The Baptism of Christ
Reading: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Today in the Church’s calendar we think of the Baptism of Christ and of how Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. Last year, for the Baptism of Christ, we read St Mark’s account of our Lord’s baptism. In the sermon, which is still available on both YouTube and as a podcast, I looked at the significance of our Lord’s baptism in the context of his own ministry. This year, I want to look at how today we approach baptism itself as we seek to follow our Lord’s example.
After Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, baptism in water became the means by which people professed their faith in Jesus and joined the Church. Simply put, the apostles and evangelists would proclaim the Gospel and those who wanted to respond in faith would be baptized in water and join the local community of believers.
This much, at least, everyone can agree on. After this, however, there are a whole host of questions about baptism over which there is anything but agreement. Three questions, in particular, stand out.
1. Did the early Church baptize young children?
Arguments about whether the early Church baptized infants divide both scholars and ordinary church members. The arguments at times get quite heated affecting as they do how we raise and regard our children. There are references to household baptisms in the New Testament, but no unambiguous statements that these households included children, even though supporters of infant baptism argue that logically they must have done so (see: Acts 16:16; 16:33; 18:8; 1 Corinthians 1:16; 16:15).
Why does it matter so much? It matters because for many baptism is about an individual’s own personal faith. Those who focus on the importance of an individual’s own faith argue that a person must believe for themselves if they are to be baptized in a Biblical way. Infants, by definition, are not able to exercise such faith. Others, however, argue that it is sufficient for the child’s parents to have faith, or even that the faith of the Church makes the baptism valid.
2. What happens in baptism?
Arguments about the relationship of faith and baptism lead to a related and even more fundamental question about what it is that is actually happening when a person is baptized. Is baptism primarily about someone professing their faith or is it something more? Is baptism solely about an individual’s own faith or is the community of faith, the Church, also involved?
Furthermore, is something happening spiritually to a person in baptism apart from what is happening to them physically with water? And if something is happening to them spiritually, what is the relationship, if any, between what happens to a person in baptism and the person’s faith? To put it another way: does what happens in baptism happen regardless of whether a person has their own faith?
3. What is the relationship between baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit?
In our Gospel reading, John the Baptist, in answer to people’s speculation that he is the Messiah, says:
‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ (Luke 3:16)
Following on from the question of what, if anything, happens in baptism is the question of what the relationship is between baptism with or in water and baptism with or in the Spirit. Is baptism in the Spirit same as water baptism? Or are they two distinguishable things, but which happen at the same time? Or are they two separate things so that, even if normally they happen at the same time, a person may, nevertheless, be baptized in water, but not be baptized in the Spirit? Many argue, for example, that our second reading this week suggests that water baptism and Spirit baptism are two different and separable things. The Samaritan believers had been baptized, St Luke tells us, but they had not yet received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:16).
Well, there are many more questions surrounding baptism, but these should at least give an indication of how difficult the subject is. There is no end of possible answers and combinations of answers, and different positions are held between the churches and within the churches.
To put it very basically, what I have been saying so far can be expressed in another three simple questions:
1. Is it OK to baptize babies?
2. Does baptism work regardless of whether a person has faith or not?
3. Is baptism with the Holy Spirit the same as baptism with water?
The questions themselves may be simple but answering them is not. The various answers to these questions touch on many wider issues, and what you think and believe about the wider issues will in turn affect how you answer the questions and vice versa! Some, perhaps most, are content to follow the practice of whichever church they happen to be in and leave the questions to those who take an interest in such things. For others, however, these questions and others like them cause a great deal of personal angst and heart-searching. These are questions that are anything but theoretical, and they simply cannot be ignored.
It was questions like these that kept me when I was young from becoming an Anglican and nearly prevented me from seeking ordination in the Anglican Church. So, when it comes to baptism, as the saying goes, ‘This time it’s personal!’ I hope, then, you will forgive me talking a bit about my own personal experience.
I was born at a time in the UK when most children were baptized as babies. Large numbers of people may have stopped going to Church regularly, but most people, nevertheless, thought of themselves as ‘Christians’, even if they had little idea as to what that meant. The phrase’ cultural Christian’ perhaps best describes them. They considered themselves Christians because they were born into what was still seen as a Christian country. It followed, or so they reasoned, that anyone born in a Christian country should be baptized. Baptism, then, was as much a cultural practice as a religious one, and most babies experienced it. I was myself baptized when I was just under two months old.
The UK was, however, in common with many western nations, going through a process of secularisation, a process which was only to accelerate in the years following my baptism. Not only did people no longer go to church, they were in the coming years increasingly to abandon Christian morality and to question the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith. This abandoning and questioning was happening, it has to be said, within the Church as well as outside of it.
All this, in turn, led to many in the Church asking what it meant to be a Christian and whether it was right to baptize babies of parents who clearly had no intention of bringing them up as Christians ‘within the family of the Church’. It led some to ask whether we should be baptizing children at all.
To add to the confusion, many, especially many who had themselves been baptized as children, claimed to have experienced a baptism in the Spirit. This was an experience which had changed their lives and transformed how they now looked on the Christian faith and belonging to the Church. A movement known as the ‘charismatic movement ‘was now underway.
Many who joined the movement stayed within the traditional mainline denominations. They believed that they should stay and work for renewal from within. Others disgusted by what they saw as the formality, traditionalism, and lifelessness of the established churches left to form new ones.
As someone who was part of all this, I can say that it was both a confusing and exciting time. It was also strangely a time of hope as those caught up in the charismatic movement sincerely believed that renewal was coming to the Church and to the nation.
There were those in the Church who believed that it was still possible to reverse the tide of secularism and win the nation back for Christ. Those who thought like this could not have been more wrong. There are still believers in the United States who think they can achieve there what their fellow believers were unable to achieve in Europe. The sooner they wake up to the reality of what has happened already in the West and to what is happening there, the better for everyone. But that is a subject for another day.
The point is that what someone believed about baptism came to take on symbolic significance. Those who insisted on faith for baptism to take place, even if it was the parents’ faith, saw themselves as standing for Biblical truth against those who were only interested in tradition or outward show. When I first went to theological college believing myself called to the ministry, I went as one who believed firmly in the need for faith before a person could be baptized. As priests in the Church of England are expected to baptize babies, it meant that I had real problems when it came to being ordained in the Church of England.
Well to cut an already too long story short, I eventually overcame my opposition to baptizing babies and reconciled myself to working in a branch of the Church that I had severe doubts about. But again, that is another subject for yet another day.
My experience, however, does mean that I am sensitive to the issues and problems surrounding water baptism. Hong Kong today may seem a world away from the UK I grew up in, but the questions about baptism remain the same and the issues surprisingly similar.
Because of the past influence of the Church of England in Hong Kong and given the Anglican Church’s involvement here in schools and education, many have grown up seeing themselves as Christians because they were educated in Christian schools. Many parents want their children to be baptized because they were themselves baptized or because they want their child to go to a Christian school - or both.
Yes, of course, there are those who get baptized because they have come to a deep and real faith in Christ. There are those who get their babies baptized because they genuinely want their child to grow up knowing Christ as a committed member of the Church. Others come to faith as a result of getting baptized, whatever their reasons may have been for getting baptized in the first place.
The numbers, however, speak for themselves. For the purposes of this sermon, I did a rough count of how many baptisms I have conducted since becoming the Vicar of Christ Church (2,267 to date). If only 10% of those who I have baptized in this time still came to Church, we would have real problems fitting everyone in! The vast majority of those I have baptized, however, don’t come to church as that was not why they got baptized or had their children baptized.
I am not suggesting that it is wrong to baptize people, whatever their age or reason for getting baptized may be. I do, however, want to be realistic and honest about the context in which we, as a church, minister and serve. We also need to appreciate the present social and cultural background to the questions that we have to answer concerning baptism.
So where does all this leave us as we think this week of the Baptism of Christ? As I have talked in this sermon about my own experience, perhaps I can conclude by describing where it leaves me.
Fundamentally, in describing what I personally believe now about baptism, I find myself where I was when I first began this journey. This may seem a strange thing for me to say given that I nearly didn’t get ordained because of what I believed back then. I am not, however, talking now about ordination, but baptism. When it comes to what I believe about baptism, I am still convinced of two fundamental points.
1. Faith and baptism belong together.
The New Testament simply does not allow either for the possibility of an unbaptized believer or for someone being baptized who does not believe. Both ideas are completely foreign to the New Testament. To believe is to be baptized; to be baptized is to believe. So close is the association between faith and baptism in the New Testament that what can be said about one can be said of the other. To put it another way: baptism is the outward sign of an inward reality, but the sign and the reality belong firmly together.
The social situation and circumstances of the New Testament writers was, however, very different to ours. The Church of the New Testament was a new movement starting from scratch. To grow, it had to convince pagans that it was worth them abandoning their religious, cultural, and historical customs and traditions while risking unpopularity, exclusion, and persecution in the process. In a context such as that of the early Church, you would only risk getting baptized if you did believe and took baptism seriously.
The New Testament writers may not have been able to envisage a separation of faith and baptism, they do, however, know of a separation of faith and works. John the Baptist had to warn those who came to him for baptism to bring ‘fruits worthy of repentance’ (Luke 3:8). St James, the brother of Jesus, warns his readers that ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2:17, 20). So, too, we may say, baptism without works is dead.
Leaving aside, then, what ideally should or should not be the case when someone is baptized, what is clear in the New Testament is what should be the case once a person hasbeen baptized. The baptized believer should have a living faith that shows itself in obedience, action, and commitment.
Just because a person has been baptized or claims to believe will not save them. Neither baptism nor faith will work on their own. Baptism and faith belong together, and both should lead to a life of faith and faithful commitment.
On a practical note: if someone didn’t have faith when they were baptized or isn’t living a life of faith, the remedy is simple: to have faith now and start living a life of faith. Make what should have been the case when you were baptized becomes the reality in your life now!
Now I would prefer to leave for another day the question of infant baptism, but I imagine that this would be seen as me dodging the question, so a few words about it here!
What we should do with the children of baptized believers is a problem whatever your view of infant baptism. Those who think that a child’s baptism should be delayed until the child is old enough to decide for themself also have to decide how the child is going to be brought up in the meantime. As I have said, from a New Testament perspective, there is no such thing as unbaptized believer. Does then this mean that our children are not fully part of the Church until such time that they are old enough to make the decision that they want to be baptized? Given how positive our Lord was in his welcome of children, I personally find this hard to accept.
But equally, those who do baptize children regardless of their age need to recognize that, again from a New Testament perspective, we should always look for faith when someone is baptized and for a life of faith afterwards. The idea that a child can be baptized (for whatever reason) and then not participate in the life of the Church is utterly foreign to the New Testament, and it should be to us.
Given that we do baptize children of any age at Christ Church, we need as the community of faith to take a child’s baptism seriously. A child’s baptism is also a commitment on our part to the child to do what we can to support both the child and their family as the child grows up, so that they grow up to know, love, and serve Christ as a full member of Christ’s body, the Church.
2. Baptism with or in the Spirit is not the same as baptism with or in water.
In the New Testament, baptism with water and baptism with the Spirit are closely related, but different. The liturgies we use assume that baptism and a person’s receiving of the Holy Spirit happen at the same time. Ideally, they should, but clearly this is not the case in practice.
In the New Testament, when a person is baptized with the Spirit, they know it. What is more, anyone who is with them at the time they are baptized with the Spirit also knows it. In the same way that there can be no doubt when someone is baptized with water, so too there should be no doubt when a person is baptized with the Holy Spirit.
This is why the apostles knew that the Samaritans had not received the Spirit. It is why St Paul can ask disciples at Ephesus whether they received the Spirit when they believed (Acts 19:2).
John the Baptist said that he baptized people with water, but One was coming who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire. Clearly water baptism and Spirit baptism are separate events for John. It is true that John’s baptism is not the same as Jesus’ baptism, but there are similarities and connections.
When the crowd on the Day of Pentecost asked St Peter what they needed to do, St Peter replied:
‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ (Acts 2:38)
Throughout the book of Acts there are four elements to how people should respond to the Gospel. They need to repent, believe, be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit. St Peter wanted all these to happen together there and then, but the different elements to their response could be distinguished conceptually. As we have seen, they could even be separated chronologically.
St Paul wrote to the believers at Corinth that he was thankful that he had only baptized a few of them because, he tells them, Christ did not send him to baptize but to preach the Gospel (1 Corinthians 1:14-17). God did not send Christ to baptize with water either. St John specifically tells us in his Gospel that Jesus did not baptize people. This is not because Jesus disapproved of water baptism. He encouraged his disciples to baptize people during his earthly ministry (John 3:22; 4:1-2) and commanded them to do so after his ascension to heaven (Matthew 28:19). It is rather because Jesus’ role is to baptize people not with water, but with the Holy Spirit. It is only when we are baptized with the Spirt that we have received the gift that faith makes possible and which baptism expresses.
The message to us then as we think about the Baptism of Christ is that we need to take seriously our response to the Gospel. While the questions about baptism are important, what matters most is our response to the Gospel and our receiving of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. On this the Baptism of Christ, we pray that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit those of us who have not yet been baptized with the Spirit and renew the baptism of those of us who have.