…because of their baptism, they are bound to the patient, long-term discovery of what grace will do with them. (Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes)
How important is baptism?
It seems to have been important to Jesus.
In Matthew’s version of the baptism of Jesus, John the Baptist tries to put him off:
John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’
But Jesus insists. This is the way forward.
John’s baptism was a sign of repentance; that’s why John didn’t want to baptise Jesus. He knew Jesus didn’t need to repent.
But Jesus was identifying himself with sinners. All of them, from the unclean and those outside the law to religious hypocrites who thought they were fine as they were. He was identifying himself with the whole of Israel. Eventually it would be clear that he was identifying himself with the whole world. He was the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
Christian baptism—our kind—is a little different. In his baptism, Christ identified with sinners; in our baptism, we are identified with Christ.
We are ‘in Christ’ through baptism. When God looks upon us, God sees Jesus Christ.
This is how the Uniting Church’s service of Baptism puts it:
In his own baptism in the Jordan by John,
Jesus identified himself with humanity
in its brokenness and sin…
Our Church’s service of Baptism also says:
By God’s grace,
baptism plunges us into the faith of Jesus Christ,
so that whatever is his may be called ours.
By water and the Spirit
we are claimed as God’s own
and set free from the power of sin and death.
‘Whatever is Christ’s may be called ours.’
We are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. Christ went through death; we need not fear death. Christ rose from the dead; we have a sure and well-grounded hope of joining him in his resurrection.
We also share in his life, in his grace, mercy and love.
We grow in openness to the Spirit of God.
Jesus is the Son of God, and so we are adopted children of God.
Right now, we have eternal life in his name.
We are forever ’in Christ’.
In my first placement as a minister, out in the country, I met a woman who was very talkative indeed. So, I dutifully listened.
She somehow got onto the topic of baptism, and told me that she had never been baptised. She wasn’t a new Christian, she had been brought up in the Methodist Church, but she wasn’t baptised. She was an active participant in her congregation in Brisbane, but she hadn’t ever been baptised.
She told me she hadn’t ever felt the Spirit calling her to be baptised; and until she felt that call, she wasn’t going to do it.
Privately, I wondered how she could possibly feel she was so special that she didn’t have to follow a normal requirement of being a Christian.
But I was in a situation in which it was difficult for me to say anything.
That was almost thirty years ago. I have no idea if she was ever baptised.
Why would she feel she needed a special call from God before she received the Sacrament of Baptism?
I don’t know the answer. I wonder if she’d ever heard a sermon on baptism. I’m sure she’d heard all you need to be saved is faith; perhaps she thought baptism was a work.
But Baptism is not a work, it’s a gift.
It’s not a work to receive the gift of Baptism; it’s a sign of faith.
What is this gift? Let me tell you a story:
A woman had a most peculiar dream. In her dream, she was wandering around some shops in a large shopping centre. Suddenly, she noticed a shop which took her fancy. She wandered in and found Jesus behind the counter! Jesus said to her, ‘You can have anything your heart desires.’ Astounded but pleased, she then asked for ‘Peace, joy, happiness, wisdom and freedom from fear.’ Then she added, ‘and not just for me, but for the whole earth.’ Jesus smiled and then said, ‘I think you misunderstand me. We don’t sell the finished product, we only sell seeds.’
Baptism is a beginning. Whether you’re baptised at eight days or eighty years, it’s a beginning.
The seed of the Spirit is planted in you, and given the right conditions, this seed can grow and grow.
That reminds me of the Apostle Paul, who speaks of the fruit of the Spirit, which is
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5.22–23a)
Do you see that a person who has this fruit of the Spirit is a person reflecting the character of Jesus Christ? It’s not surprising, when we recall that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
So in baptism, we are joined to Jesus, and we are invited to grow in his grace. We are called to bear the fruit of his life. It’s not magic; we need to respond to the invitation to grow.
Really, there’s no good reason why a Christian shouldn’t be baptised. And that goes for any age, young or old.
There’s one last thing to say. When Jesus identifies with sinners in his baptism, he identifies with all sinners. This makes it possible for all sinners to identify with him. We can’t say there are some sinners we reject, and others we think are ok, because Jesus has identified with every sinner.
Peter found that out. Back then, they weren’t baptising Gentiles. People like me and most of you. Gentiles were beyond the pale. Then Peter witnessed the gift of the Spirit being given to Gentiles and his heart was changed. He could not refuse baptism to them any longer. They were included in Christ.
Today that just seems normal, but it was the greatest debate in the early years of the life go the Church.
Today, we can leave people out too. They may be people of different kinds. One of our huge debates has been about people who are not straight.
I don’t want to say much today, but I will say this: I have seen the fruit of the Spirit growing in gay and lesbian friends, and I’ve seen the gifts of the Spirit at work in gay and lesbian friends.
I imagine I may feel like Peter. I can’t refuse those who God has recognised and blessed a full place in the church.
In his baptism, Jesus joined himself with sinners; in our baptism, we are joined to Jesus. What a wonderful gift is baptism! Don’t refuse it; don’t make it optional; and grow into your baptism through the nurture of the Holy Spirit in the fellowship of God’s people. Amen.