The Drama of Baptism

What an inspiring service we shared this weekend as a young man confessed his faith in Christ by going through the waters of baptism. I say "young man" despite S. being only twelve years old, because he testified to a robust personal faith that has been emerging over eight years. As I shared several weeks of prebaptism class with him, I was reminded more than once of the young Jesus of Nazareth, visiting Jerusalem with his parents and becoming embroiled in deep discussion with the leaders of the Temple. S is not naive about the faith; he knows there will be doubts and questions, mistakes and muckups on this lifelong journey to which he has committed himself. But he has a pretty clear understanding of the gospel, and how the death of Christ restores relationship between us and God, and his resurrection brings God's very Spirit into our daily life. In his testimony on Sunday, he paid tribute to his Christian upbringing and celebrated the fact that he had come to a personal faith before his beloved grandad passed away some years ago. He also acknowledged that it was a challenge for both his parents and the church pastor when more than a year ago he asked to be baptised.

The apostles seem to have baptised on the spot, in response to a confession of faith; see, for example, Lydia, the Philippian jailer and the Ethiopian eunuch. It is likely, however, that these folk had at the very least some grounding in the biblical worldview. And even the apparently simple New Testament confession 'Jesus is Lord' carries a weighty semantic burden, its referents including emperors, employers and the Hebrew shorthand for the unpronounceable name of God. Quite early in the church's history, a preparation process - catechesis - was put in place. Seekers who were ready to say "I believe" were enfolded into the life of the worshipping congregation, and undertook a process of training and mentoring that seems to have been considerably more thorough than many a present-day 'new Christians' class. This preparation for baptism was deemed necessary to ensure the sincerity of conversion, and to address the many theological disputes of the era. Kreider notes that second-century converts were much more likely to be coming straight out of pagan culture, and time was needed to "incarnate the teachings and practice of the faith."

Today different church traditions take a variety of views about the depth of understanding required for baptism. Eighty percent of the world's Christians belong to traditions that baptise infants, seeing the faith as something that begins in the life of the Christian family, or in some cases, that can be intitiated by a sacramental act of the Church. Others, like our Baptist church, prefer to use the water sign at a later stage, when the individual can make a personal statement of faith. This is usually accompanied by a period of catechesis, and so too is the rite of confirmation which, for many of the paedobaptist churches, is the believer's rite of passage into full communion and church membership.

Interestingly there is a convergence on some of these issues today. The Roman Catholic church, which used to take such an instrumental view of infant baptism that the child was rushed from the hospital to the font, now defers baptism when there is no "founded hope" of a Christian upbringing. Later, when the child is seven, they are seen to be of an age where they can appropriate the faith for themselves and be baptised on their own confession. At the other end of the liturgical spectrum we have Mennonite Brethren, who are firmly of the view that only believers should be baptised, but who have in recent years also baptised children aged six or younger. What seems to be at stake is the willingness of church authorities to baptise a child whose commitment to follow Christ is articulated at a level appropriate for their age and stage of faith.

Catechesis then, would need to take into account these factors. There is little point in subjecting a six year old to 52 weeks of teaching such as that the South African Reformed Church requires of catechumens. But in my view baptising simply on request, with no training whatever, demeans what should be a deeply meaningful public statement of loyalty to Christ and his church. No wonder many, who were baptised at an age when they were too young to remember, later feel resentful that this wonderfully symbolic act had been preempted for them by their parents, some of whom had nothing further to do with the church.

In our local congregation, we have quite a rich theology and praxis for infant dedication. When a little one is welcomed into the circle of God's family, they are not only blessed, and supported in Christian nurture, but the gospel truth of God's love, forgiveness and freedom is proclaimed into their life in a way which is more than symbolic. The church itself is the sacrament, and the means of making Christ's presence tangible for them as individuals. That's why, when we dedicated a wee girl on Sunday, we also promised to "be the gospel" for her and her parents, in a continuing way. One of our ladies, not a mother herself, asked me what she could possibly mean by assenting to that. I reminded her of how she has been part of congregational decision-making to employ a children's and families' pastor, and to offer a robust programme of Christian education to our young ones from age three. I suggested that her weekly offerings directly contribute to these ministries. And I told her that in every worship service she has the opportunity to welcome the little ones, and to choose not to be upset or disturbed if there's an extra voice during a prayer or a toddler running up the aisles.

When S. first asked to be baptised, the leadership was bewildered. In a church where we prize the rite of baptism as an adult decision - and where these days the age of catechumens is often well past twenty - what do we say to a lad of eleven, who knows his Bible and wants to profess his faith in a biblical manner? Last year was a difficult year for us, and it seemed easier to procrastinate. But this year we grasped the nettle and tested his readiness. I have prepared dozens of teens and adults for profession of faith, and I found this one as ready as any of them, even more so after four weeks of theology and church history from me! As he went under the waters, we proclaimed into his life that same gospel truth of God's love, forgiveness and freedom we had offered the wee baby, and, in my view anyway, also promised to "be the gospel" for him as over the years he learns what it means to be an adult follower of Christ.

I'm glad we said yes, for in many ways that young man already "incarnates the teaching and practice of the faith" and his baptismal testimony was inspiring to all of us.

To Chew Over: What does baptism mean to you? How do you incarnate the teaching and practice of the faith?

O Jesus, I have promised to serve Thee to the end;
Be Thou forever near me, my Master and my Friend;
I shall not fear the battle if Thou art by my side,
Nor wander from the pathway if Thou wilt be my Guide.

O let me feel Thee near me! The world is ever near;
I see the sights that dazzle, the tempting sounds I hear;
My foes are ever near me, around me and within;
But Jesus, draw Thou nearer, and shield my soul from sin.

O let me hear Thee speaking in accents clear and still,
Above the storms of passion, the murmurs of self will.
O speak to reassure me, to hasten or control;
O speak, and make me listen, Thou Guardian of my soul.

O Jesus, Thou hast promised to all who follow Thee
That where Thou art in glory there shall Thy servant be.
And Jesus, I have promised to serve Thee to the end;
O give me grace to follow, my Master and my Friend.
J Bode.