On the Baptism of June (audio)
We are departing from our Old Testament series this week for the obvious reason that this morning a baptism will take place. Some of you are likely relieved—A break from blood and lust and political intrigue! Well, there is plenty of that again in our OT lesson. And there is also a powerful prayer for wisdom, which deserves this week some of your time for reflection. So, my request to all of you—go home and review the lesson and ask God especially how Solomon’s prayer for wisdom as King might be God’s Word not simply to all of us, but to you (and to me) this week.
But back to the subject at hand. Today is a baptism. June Boyuk will, in just a few moments, be welcomed into the community of faith, the people of God, the Body of Christ. And I get to take a few minutes now to explain why it is that pouring water on this little girls’ head is a good thing to do. There are three reasons.
First, June will be was baptized because baptism is about God’s grace.
(Read Romans 6:3-7)
Baptism with water, for St. Paul, how the Holy Spirit unites people to Jesus Christ. In baptism, the Spirit ties us to Christ’s death, in baptism the Spirit buries us with him, in baptism, the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, empowers us to walk in newness of life. Somehow, in this human act, the Spirit of God unites us to Jesus Christ, that through his death, we may die to sin. Somehow in this human act, the Spirit of God grants us a share in Christ’s resurrection life both now and at the end. And the Spirit does so to the glory of God the Father.
Baptism is indeed a human act—we are pouring water. But more than that, it God’s act. For to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is to be baptized by God himself. Even though others administer it, it is God’s own work. And the work of the Spirit of God begun at baptism continues step by step as the lives of Christians are stamped by our being baptized and by our recollection and appropriation of what this baptism signifies.
Today, June will baptized. Let us remember our own baptism and be thankful. For just as we were brought to birth in the water of a mother’s womb, the Spirit of God has brought us to re-birth in the water of baptism.
Second, June will be baptized because God’s grace precedes her faith.
Grace and faith are words we hear a lot in church. But do we know what they mean? Baptism has to do with both. Baptism shows us what God’s grace is and what our faith is.
Faith is the fully free, fully human response of trust in the grace of God at work in baptism. Without the response of faith, of trust, baptism is not baptism. Baptism is just spilled water. How can June exercise faith? Surely, being an infant, she cannot trust in Christ for her salvation. I agree that June is cannot trust Christ. But the problem actually runs far deeper than his age.
June cannot trust Christ not because she is a baby, but because she is a sinner. She has been born into a condition that infects us all of us, a disease that renders us dead to the God’s grace. God displays his love for us on the cross, but our eyes do not see. God proclaims his redemption to us through the prophets and apostles, but our ears do not hear. We are dead in sin. We need to be raised to new life. We cannot save ourselves. The language is strong. Offensive even. My only plea is that the language is not mine. It is Saint Paul’s. Listen to his words. (Read Ephesians 2:1-10)
Baptism without faith is not baptism—that’s the bad news. Here’s the good news. The faith—the trust—that lays hold of the grace of God in baptism is God’s gift to us, too. Today, June will be baptized because, we believe, God’s grace comes before and makes her faith possible.
Today, June will be baptized in the hope that God will bring her to faith and enable him to accept the sheer gift offered here today. To be sure, June is not conscious of the gift of grace extended to her today. Neither is she conscious of the faith by which that gift is accepted.
But June is really not all that different from us. We are not conscious of God’s grace or our faith when we are asleep our when we are hard at work. And yet grace and faith remain. They remain because they are rooted in a God who is constant, who is, the Scriptures say, slow to anger and abounding in love. At baptism we can only receive what God has done already.
Are adults really in a totally different situation when it comes to vouching for their own faith? Can I, of my own volition and in my own power, guarantee my perseverance in faith? No. But God can. And God does in baptism. And if he does it for fickle adults like me, there is no reason to presume he will not do it for June today. Indeed, there is a very good reason for presuming just the opposite. Where humans are fickle, God is constant. His gifts and callings, unlike ours, are irrevocable.
Third, today, June will be baptized and this lays responsibility on all of us.
Baptism is about God’s grace. The grace that comes before and makes our response of trust in God possible. But baptism is not magic. Sadly, some of us might think it is.
Because of absurdly high infant mortality rates in the Dark Ages, infants were baptized as soon as possible, for to die without baptism was to die without saving grace. To be sure, unbaptized infants were spared the torments of hell, but lacking baptism, they would never enjoy the fullness of God’s presence in heaven. And, of course, it is easy to see how this baptismal theology came to be misunderstood and this practice regarded, by both supporters and detractors, as a magical and superstitious form of eternal life insurance.
Baptism is first about God. But it is also about us. It is also an initiation into an alternative community, a new family. Once again, the insight is from St. Paul. Listen (Read Collosians 2:11-12). Paul here deliberately links Christian baptism with the Jewish practice of circumcision. Both are signs of God’s Covenant of grace. Both are the means by which God initiates us into his Covenant people. As surely as June was born in the water of his mother’s womb, today she was born of water and of the Spirit into a new family.
We love our families. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more cherished human arrangement. Blood, we are told, is thicker than water. Our family is the source of our name, our values. Home is where you go when you have absolutely nowhere else to go. Family is the group of people who take you in when everyone else has rejected you. And churches are often praised as institutions that support the family. Good churches focus on the family. Good churches build family life centers. Good churches inculcate family values.
Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian at Duke Divinity School, used to open one of his classes by reading a letter from a parent to a government official. The parent complains that his son had received the best education, had gone to all the right schools, and was headed for a good job as a lawyer. Then he up and joined a weird religious sect. This parent pleads with the official to do something about this cult. “Who is this letter describing?” Hauerwas asks. Some think the Moonies, others the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A hundred names of new religious movements come to mind. In fact, it is a composite letter drawn from the letters of third-century Roman parents. And the group is the church. The church is an alternative to family. It is a family in which there is one Father. It is a family in which there are no grandparents, aunts or uncles, but only brothers and sisters.
Today, in his baptism, June will be signed and sealed with the sacrament of the New Covenant. Through the water of baptism, June will be brought into the alternative community that God, by his Spirit, is building. She will be reckoned among the Father’s adopted children. Counted as our sister, her spiritual well-being now becomes our responsibility. It becomes our responsibility to ensure that June is brought up in Christian faith. It becomes our responsibility to ensure that June has at her disposal the means of grace—the Apostles’ teachings, the breaking of bread and prayer. Which is to say the Scriptures, the Eucharist, and the worship of the Church. It becomes our responsibility to support and care for her so that she will one day affirm his faith and accept the gift and promise of the Triune God that is given today. For in this new family, water is thicker than blood.