The Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of people before, in and after their baptism. It is the same Spirit who revealed Jesus as the Son (Mark 1.10–11) and who empowered and united the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2). God bestows upon all baptised persons the anointing and the promise of the Holy Spirit, marks them with a seal and implants in their hearts the first instalment of their inheritance as sons and daughters of God. The Holy Spirit nurtures the life of faith in their hearts until the final deliverance when they will enter into its full possession, to the praise of the glory of God (II Cor. 1.21–22; Eph. 1.13–14). — Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, WCC, 1980, para. B5
Luke 3.15–17, 21–22
Back in 1985, Karen and I were living in West End. In that year, we became the proud parents of our first child, a baby girl. We were attending this church as members, and it was nearing time to have our daughter baptised.
To tell you the truth, I was in a bit of bother about it. The thing was, in my previous church I had been firmly and repeatedly taught that infant baptism was wrong. So wrong, it didn’t even count as a real baptism.
I was a theological student, so I read the theology of baptism as much as I could. It was reassuring. My mind was calmer, my heart was unsure still. Still, we went ahead with the baptism.
I’m glad we did.
Baptism can be a minefield in the way of mutual understanding between churches. How much water should you use in Baptism? Can it be a bowlful? Must it be a tubful? Do you pour, sprinkle or immerse? Some churches play a game I can only call My baptism is bigger than yours.
Churches have long tried to regulate baptism. They’ve tried to regulate the age at which you can be baptised — not too young, please. Or whether you need to confess belief in Jesus in a church-approved way.
And there are other questions — does baptism signify receiving the Holy Spirit? Or is it a sign of our personal faith in Jesus? Can any baptised person receive Holy Communion, or should they wait till they’re confirmed?
In our reading from the Book of Acts, we see the early Church carefully overseeing the places where seeds of faith were being sown. Philip the deacon was in Samaria spreading the Good News about Jesus. Of course, the Samaritans and Jews were ancient foes. Samaritans were the descendants of Israelite men who had married foreign women after the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria in 722 BCE. Samaritans were despised by Jews, but I suspect that went both ways.
Yet through Philip the deacon’s ministry, people in Samaria were coming to faith in Jesus Christ.
Philip was baptising them, but — they didn’t show evidence of the Spirit. It seems that for Luke more so than other New Testament writers, speaking in tongues was the sign of the Holy Spirit; perhaps that’s what was lacking.
The thing to notice here is that the expectation was clearly that there is a link between the Holy Spirit and baptism in water. When the Spirit didn’t show up at these baptisms, Peter and John were sent to to Samaria to investigate. When they laid their hands on the Samaritans, the Spirit came.
Presumably, Luke would say they spoke in tongues as a sign of the gift of the Spirit. But there is more here; two ancient enemies were being united in the Spirit of Jesus. Centuries of division, contempt and hatred were being washed away by the waters of baptism, so that the apostle Paul would one day say:
As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. [Galatians 3.27–28]
This is the Spirit’s work, surely! Where enemies are made companions, where unequal relationships become mutual friendships, there — precisely there — is the liberating power of the Holy Spirit of God.
When we baptise infants, where is the Holy Spirit active? There can be no experience of conversion. A baby makes no confession of faith in Jesus.
Let me introduce you to what the Nicene Creed says about the Holy Spirit: the Spirit is ‘the Lord, the giver of life’.
All things come to us through God the Holy Spirit, all things have their being in the Spirit. A baby is a gift of the Spirit, and a bearer of the Spirit to us. A baby makes the work of the Spirit more obvious, much clearer, to those with eyes to see.
When we baptise a baby, the Spirit is already present in abundance.
It’s time for me to make a confession. Many years ago, when I was a fundamentalist Christian, a young woman at our church had a baby. (Remember, that church did not practise infant baptism.) All the older women were clucking over the baby, and a thought just came into my head: ‘Why are they gooing and gaaing like that over a sinner who is bound for hell?’
I was shocked by my own thought. I immediately realised that it was wrong to think like that about a newborn baby, but: it was the logical end of fundamentalism. If everyone born is a sinner bound for hell unless they accept Jesus, then my response was rational. I had horrified myself by taking my theology to its logical conclusion.
This is one of the events that led me to find a path away from a fundamentalist approach to faith in Jesus.
So today, I see things very differently: when a child is baptised, the Spirit is already present. We can celebrate that!
So, if the Spirit is already with us, what are we doing when we baptise an infant? Or anyone, come to that? We’re not calling the Spirit to be somewhere she hasn’t been before. This is what we are doing:
We are declaring that the Christian life has a cruciform shape. It is in the shape of a cross. The Christian life is a life of being a disciple of Jesus, following his way and seeking the help of the Spirit to be true to Jesus. Christian life is cross-shaped, because it is life in Christ.
Life ‘in Christ’ is life that seeks the kingdom of God, and God’s justice. Life ‘in Christ’ is life that loves God and neighbour, and even loves an ‘enemy’. Life ‘in Christ’, every day of every week, is cross-shaped.
We are declared to be ‘in Christ’ when we are baptised. We are made part of his body, the church and we are called to live this cross-shaped way of life. Baptism marks the public beginning of this life, which is meant to mature and grow in faith, hope and love.
And that remains true, whatever age we are when we are baptised.
West End Uniting Church, 9 January 2022