On this particular Sunday, it is Pentecost Sunday, we are here once again to worship God. This is how we begin each week. But on this special Sunday we are also here to baptize and receive new members into our covenant community. This is quite something. It is an important day for those who will be baptized. It is also a sign of encouragement to the rest of us. God’s Spirit, that member of the Trinity who filled and emboldened the early church, is still at work.
As you probably know, at many times and places Christians have been baptized as infants. This is an understandable practice. It’s an expression of God’s grace. It shows that it isn’t so much we who choose God as God who chooses us. There is beauty and biblical integrity in that. As Anabaptists, though, we baptize people when we believe them mature enough to take responsibility for their faith. It’s not that we can ever know the full implications of such a life-time commitment. We can’t. Yet, it’s this practice that we see most clearly reflected in Scripture. Such a practice is also deeply important in a culture where we can’t make any assumptions about someone remaining in the church, even if they were born into it. We also believe that because we deliberately take a step to join the church, we can expect things of each other that we wouldn’t expect of just anyone.
There are two sides to baptism as we practice it. The most obvious is that baptism is a statement of the faith of the one being baptized. This ancient ritual is the way Christians for thousands of years have expressed their identification with Jesus. The decision to be baptized, as Jesus says in Matthew 28, signals our intent to apprentice ourselves in the way of Jesus. So Jesus commands his followers to go into every nook and cranny in the world and invite people into his way of life. Baptism is a response to this invitation. It is a choice. It is an action of those who are baptized.
I’m often asked why it’s important for someone who wants to follow Jesus to be baptized. The assumption by the questioner is that we should be able to follow Jesus in whatever way we want. That is a correct assumption of course. You can follow Jesus, or whomever, in whatever way you want. Unless—you want to join the community of Jesus’ disciples. Unless you want to follow Jesus’ own example. Unless you want to be a part of this Spirit-led thing we see in the books of Acts.
Doesn’t it seem odd that we would get to determine the terms of being Jesus’ apprentices? We don’t think this way in most parts of our lives, at least not in the ones we believe actually matter. We don’t hire teachers who simply decide on their own that they are teachers. We hire teachers who go to teacher’s college and get credentialed. The same goes for heavy equipment operators, engineers, nurses and just about anyone else we think is doing something that could be done wrong. We want to know that they have submitted to the discipline of their trade. So baptism is a choice, but it is also an act of humility.
Baptism says, with Paul in Colossians 2, “I don’t want to be taken captive by empty ideas or deceitfulness, even if it’s my own preference. But I want to be formed into the likeness of the one in whom the fullness of God dwells.” And I know that passage to be part of the story of at least one of the people we will welcome today.
So baptism is a statement of those who choose it. However, as you’ll notice in a few minutes, the main actor in the rite of baptism itself is not the individual who choose it. The most obvious actor is you, the church.
The Christian community acts through each individual who supports and welcomes these new members in our covenant community. Baptism is the church’s way of welcoming new members of Christ’s body. With Paul in Romans 6, we say that to be united with Christ (welcomed into this body) is to die to an old way of being, immersed in the water, drowned, and then to be made alive again, raised up to a new way of life. In welcoming new members through baptism and through the embrace of fellowship, what we the church are saying is, “yes, we recognize in you the signs of faith.”
And that is itself a part of God’s grace. In this water and in this welcome is the grace of the One who knows each of us inside and out. It is the grace of the One who, as the poet of the Psalter says, knows when we sit and when we stand, knows even our thoughts. This passage of scripture, Psalm 139, has been important to one of people we will be receiving today. In baptism we experience through our senses the gracious welcome and love of our all-knowing and ever-loving Creator. It is a privilege to be a part of that, is it not?
The ancient church, at least after is early disorderly years, tended to baptize new members on either Easter or Pentecost. Easter was chosen because the process of baptism retells the death and resurrection story. Pentecost was chosen because a part of being welcomed into the church is being welcomed into a community on which we believe the Spirit has descended. Mennonites might not be as obvious about it as some, but we do believe that in and through our life together the Spirit is at work.
The idea that the Spirit is at work in what we do here is an audacious claim, especially if you’ve ever been in the nursery during the service or cleaned up after a pot-luck. The work of the Spirit can look like a mess. So to help us recognize the Spirit’s work ancient Christians would also anoint the newly baptized with oil. We will do that today too. Anointing is a very old symbol, drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures. It symbolizes God’s blessing and God’s calling. As Anabaptists we believe that each and every one of us is called to participate in the reconciling ministry of Jesus. In our baptisms we are ordained.
Several years ago I preached a baptism sermon at a little church on the Alberta prairies. What struck me then and what sticks with me still is that baptism is an act of rebellion. In a world where we don’t want to make commitments, we will ask these who will be baptized and all those who will become covenant members to make a commitment to Jesus and to his church. We expect this commitment not to be a passing fancy. We expect it to be a vow that shapes every decision these people make from this point until the time their bones are laid to rest in the earth or given over to the consuming fire. In a world run by things that are built to break our concentration, to make us change our minds, such an intention of consistency is rebellious.
Furthermore, in an increasingly fragmented society we are welcoming people who we know bring gifts . . . and problems. And they join a group that they know—for sure—is imperfect and frustrating. To intentionally do such a thing, to identify with the impure in this way, is rebellious. Finally, baptism is a rebellion against the usual way of things because we know it will be costly. Jesus will ask us for our time, maybe at some moments for our dignity and maybe at some moments for our sense of imperviousness. We will feel that today, baptizing, being baptized, watching a baptism—it all feels strange, for just those reasons.