.
2. God claims me as one of his children.
God says this one is mine. This is one of my children. Do you remember when Jesus was baptized? When he went into the water, what happened? There was a voice from heaven, wasn’t there? Do you remember what it said? And a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, and I am fully pleased with him.” In your baptisms, you are adopted by God. You become his children. You are making a promise to him and he is saying, yes, you are mine and I will never let you go.
Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500’s used to on occasion suffer with bouts of extreme depression. When he would become depressed, he would force himself to go and look in the looking glass. And do you know what he would say? He would say, “Martin Luther, you are baptized.” Do you know what that meant? You belong to Christ. You are one of his children. He has claimed you as his own. Don’t forget that. When you are baptized, God is saying, This one is mine and I will never let you go.
3. God promises me a life of meaning and purpose.
Jesus went to a well in Samaria. There was a woman standing there and he said to her, “Woman, give me a drink.” And she gave him a drink. And then he said, “Now, listen, if only you knew who you were talking to, you would ask of me and I would give you living water and you would never be thirsty again.” What was Jesus talking about, living water? He was talking about all those things in our hearts that our hearts long for without which we are dried up inside that he alone can give to us. You know what it’s like to feel dry and empty inside, to feel hopeless or loveless or joyless. What Jesus is promising in your baptism, what God is promising is to give you a life that’s filled with meaning and hope, joy and grace and unconditional love. All of those are his gifts. They are the living water that he offers to you, that feeds your soul. Jesus said, “If you drink of this water, you’ll never be thirsty again.”
4. God promises to give me the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Do you remember the last thing that happened when Jesus was baptized? He was put in the water. Then the Lord spoke to him, “You are my beloved son.” And then he saw the Holy Spirit descend from heaven in the form of the dove and lit upon him. Most of the time in the New Testament in the book of Acts, someone was baptized and then the apostles laid their hands on them and they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. So that the apostle Peter goes on to preach in another place, repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. So that when we baptize here at HHUMC after the baptism, I will place my hands on the head of the 6 child or the adult, and say, “Now, may the Holy Spirit work in your life that you may be a faithful follower of Christ..” It’s as if to say to a child, “That you might grow up to be a great man or woman of faith.” Or to an adult, “That God’s spirit might work in your heart and life now and always.” The Holy Spirit does begin the Spirit’s work and filling often at baptism.
So these are the gifts of the Lord in our baptisms and each one of those are described, in some sense, by water. The water is a bath. And then the water is a womb by which we are born again into this world as God’s children. Then the water is a drink of cold water that gives us life here and now and life eternal in God’s kingdom. And finally the water is the streams of water that Jesus described in John’s gospel, which is the Holy Spirit. Do you get the impression that baptism is very, very important? This is God’s sign of the covenant that he’s making with you, but also that you are making with God.
You see, any covenant requires obligations and action on both parties so that you are not only receiving God’s promises, but you are also making promises. Yes, children can’t make those promises, so the adults make the promises on their behalf and then it’s up to those children and the parents to teach their children what those promises mean. When you are baptized, you’re making a promise. You’re saying, “Lord, I choose to follow you. Jesus, I receive what you did on the cross. I want to be one of your people. I need your forgiveness and your mercy. I want your Holy Spirit in my life. And the person I might have been, I no longer wish to be. But instead I want to live for you.” Baptism is not only a sign of God’s promises but a sign of our promises. These are the promises that we make on our side of the covenant in baptism.
We are united together with Christ. We proclaim our desire to be one of his people. We publicly profess our faith, our repentance of our sins, and we begin to follow him as best we know how.
I want to take just a couple of minutes to address some questions that are frequently asked about baptism. The most frequently asked question I have been asked from folks who came to our church from traditions that only baptize adults goes along these lines. “Preacher, we love HHUMC Church. We love the preaching. We love the music. We love the people. But there’s just this one thing that really is tough for us to understand:
1. Why do you baptize babies?
After all, babies can’t make those decisions. They’re not repenting of their sins. They do not understand cognitively that they are being buried with Christ. Why do you do it? It doesn’t make any sense to us. Does that really fit? Is it really Biblical?” So I want to take just a few minutes to help you understand why it is that 80 percent of all Christendom baptizes babies, and why it is that we in the UMC believe this is a Biblical practice.
Certainly, if you’re reading the New Testament, the dominant model of baptism in the New Testament is baptizing adults. Why is that? Because in the New Testament, we’re reading about the formation of the church. There weren’t people who were growing up in the church. There weren’t second and third generation Christians. These are all folks who are hearing the gospel for the first time.
The apostle Paul is going to a town. Nobody there is a Christian. He preaches the gospel and what you read about are the stories of conversions. And he’s telling those adult people, “Now, here is the sign that you’re entering into the covenant with Christ. Be baptized.” It makes sense that the New Testament is primarily telling us the stories about adult converts. Recall in Old testament times, 8 days after they were born, male children were circumcised as a sign of the covenant that God made with them and they with God. And then what was it up to? It was up to the parents to—and you’ll remember these words—in Proverbs : “Train up a child in the way they should go so that when they are old, they will not depart from it.”
The same is true for Christian baptism. Baptism is the Christian sign of the covenant, the right of initiation into God’s covenant people. And it’s up to the parents, then, to disciple their children, to train them up in the way they should go, to help their children come to know what does it mean to be a part of God’s covenant people. But our children are fully a part of God’s covenant people until such a time as they choose to run away.
We go through the act of confirmation when children are around 12 years old. That corresponds to the Jewish act of bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah in which a Jew, then, accepts for themselves the terms of the covenant at age 13. In the Christian faith, we go through confirmation and our children, then, come to the place where they say, “Yes, what my parents did for me when I was a child, I choose freely to accept for myself now that I’m a young adult.” That’s how it works in our United Methodist churches. Furthermore, there is no example in the New Testament of anyone dedicating a child as some other 8 churches practice and then baptizing them when they were 10 or 12 or 13 years old.
However, we do find three examples of the apostles, in particular the apostle Paul, baptizing an entire household of people when the parent made a confession of faith. Acts, Chapter 16, you read two of the examples. The first one was with a woman named Lydia in the town of Philippi. And Lydia gave her life to Christ. And the scripture says, when she gave her life to Christ, she and her entire family were baptized. The word household or family there usually signifies a family with children, a household with children. Not only was Lydia baptized with her entire family after her profession of faith, but later on in that chapter when the apostle Paul was in prison and the prison cells were shaken open by the power of the Holy Spirit, the jailer was afraid and cried out to Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” And Paul led him to Christ. And the scripture says that very night in the middle of the night when Paul led him to Christ, he took Paul to his home and Paul baptized not only this man, but also his entire family because of the confession of faith of the father.
Then finally in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 1, we read that the apostle Paul also baptized the household or family of Stephanas. So there are no examples in the New Testament of what happens in terms of dedicating children and then postponing their baptism, but we do have three examples of entire families being baptized as a response to and a result of the faith of the parents. Then look at Jesus’ response to children. Because while, again, in the New Testament we don’t read about postponing baptisms for children, we do read this on the lips of Jesus, when there were families, parents who brought their children to Jesus, the disciples got irritated. Do you remember the story? The parents were bringing their children to Jesus. The disciples said, “Don’t do that, don’t bother the teacher with children. He’s got more important things to do than to deal with little children.” And do you remember what Jesus does? He sternly rebukes the disciples and said, in the words of King James, “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven belongs to these. Is it possible that if the kingdom of heaven belongs to children and if we can’t even enter the kingdom of heaven unless we become like a child, that children will be excluded from God’s promises until they are old enough to answer for themselves?
And so we read in the writings of the early church fathers, in the 200s, that the practice of baptizing 9 infants existed. And so it continued through the centuries– the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century in the 1500s. All of the Reformers came—John Calvin, Martin Luther, Zwingli—said baptism is for children of Christians as well as for adults.
Our forefather in the Methodist church, John Wesley, the great reformer in the eighteenth century in England, the Anglican church, based his life on this book. He says, “I am a man of one book.” And do you know what he said? “You bring your children—if you are a believer, you bring your children because they are part of God’s covenant people. Just as circumcision was for the Israelites, baptism is for the Christians. It is a sign of the covenant not only for adults, but also for the children of believers.”
We believe in baptizing infants because we believe it is a sign of God’s love. I believe God is saying to Kennedy today as I baptize her—“I love you. You are a special child and I am sending my love and grace to you even before you know who I am or what “I’m about.”
In fact I love baptizing babies. They go do nothing but receive the love and grace of God through baptism. So I wish some of you would hurry up and have some more babies—not trying to put pressure on anyone now.
Whether you baptize babies or only baptize adults, that is not an issue over which believers should be fighting with each other. I do want you to understand at the very least that there are profound reasons why we do these things, and that they’re not cute little ceremonies just to make our grandparents cry. These are about God’s promises and God’s covenant and how Christianity works in our lives when we are in Christ.
Another question I get about baptism centers around the mode of baptism or how the water is administered in baptism. (share my own Baptism story). How is baptism to be done–by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion? Tell story of Jacob!
A woman called a Methodist pastor one time and she said, “You know, Pastor Adam, I was baptized at the Church. I was up at the baptistery and sprinkled the water on my head, but my Southern Baptist friend says that I wasn’t really baptized, and I’m really upset about it, because I wasn’t immersed. And so could you please tell me, was I baptized or wasn’t I baptized?”
The pastor told her, “Do you remember how we said before you were baptized that the baptism is an outward and visible sign of the covenant? It is not the covenant. Now, let me ask you something. You’re married. If you had a 10-carat diamond ring just covering your whole hand, would you be more married than the person who has a quarter-carat diamond ring? Of course, you wouldn’t be more married. “Let me tell you, ask your friend who is Southern Baptist if they would be more baptized if they were baptized in the Atlantic Ocean than if they were baptized in their little Jacuzzi tub-sized baptistery in their Baptist church.” The point the pastor was making is this: It does not matter how much water you use. The water is the outward and visible sign. It is the accidental sign to the promise. The promise is what matters. The water is only a symbol of that. In Methodist churches, we’ll do all 3 ways—sprinkling, pouring or immersion. Another question goes along these lines:
3. Does baptism save my baby? Or save me?
Baptism has no magical power. In the case of children, is important that at least one of the parents is actively participating in the life of the church. The baby who is baptized becomes what we call a baptized member of the church. That means that the parents not only make a commitment to rear the child in the faith but the church family is making a commitment to nurture baptized children in the faith and to give support to the parents in that awesome task until such time that the child goes through the confirmation experience and becomes a professing member of the church. In the case of an adult, the church is making a promise to you to help you grow in your Christian faith. That’s one reason baptisms take place in worship because church you are making a commitment to the children who are being baptized here today.
Wouldn’t it be better to wait and baptize my child when he or she is older so that they can remember their baptism?
Most of you have been baptized, you know, and maybe it was something your parents did when you were a baby and you don’t even remember it. You don’t have to remember it. Through appropriate remembrances and celebrations, your children can be enabled to “remember” their baptism as much as they “remember” their physical birthday. You don’t have to remember the moment when it happened. What you have to remember is that it 11 happened. What you have to remember is that God entered into a covenant with you and you’ve entered into a covenant with God.
Do you sense how profound that is? Because God never breaks his promises. You are part of God’s covenant people. You have been clothed with Christ. God has claimed you as one of his children. He has promised to forgive your sins and he longs to love you and give you life here and life eternal in his kingdom. But here is what he asks of every one you—whether you were baptized as an adult or child, that you remember your baptism in such a way that every day you say, “I am baptized. I belong to Christ. I choose to follow him.” AMEN
LET US PRAY:
Lord Jesus, we thank you for what you did for us on the cross, giving your life that we might live. Help us, O Lord, to confess you before others, to publicly proclaim that we belong to you, to not be ashamed of the gospel. Help us, O Lord, to live like one who has been baptized, to turn away from sin and to turn to you and to follow you day by day. Amen.