Going Deeper with Christ

This is the testimony I gave at Eastview last week, just prior to receiving immersion as an affirmation of my baptism. For anyone who knows the Caleb model mentioned last week, it takes the form of five "story modules".

In May 1951, at a Presbyterian church near Wanganui, the Reverend Alexander Archibald baptised a baby girl. Her parents Bill and Tui McLeay lived in the Manse next door to the church, and had asked Mr Archibald to come over from St James and baptise the first of what would be their family of five children. They were keen to introduce their little daughter Vivian to the family of God, to celebrate God’s grace already at work in her life, and to dedicate themselves as Christian parents to raising her to know God’s love and presence. They declared their own faith in Christ as Saviour and Lord, and their trust that in time she would come to know him in that personal way as well. When Mr Archibald baptised me – for of course that was my infant self – he declared that I was “engaged to be Christ’s faithful soldier and servant to my life’s end.” And apparently he sprinkled lots of water on my head, perhaps a hint of the place that the waters of baptism would play in my spiritual journey.

My Mum and Dad followed through on those promises. We read the Bible, prayed as a family and attended church every week of the year even on holiday. I came to know Jesus as a friend I could talk to, as the Saviour who had died for me, and as the Risen One who promised all could share his Life. In time, at an Easter camp, I would receive that Jesus I already knew, to be Resident Boss in my life. I shared that decision with friends and family in a public service of confirmation later that year. The “engagement” declared by Alex Archibald was now a committed union between Lord and servant, and would soon be followed by a powerful call to ministry. I am indeed, by God’s grace, his faithful solder and servant to my life’s end.

In August 1974 I was in a classroom at Otago University arguing with one of my professors. This was a regular occurrence in that final year of my theological studies, because my training as a Presbyterian minister had raised an issue that was a bit of a sticking point. That issue was baptism. Presbyterians have always included the children of believers in the sacrament of baptism. The ritual declares the gospel of God’s undeserved grace to the child and looks forward to a personal profession of faith which Presbyterians call Effectual Calling. Historically, infant baptism in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions meant something slightly different, but the Reformers kept it because they wanted to signify the profound truth that the children of believers are not little pagans, and that God is reaching out to them before they can even speak. By 1974 I had read the entire Bible and many works of theology, and had come to the view that the Presbyterian view of baptism, as being mostly about God’s action rather than our response, is not the most obvious reading of Scripture. My debates in theology class recognised that the main arguments for infant baptism come from the Hebrew theology of covenant and circumcision, as well as a small number of ambiguous references to the baptism of households in Acts. The rest of the New Testament shows baptism and its rich symbolism of life and death, dying and rising, as a sign of faith and commitment to Christ and his church, closely following personal conversion. I felt a little sad that I had not had the opportunity to make my profession of faith in that dramatic way, and determined that when my new husband and I had children, we would dedicate rather than baptise them.

I often described myself as Baptyterian, and I'm thankful thaT these days there are special provisions in the Presbyterian Church for ministers who for reasons of conscience do not want to baptise infants. But in 1974, the rules were clear. If I felt called to serve as a minister in the Presbyterian church, I must be prepared to baptise the children of believers. Was this going to be a deal breaker? I spent much of that year prayerfully working through the issue with the help of scholars like Joachim Jeremias, Kurt Aland and George Beasley Murray. I came to see the infant baptism case as a rich and valid alternative reading of scripture, and a pastoral opportunity to engage in spiritual conversations with people who brought their babies to church. Even though our children were not to be baptised, I was delighted to offer this resounding declaration of the gospel to those who, understanding its full significance, asked that their little ones receive it. Interestingly, I had no thought that I needed to be rebaptised, for at that time such a notion was deeply offensive to Presbyterians.

In 1983, I joined a group of Presbyterians at (small town) Baptist Church. We were there to witness the baptism of my friend and fellow elder B. He had been baptised a baby, but through the charismatic renewal had come to the conviction that he also needed to receive full immersion. He had booked the Baptist church with its inbuilt pool, and asked the pastor of (Pentecostal) Fellowship to baptise him. This was in fact an early step on his journey to becoming the leader of that church, where he still serves as pastor. It was a very joyful, moving service, though I was irked that the Pentecostal pastor made no reference to the long history of faith that had gone before, and the fact that Brian’s parents had taken the first step for him in his infant baptism. He performed the ritual as though Brian was a new convert, not an elder of the church. I found myself thinking, maybe I should do this too. Not to reject what my parents had done for me, but to round it out to its fuller meaning. Then the pastor said, "Well folks, here is water, and we have towels and spare dry clothes, Is God calling anyone else to go through the waters tonight?" Are you, Lord? I wondered. Is that invitation for me? I dithered for a few moments. Then I sensed quite a clear answer. No Viv, when I call you to receive this sign, it will be in your own church, with your own family around, and with your own understanding of its truth. OK. Not now.

In October 2006, I completed my term as minister as St Andrew's Howick. Over twelve and half years I had baptised dozens of little ones, using carefully-chosen wording that made it really clear this rite does not make the child a Christian, but looks forward to personal faith. It is the Church’s way of saying – just as we have done in J’s dedication today – that a little one is welcome to the circle of Gods family, and is promised every opportunity at home and in church to meet the Jesus in whose name they were baptised. I always used the term baptism, not the misleading "christening", because I saw a clear connection between the little bit of water we use on a tiny baby and the large amount of water we use when we baptise a believer. Because of course Presbyterians, like every other tradition, baptise new converts on confession of faith, and always have, although full immersion was not always used. Today it very often is, and for confirmation and affirmation as well. Over the last thirty or so years, many mainline churches have seen the need for dramatic meaningful public celebration of personal faith and discipleship. Baptists of course have known that for four hundred years! So these days, even people who have received infant baptism can use the water sign and be immersed as a seal of their decision to follow Christ. In my time at Howick it was also my privilege to baptise dozens of believers, aged from 11 to 70, in pools, tanks, lake and ocean. Some, like my daughter, had been dedicated as babies, but others were already baptised. Each time we were careful to use promises and pronouncements that respected the work of the Spirit who had prompted parents to bring their children for baptism years before. I have loved these services, each time I have got thoroughly wet, and given thanks that I am baptised, and have embraced the sign and seal of that wonderfully rich symbol in my own life of faith. And I never forgot my hunch that one day I too would get drenched from head to toe in the name of Christ.

In May 2011, I was participating in a time of worship at Eastview Baptist Church. It was a service of believers’ baptism, and I had been privileged, as I have been a number of times here at Eastview, to have prepared the three candidates who were professing their faith that day. Each, I had learned, had a unique spiritual journey, and two had actually received the water sign in their childhood. We had talked as a group about the process of becoming a fully devoted follower of Christ, and how different components come together differently for each individual. I used the image of a jigsaw puzzle to describe how for some, the water sign in used early on in the faith journey, and how for others, their watery declaration of faith accompanies, or even follows a long time after, their decision for Christ. And I had devoted one of the four sessions to a summary of two thousand years of church history and explaining the background to our Baptist denomination. It was great to hear these women give a testimony to God’s work in their lives.

As we sang the lovely worship songs that day, God and I had a prayer conversation. It ranged over the memories I have shared with you today, about the importance of the water sign and the place baptism holds in the New Testament. I was particularly reminded of two Scriptures – Jesus saying his baptism was not for him a sign of repentance but “proper” as an identification with his people and “to fulfil all righteousness”. And the Ethiopian saying to Philip, “look here is water, what is to prevent me being baptised?” I thought of the fact that my parents are getting on in years, and how nice it would be for them to know that immersion for me is not a rejection of their promises, but another step on the lifelong journey of faith. The word that came quite clearly into my mind was Alignment. I’m serving in a Baptist church, where a high value is placed on this ordinance in the life of believers. People have died for their belief in this form of baptism; in the sixteenth century Anabaptists who held to it were routinely hunted down and executed through drowning, which was mockingly called “the third baptism”. Although I am grateful that Eastview has an open membership policy that allows people baptised as infants to be voting members, I have sometimes wondered if we take this historic Baptist distinctive too lightly. Here I am teaching people at Eastview about this important step, and explaining that it can be received at any stage of the faith journey, and haven’t actually been under the water myself. And I remembered the key phrase I have often used to explain this ceremony – that it is a commitment to go deeper with Christ.

The outcome of that prayer conversation in May is that here I am, with my family, my church, and my understanding of this rich symbol - both sign and seal – and I do indeed want to go deeper with Christ.