Friday, January 15, 2010

Who Baptizes Whom?

This past Sunday was the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, or, as it is more commonly referred to, Baptism of the Lord Sunday. And so, I would be remiss if I did not take the opportunity to write a little about baptism.

The title of this article might lead some to think that the article is going to take up the argument about whether the act of baptizing is more properly done by the laity or the clergy. In some traditions it is common that those being baptized are baptized by family members, or close friends, or those who have been influential in their walk of faith . . . assuming that they, too, have been baptized. For those within the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition, as well as the Anglican and Catholic traditions, it is the clergy who serve as representatives of the congregation, who have been authorized to perform the actual baptism. (This does not preclude the possibility, when circumstances might demand it, that a baptized layperson might validly baptize someone. An example would be in the case of near death, when a pastor is not present. Even Rome accepts such baptisms as being valid, but this is the exception, not the rule, so to speak.)

One might think that this is what this article would be about. But it is not. For Nazarenes, like myself, and other Methodists, this question is really moot. We have an established order that is not likely to change any time soon.

Rather the question expressed in the title of this article arises out of my reading of the Church Fathers in preparation for last Sunday's sermon. I preached from St. Luke's account of Jesus' baptism. An account that was quite sparse! And I, of course, related the significance of our Lord's baptism to our own. I brought up that one of the things that I usually tell people when we are having a baptismal service is that since it is Christ (who is the Head of His Body, the Church) who commands His Body, the Church, to baptize, and since it is the Body of Christ who responds to their Head by baptizing, it is truly Christ Himself who actually baptizes.

That very concept was re-affirmed by St. Chrysostom as he commented on Luke 3:16. The fourth-century bishop of Constantinople said, ". . . John the Baptist told us, for our instruction, that man does not baptize us but God: 'There comes after me one who is mightier than I, and I am not worthy to loose the strap of his sandal. he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire'" (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. III, Luke. P. 64. InterVarsity P.).

As a pastor, I may be the one who "baptizes" someone, but in a much truer since, it is not I who baptize. It is Christ our Lord.

This fact, of course, has so many implications. It reminds us that, while baptism is certainly a sign of our testimony of what Christ has done for us (in the case of baptism for those who are old enough to have accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior by faith), it is only secondarily such a testimony. Rather, it is primarily God's sign, God's word, God's act. In other words, baptism is truly a sacrament, not merely an ordinance, alone. God is at work in the midst of and through our baptism as we come to the baptismal waters with faith in the One who has gone into those waters before us, and who calls us to follow Him in Baptism. Baptism is the gift of God to us.

It also raises the question, again, of who may be baptized. Is baptism only for those who have already owned the faith for themselves, those who have reached a certain age, who have come to "understand" what baptism really means? Or are our infant children also eligible to receive the waters of baptism?

If it was just the pastor who was doing the baptism, and if baptism were an ordinance only, and if baptism was simply my testimony of what Christ has already done for me, then the answer to the question of who may be baptism would certainly be that it is only for those who have reached a certain age and who have personally accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior.

However, if the understanding espoused above of Christ as the Head of His Body, the Church, is correct, and if St. Chrysostom's reading of the words of John the Baptizer in St. Luke's account of the Gospel is correct, then surely we must give a very different answer. Our answer must be consistent with the practice of the Apostles who (according to the Book of Acts) baptized entire households (not just the adult members of those households). Our answer must be consistent with the words of St. Peter who, on the Day of Pentecost, proclaimed, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him" (Acts 2:38-39, emphasis mine).

And just who did Christ call unto Himself? When people were bringing "little children" (the word means infants) to Him, Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10:14-15) - Certainly, they will need to be taught the faith as they grow. Certainly, they will need, some day, to own that faith for themselves, personally. But, for now, "Let them come to me, for the Kingdom of God belongs to them" (Paraphrased).

Today, whether baptized as a baby, or as a mature adult, we can have faith that when we were baptized, Christ, Himself, is the One who baptized us! - Thanks be to God for this amazing gift of God's grace!

No comments: