Thinking about it right now can still make me angry. I will confess to you this morning that it can consume me and be all I think about. When I tell you what this is you some of you will laugh and it does show my dorky preacher side, but it is true. It makes me angry that a person very close to me was baptized twice. In order to join the congregation her and her husband wanted to be a part of she had to be re-baptized. She had to do it their way, through submersion. She had to be slam dunked in the waters of baptism in order to be a member of this community of faith. She had already been baptized as an infant, merely sprinkled, just like I have and many of you. But to this congregation that didn’t matter because it wasn’t done in a certain way and after she became a believer. Only when she rose up from the depths of the water could she participate in the membership of this community. My gut burns when I think about this and I confess it makes me angry.
I’m working through my anger. Actually it has been good for me. It has been good because I have had to wrestle with why it makes me angry, why I get so emotional about it, and why this is something so important to me. I have been wrestling with this for a couple of months now and I am finding closure but God continues to work in me. God continues to place things in my life that make me think about this subject and fine tune my understanding of this Sacrament. As I read over the text today, my thoughts went back to this topic. Then as I read the Acts passage that Bobby read, it came back full force.
In Acts it looks like Paul does some rebaptizing. It seems the people of Ephesus had been baptized in the way of John the Baptist and not Jesus. Paul baptizes them again in the name of Jesus and they are filled with the Holy Spirit. As I read that, I thought, do I have it wrong, am I missing something here? As I prayed about what to say today and researched the passages I realized what I believe about baptism is still true and my soul can sleep at night. What do you believe about baptism? Is it important to you and why? Has anyone asked you about why you baptized your children or why your parents baptized you? Do you know the reason behind it all?
My sister called me up a couple of months after the birth of her first child. Ellie had been dedicated the Sunday before at their church. Because they go to a Baptist church, a denomination that doesn’t believe in infant baptism, my niece was dedicated, not baptized. My sister called me because she was confused. She said it didn’t feel powerful or that meaningful. She said it lacked the energy that she had felt when she grew up watching baptism at our home church, a United Methodist Church. I told her, with all my compassionate and love, ‘that’s because it wasn’t a sacrament.’
The United Methodist Church has two sacraments, Eucharist (aka: Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper) and Baptism. There are other denominations that have more. Catholics have 8, but here in the United Methodist Church we have two, Communion and Baptism. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an invisible and inward grace. It is physical ways we can come in contact with God or as John Wesley referred to it, it is a ‘means of grace.’ Our Book of Discipline explains baptism like this, “Baptism is God’s gift of unmerited grace through the Holy Spirit. It is an incorporation into Christ which marks the entrance of each person into the church and its ministry.” When we participate in this sacrament we are opening ourselves to accept “God’s unfailing grace.”
If baptism is a means by which we can come face to face with God then why shouldn’t we do it more often, like communion? The simple answer is, because God got it right the first time. We, in the UMC, don’t believe in re-baptism because of what we believe happens at baptism. To get a good picture at what we believe we go to when Jesus was baptized. Mark’s gospel is like the reader’s digest version of the gospels. Mark is short, to the point and fast paced. There is not nativity scene in Mark. Mark opens up his gospel and in the first 11 verses, John the Baptist’s ministry is explained and Jesus is baptized. It takes Matthew and Luke three whole chapters to get to that. Yet, the same thing happens in all three gospels when Jesus is baptized. Jesus enters the Jordan River, is baptized and as they state, “as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
What do we learn from this though? We learn that baptism is more about the grace received than the faith that comes from it. When the heavens opened up and God speaks, he is acknowledging that he is with Jesus. God claims Jesus as his own. The same is true at our baptisms. When we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit we are recognizing and professing that God’s grace is upon this child of God. Baptism is a sign of the general provenience of God’s grace and this is true whether baptism happens in childhood or adulthood. There is so much grace that is given in this sacrament that it doesn’t matter how old you are, you will not completely understand it. As the General Board of Discipleship states, “Since God is the only initiator and source of grace, all grace is prevenient in that it precedes and enables any movement that we can make toward God.” By no means should a person be re-baptized, because no matter what, God’s grace is perfect although the one being baptized is not.
We believe that faith comes after the acknowledgement of God’s grace in ones life, not that acknowledgement then allows grace to come in. We call that Prevenient Grace, the grace from God that comes before us and is in our lives whether we acknowledge it or not. This is why we follow up a child’s Christian growth with confirmation in the UMC. In and around the 6th grade we remind our students what happened at their baptism, or what will happen if they hadn’t been baptized yet. Because the Holy Spirit implants a notion of a baptized inheritance in them at one’s baptism, confirmation brings forth a better understanding of that inheritance, for baptism is a lifelong process of growing into Christ. It is the job of the family and the church to raise the child in such a manner that faith is taught and learned by the baptized and that is exactly what we promise during that sacrament.
Baptism also welcomes people into membership of the faith community. For United Methodist’s, baptism is necessary to join the church. We don’t say you have to be baptized in a certain way, or even by a UM clergy person. We just say you need to have been baptized. This is because baptism is the welcoming of a person into the Body of Christ, the Body of Believers, the Church, so faith can grow as a result of life within that community through the grace of God.
When we had those three baptism in a row in Advent, I explained to each person, Melissa who is an adult, Dylan who is an infant, and Gabe who is a child, that we are here as a community of faith to help them grow in their faith and get through life.
Baptism doesn’t equal salvation and it is not necessary for salvation either. Grace is given to us before we are baptized because of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and his defeat of death. That is the reason we are saved from death and can be with God once again. When I was in undergrad at Montreat College I spent one summer volunteering at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte, as a chaplain. That summer I took two night on-call shifts. The first night I spent on call nothing happened. The second night though, at about 2 AM, my beeper went off and I was called down to their Matthew’s location. When I arrived, I learned that a person was brought into the emergency room but had died on the way. His wife wanted someone to come and pray over the body. There I stood, 20 years old, scared out of my mind as I held her hand and placed my other on the dead man’s shoulder. We prayed together for his life that he shared with his wife and children and for the grace and love that wrapped him up now. After the prayer she asked me to baptize him because she didn’t know if he was baptized. I told her I was only 20 years old and a student and that a “real clergy person” would be here in a couple of hours. I learned later that I could have baptized him because he had already gone and in that case it was only to give peace to the living. My mentor in the ordination process reminded me that baptism is not necessary for salvation but can bring peace to those who are mourning
For Jesus, his baptism marked the start of his earthly ministry. It was a holy moment where God spoke and claimed him as his Son. For me the best moment I have had in ministry was when I baptized my son. When I held Dean in my arms and placed the water on his head I felt the Holy Spirit moving in that moment. I was overwhelmed in that moment and it took everything I had to through my tears utter the words, “Dean Kenneth, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Dean won’t remember a thing from that, but I promised I would tell him about it and share that experience with him when he gets old enough to understand. I am so looking forward to baptizing my daughter and I’ll tell you right now, bring some tissues.
The sacrament of baptism is a place where we meet God’s grace face to face. It is a place where the love of God is expressed and experienced. There is nothing like it in this world. It is time when we are welcomed into the family of faith and God looks down on us and says, “This is my child with whom I am well pleased.” The next time we have a baptism I hope you will realize the power, love and grace that is there in that moment. Each time I have my hand on a person’s head and water is dripping down over their hair and face, and I say those words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” I can feel God’s presence in real and tangible ways, and I pray you do to.
And all of God’s people said…Amen.