One of the all-time highlights for me as a pastor, and as a father, has been the privilege and honor of being a part of the baptism of my daughters, Michele and Sarah.
With the help of Pastors Joe Short and Dave Heckman and with 170 people from six different United Methodist churches watching from the shore of Glendale Lake, Michele was baptized on August 18, 2001. And on September 17, 2006, with the help of Pastor Seth McClymonds and some 40 people from the Reynoldsville United Methodist Church watching on the banks of the Parker Dam resevoir, Sarah was baptized. Each girl publicly affirmed her relationship with Jesus Christ as her Lord and proclaimed that she was turning her back on evil in order to live her life for Christ.
But, as proud as I’ve been of my girls, there was more going on at their baptism than just their commitment. There was more than just saying the words and then baptizing them by immersing them in the waters of those two lakes.
As United Methodists we teach how baptism and communion are called “sacraments” because they are the two things that Jesus Christ instructed us to go do. We do a lot of things in the church, but these two are commands from Christ Himself. So part of what was going on on those two occasions at those two lakes was simply a matter of obedience. Jesus said that we were to do it, so we did it.
The greatest part of our understanding of baptism, however, is that it is one of the ways we know that God uses to pour out His grace on people. Baptism is a physical symbol that gives us a “picture” of God’s acceptance of us through His Son Jesus and symbolizes the way that God showered us with his grace. That’s why United Methodists don’t re-baptize. Since baptism is a picture of what GOD did, then why would we then picture Him as having to do it over? It’s not like God is in Heaven saying: “Oops… I guess that one’s baptism didn’t take. I must have messed up my aim the first time… the grace didn’t stick. I’d better get them baptized again and try to get them with my grace this time.” Jesus Christ, God’s Son, paid the price of our salvation once, and it was good for all time. We NEVER need another sacrifice to satisfy God. Nor do we ever need a second (or third or tenth) baptism, no matter how many times we might mess up. Because baptism’s not about us and what we’ve done… It’s about what HE does… and what HE did.
It’s this dimension of God pouring out His grace on the one being baptized that has helped convince the Church through the centuries of the appropriateness of baptizing babies and children. We were able to accept Christ even though we don’t personally remember His crucifixion or His resurrection. But by faith, we “remember.” So too, baptism, done at any age is valid and acceptable, even if you cannot remember the historic event of being in the waters of baptism.
The specific act of being baptized, whether as an infant, a child, or as an adult, is a reflection of God’s work… and our work is to live life in remembrance of that baptism and the work that God did.
Another part of our understanding of baptism is centered in the ancient baptismal rituals of the early church, which focused on the welcoming of someone new into the community of the people of God called “Christians.” Baptism, in a sense, is partly an “initiation rite” that identifies the baptized one as part of the Christian group, similar to how circumcision of a baby Jewish boy identified him as a part of the Jewish community of faith (even though the baby boy will never remember the act of circumcision). That’s another reason why United Methodists, and the early church, included infants in baptism. We baptize babies, in part, as a “welcome to the family” event where the parents and the congregation dedicate themselves to helping the baptized ones grow in the knowledge of the Christian faith so that they may be introduced to Jesus Christ and then, hopefully, one day accept Him as their Savior and Lord as well.
One more thing happens in baptism: the congregation renews their commitment to Christ and to living out their faith individually and corporately as a congregation. They promise the baptized one that we, the church, are going to be there for them to help them walk the faith walk and to look to Christ throughout their lives. This is why in United Methodism we don’t need to specifically have “godparents” in baptism; the whole congregation makes a vow to God that we together will take on the role of godparents.
How many times have we been in the service of baptism, and not understood? Or worse, have not taken seriously the vow to “nurture” these ones we are welcoming to the community?
Maybe, in the words of our Wesleyan tradition, it’s time to “remember our baptism” once again.