(Originally preached on 5/20/2012 at First-Trinity Presbyterian Church; Laurel, Mississippi.)
Today is Ascension Sunday. The Ascension is a monumental event in redemptive history. Our Scripture readings, hymns, and prayers so far have explored that theme. Christ reigns forever as King of kings and Lord of lords. That’s important. It’s good for us to celebrate the great events in the story of redemption, because our faith is rooted in the mighty acts of God in history.
However, it’s also good for us to be reminded why we do what we do, and so I have decided to undertake a series of messages this summer entitled “Why do we do that?” We’ll look at the different aspects of what we do when we come together. We still have Pentecost ahead of us next week and Trinity Sunday the week after that, and we will give those days their due, but the week after that we’ll take up this series on worship. However, since we have a baptism today, I want to give you a part of that series a few weeks in advance. I think we need very much to know why we baptize.
We live in a culture in which we are a minority in terms of baptism. Not just the amount of water we use, but the timing of baptism. Most of the Christians we know here in the South believe that baptism must be by immersion, and that baptism may only take place after a person has made a personal profession of faith. A quick aside: this is not the case worldwide. A full 90% of Christians worldwide practice infant baptism, which includes more than 60% of Protestants worldwide who practice infant baptism. But here in the Bible belt, it feels like we’re in the minority. I imagine many, if not most, of you, have been told at some point that you haven’t been “really baptized–if you weren’t immersed and/or if you were baptized as an infant or a young child. My purpose in saying this is not to run down other Christians, but to bring out, positively, why we baptize as we do and to answer the question, what is baptism?
1. First, baptism is a washing. The word “baptize” means “to wash.” You’ve probably before that the Greek word for baptize means to immerse in water, and it’s true that the modern Greek word baptizo does carry that meaning. But in New Testament times and today words have both literal and figurative connotations. This word baptize, for example, is used in the New Testament to describe the ceremonial washing of cups and bowls, but also of tables and dining couches! There was no way those things could be immersed in water. Instead, they dipped a hyssop branch in water and sprinkled the items to cleanse them ritually. Futhermore, we read in Acts 2 that Peter and the other apostles baptized over 3,000 people in one day on the day of Pentecost. It would have been physically and logistically impossible for them to have immersed that many people in one day. No, baptize does not have to mean immerse. It may, but it doesn’t have to. Baptize means to wash. We may baptize by sprinkling, by pouring, or by immersing. Biblically, it doesn’t matter: what matters is that we do it.
2. It matters because of the second point: baptism was instituted by Christ. Right before Jesus’ Ascension, he commanded the Apostles to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is one of the two Sacraments instituted by Christ. The other one is the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In commanding baptism, Jesus wasn’t exactly instituting something new, but rather, just as he did in reinventing the Passover meal as the Lord’s Supper, Jesus took the sign and seal of the covenant from the Old Testament and renewed it for the Church. St. Paul tells us in Colossians 2 that, in baptism, we receive the same sign and seal of the covenant that God had commanded to Abraham back in Genesis 17. That covenant sign was commanded to be given to all infant boys in Abraham’s line when they turned eight days old. But St. Paul tells us that in Christ there is no male or female, and so we have a covenant sign and seal now that is for both boys and girls: baptism. The outward sign has changed from circumcision to baptism, but the meaning of it has remained constant. It is still our entrance into the covenant community. It is still the sign and seal of the covenant of grace. And we are still commanded, as Abraham was, to apply that sign and seal to our children.
3. That brings us to the third point: baptism is for us and our children. If someone comes to faith in Christ and they did not grow up in church, had never been baptized before, then absolutely we’d baptize them as an adult, or as a teen, or at whatever age they came to faith. But the children of believers, born into the church, are to receive the sacrament of baptism as children. Why? Again, because this is still the sign and seal of the covenant of grace just as surely as circumcision was in the Old Testament. I know you’ve heard differently. Maybe from members of your family. Maybe from kids at school, or from friends at work. You’ve heard that we Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists–that 90% of Christians worldwide–don’t “really” baptize because we baptize infants and children. Baptism is baptism, whether the person receiving baptism is an adult, an infant, or anywhere in between. The early church understood this. There was no debate in the early church as to whether or not it was proper for infants to receive baptism, because the early Christians understood that baptism is the New Testament renewal of circumcision. The only debate in the early church was over whether baptism must be performed on the eighth day of life–the day God commanded the covenant sign to be administered in Genesis–or if parents could wait until the nearest Sunday for their baby’s baptism. Incidentally, this is why many baptismal fonts, including our own, were built in the shape of an octagon. They are eight-sided to remind us of the eighth day. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, so the eighth day represents the first day of a new creation. Remember that Jesus rose on the first day of the week, which is also the eighth day.
4. Finally, baptism is Christ’s sacrament. It does not depend on the worthiness of the person receiving it, or of the person administering it. It is a Sacrament of the Covenant of Grace, and it reveals to us God’s grace: his undeserved favor. If we can do something to earn or deserve grace, then it isn’t grace: it becomes a work that earns God’s favor. People often object to the baptism of infants and young children, saying, “It’s not fair. That child has no choice in the matter.” I say, what better picture of divine grace could there be? Our salvation is not because of our own righteousness, cleverness, or ingenuity. “For by grace are you saved, through faith, and this is not from yourselves. It is the gift of God. Not by works, so that no one may boast.” It is not our doing in any sense. Salvation is 100% of Christ the Lord. Baptism is a picture of the grace of God, showered on us, poured out on us, by Jesus Christ. It depicts the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon us and the washing of sins that comes only by the work of Christ–his death and resurrection. St. Peter has this to say about the grace of God in baptism: “In the days of Noah a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” Peter makes the bold statement that baptism now saves. But notice it is not the washing with the water that saves: it is the work of Christ that saves. This passage is mysterious. It tells us that somehow, God’s Holy Spirit is pleased to unite himself with this washing to bring new life and to put us into the Body of Christ. We cannot tie God’s hands and force him to bring this about at the moment of baptism, but he has promised “I will be your God, and the God of your children after you, for the generations to come.” He says, “The promise is to you, and to your children,” so we must take him at his word. We cannot understand how God’s Holy Spirit can unite himself to the waters of baptism. It’s a mystery. That’s why we call it the Sacrament of baptism. The word sacrament means mystery. It is not ours to understand these mysteries. After all, if we could understand them, they wouldn’t be mysteries. Instead, it is ours to claim the promises of God, to rest on those promises by faith, and to act in obedience to those promises.
In obedience to God’s command to apply the sign and seal of the covenant of grace, and trusting in the promise of God who says, “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your children after you,” Christian parents bring their children to the font. The catechism says, “Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, signifies and seals our ingrafting into Christ, our partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.” Beloved, let us never make any apologies for covenant baptism. Let us celebrate it. Let us proclaim it, for it declares to us the amazing grace and faithfulness of our covenant-making, covenant-keeping God, to us and to our children. In the name of God. Amen.