"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Mt. 28.19ff)
Roger Fenn, late of the Fenn School in Concord and a life-long Unitarian, used to love telling the story of how, as a young boy, he had witnessed the baptism of some relative, thought it was just a fine thing to do, so he decided to baptize himself. Baptisms in those days were "in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost." Roger thought he remembered what was said and done, so he went home, sat himself on the edge of the horse trough, pinched his nose, said "Roger Fenn, I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and Over She Goes" -- and dropped backwards into the trough!
Baptizing babies may seem like the simplest thing in the world, everybody does it, yet its meaning can be complicated enough that, not only young boys, but adults and parents especially, may have questions.
So, inspired by a young couple who came recently to talk about baptizing their new daughter, this morning I want to address some of those questions.
First, what IS baptism?
All peoples and cultures have ways of celebrating birth -- ways of expressing joy and thanks, ways of welcoming the newcomer into family and community and world. Do you remember the wonderful scene in the "Roots" television series years ago when Kunta Kinte held up his newborn son to the starlit night sky and said to him "behold, the only thing greater than yourself"?
Well, our tribe, our tradition, uses baptism.
What we call baptism actually has three elements.
There is dedication. Sometimes called child dedication, it is actually more a parental dedication -- parents give thanks for their children and promise to bring them up with attention to growth of character and spirit and discipleship. There are promises also by sponsors (or godparents) and by the congregation, for we promise them "the guardian love and care of this church." We promise to provide a church school, a church home, for them.
There is a christening, literally a "naming in Christ." "Name this child," says the minister, and the parents respond with what the English call your "Christian name," your given name. What an extraordinary ordinary power it is, to give a person the name by which they will be known to the world! It deserves a more auspicious ceremony than just filling out a birth certificate form in the hospital. And there is the implicit prayer that this child will bring honor, not dishonor, to their name and their family name.
And there is a baptism. The word 'baptize' means to dip or to immerse. For 2000 years, baptism has been the Christian rite of initiation marked by dipping or immersing in water. It is a ceremony full of rich symbolism and meaning.
Our two gospel readings show its origin. First, Jesus himself was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, which marked the beginning of his public ministry, after which came the 40 days in the wilderness, the teaching, the arrest, the Passion, and Easter. The baptism also confirmed his identity, for when he came up from the water, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove upon him, and "a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased'" (Mt.3.17). That presence of the Holy Spirit is also a prayer for our baptisms, that they be marked not just with water and words, but that God's spirit may inspire our children, that grace may work its unseen way in their lives.
The other text had even more influence on what we do. The last instructions from the Risen Christ to his followers, the concluding words of Matthew's gospel, were: "Go . . . (1) make disciples . . . (2) baptizing them . . . and (3) teaching them to obey what I have commanded" (Mt.28.19). Disciples are followers, of course, but the word literally means "learners" -- come and learn of Jesus and his way of being in this world, learn to love God and your neighbor as yourself. This is what he asked us to do.
What is important to remember here is that one is not baptized a Roman Catholic, or a Presbyterian, or a Unitarian; one is baptized a "Christian," period. It is the rite of entrance into the worldwide Christian church, and almost every denomination accepts everybody else's baptisms. That in itself is quite amazing!
But then comes the big question asked through church history: should one be baptized as an infant or an adult?
The difference is this: is being baptized a decision, a choice, that one makes . . . or is it a gift, unmerited, unchosen?
Originally, of course, only adults were baptized -- they were the ones who decided to become Christians. The King's Chapel prayerbook refers to adult baptism as "baptism of those who are of riper years"! We still do occasional adult baptisms here at First Parish, at least three or four since I arrived. It is a powerful statement for an adult to decide "yes, I am a Christian, this is my home, this is who I want to be, this is 'whose' I want to be."
Early in church history it appears that sometimes whole families would be baptized together, including children, even infants.
What does it mean to baptize infants, who are not making a conscious choice and do not even know what's happening to them?
I think it means that the Church accepts the child, not that the child accepts the Church. They may choose to accept us later, or not, that's their choice. But for now, today, we accept them, we say to them right at the beginning of life "you belong, you are not isolated, you are not separate, you are not alone. Your parents gave you this gift: they brought you into a community that spans the centuries and surrounds the globe. We hope you will accept us, but that is your choice."
WHY do we accept that child? Two reasons. First, we have no choice -- Jesus said "let the little children come unto me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs" (Mk. 10.14). That is the message of the stained glass windows in our Sears children's chapel.
The second reason is, I think, more profound theologically: I think that God's love, God's acceptance, God's grace, comes to us long before WE choose to acknowledge it. If baptism is a receipt of grace, of God's blessing, I don't think we need to earn it, to merit it, by our own affirmations and choices. Can I say it this way?: God loves us, even before we love God?
Perhaps I can put it this way to the child: you do not have to earn your right to be with us, you don't have to pass a test or sign a creed or make an affirmation of faith. In the words of the Old Testament: when I was weak and helpless, God chose me.
Now I respect those who argue against infant baptism, but I also see a convincing argument for infant baptism. Please accept that I have some passion here!
Another question: Does baptism wash away sin?
I wish it did. I wish it were so easy.
When it was primarily adults being baptized, baptism represented making a major change in one's life, dying to an old way of life and being born to a new life (that is the powerful symbolism of the Baptist's full immersion -- you go under the water, symbolically you die, and when you are brought up, you are born to new life!). For an adult, baptism as a choice can represent a true repentance, a turning-around. It would be disrespectful to deny the power of such choices.
But, for me at least, if infants have any "sin," it is just the reality of being human. Baptism is just a beginning, an initiation, and we hope and pray that the on-going influence of Sunday School classes, and Sunday sermons, and youth groups, and the teachers and friends that mentor our children, and God's grace, will make an impact on our kids that steer them toward the good and the true and the moral. It's not easy, and it takes a lot of work, and a lot of prayer.
A practical question: WHEN should a baptism be done?
Baptism is an entrance into the Christian community. If a child will be raised in our town, and go to church school here at First Parish, my preference is that they be baptized in front of the whole congregation (which is usually on Church School Sunday on the first or second Sunday of June, which allows our children to "see" what was done to them when they were infants). My reasoning here is that it is the church, the congregation, that really welcomes the child. In our tradition, the minister has no priestly power, but only acts as a representative of the gathered congregation.
However, having said that, there are times when -- because of family situations, for example, grandchildren living far away -- that a private baptism in the chapel is appropriate. My only request in such situations is that some lay member of the congregation be present to read the part of the service where the church "welcomes" the child -- perhaps that grandparent!
Another good question: why would Unitarians baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit?
I LOVE this kind of question! So, three answers.
First, you don't have to use those words, there are other options, even solid biblical options.
Second, many Unitarians have been fervently biblical, and would argue that those familiar three -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- are necessary to Christian faith but are not the doctrine of the Trinity. It depends on how they are put together. William Ellery Channing, the father of American Unitarianism, put it this way: "Some suppose that Trinitarianism consists in believing in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But we all believe in these. We all believe that the Father sent the Son, and gives to those that ask, the Holy Spirit." [Ahlstrom, 37]
But third, I think that when it comes to baptism, Unitarian Christians are not so much interested in theological debate as they are interested in simply doing "what the Church does." When I baptize a child, or an adult, I am not making a sectarian theological statement; I am simply, and profoundly, welcoming a soul into theChurch of Christ.
One last question: Do you HAVE to have your child baptized?
I like this question -- it gets to the heart of whether we are an authoritarian religion or a free religion.
NO -- you do not have to have your child baptized to participate in our church school or to be a full-fledged member of the First Parish Church in Weston. We have very few such rules here. The reason is that we are more concerned with the authenticity of your religious journey than we are with the "purity" of our religious profile!
But let me also say this: we don't require baptisms, but neither do we require that you give birthday parties for your kids. There are ceremonies that we offer -- because we think they are good and beneficial and rewarding -- but we do not require them.
Does that make sense to you? Do you understand this peculiar stance of a church that respects what you think, and respects your individual journey?
Do not misunderstand. We do not think the religious journey is private and individual. We know that we travel in communities. But we strive, valiantly, to keep the balance between individual and community, between tradition and innovation, between the one and the many.
So, there you are, my friends -- my take on "a brief theology of baptism" in a Unitarian Universalist Christian congregation.
Your comments and response are welcome. More importantly, your blessings on our babies are encouraged and welcomed!