Thursday, January 15, 2015

Why Do We Baptize Infants?


Genesis 1:1-5 Psalm 29 Acts 19:1-7 Mark 1:4-11

Today on the First Sunday after Epiphany we celebrate a key moment in salvation history, the Baptism of our Lord. Here at Christ Church, we are also celebrating the baptism of Abigail and Isaac. It is certainly an exciting day, not only in the life of the Stromberg and Cadwalader family, but also in the life of our parish. Today Abigail and Isaac are joined with us in the Body of Christ and as members of our covenant family, the Church. There is however a difference between our two candidates for Holy Baptism. Abigail comes to us as a young woman who is able—in at least some sense—to grasp the commitment she is making. She is of an age where she is able to confess her faith in Christ and pronounce her baptismal vows herself. Isaac, on the other hand, is only a tiny infant. Unlike Abigail he is not yet able to pronounce the vows himself, and so as his parents and God parents, we will take vows on his behalf and with God’s help do our best to teach him the meaning of his baptism and instruct him in the truth of the Gospel. 

Many of you may have come to faith in a tradition that baptized only those, like Abigail, who are old enough to make their own confession of faith. The question of whether or not we should baptize infants is one of the many issues that divide the various Christian denominations. During the season of Epiphany, our sermons here at Christ Church are focusing on tough questions that members of our congregation struggle with. It seems an appropriate time to address this particular question of why we baptize infants.

The first thing we need to say is that the baptism of the children of believers has been the established practice from the earliest days of the Church. The book of Acts tells us that in the apostle’s days whole households received baptism, which presumably included infant children as well. Also in acts, when Peter urges the people to be baptized he says, “For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord calls to him" (Acts 2:38-39). Some would argue that Peter meant only the Children old enough to make their own confession, but he himself makes no such qualification.

The great protestant reformer John Calvin makes the argument that Baptism is the new covenant fulfillment of the Old Testament practice of circumcision in which infants were included. Both are the means of initiation into the covenant family. He asks, is the Old covenant more merciful than the New Covenant? It is a good point especially given the fact that baptism is in every other way more inclusive than circumcision. Only Jewish males were circumcised in the old covenant, but baptism includes male and female, Jew and gentile. 

You may be thinking, “Doesn’t our reading today make it clear, however, that baptism is meant exclusively for mature believers?” After all Mark tells us that John was proclaiming a baptism of repentance and that those who were baptized by him in the river Jordan confessed their sins. How can an infant confess their sins? What exactly would a tiny baby need to repent of anyway?

Allow me to address the second question first. It is the consensus of the church that scripture teaches that all of us are born with the stain of original sin. It is a bit like a child born to drug addicted mother. The infant is born with that drug addiction, even though she herself is not responsible for it. She inherits the consequences of her mother’s bad choices. Likewise all us are inheritors of the consequences of the original sin of our ancient parents. Even as infants we are in bondage to sin and so we need the cleansing and regenerating power of baptism to heal and deliver us. If infants have the sickness isn’t it wrong to deny them the medicine?

So how can Infants repent of their sins? Well strictly speaking, they can’t. At least until they are old enough to take responsibility for themselves, they must rely on the vows made by their parents and God parents on their behalf to renounce sin and turn to Christ. “How can this be?” you ask, “Isn’t repentance and obedience something we must do for ourselves?” Well, yes and no. We do need to repent of our sins and turn in obedience to Christ, but that is never a work we ourselves achieve in our own strength.

Why is it that Christ presented himself for baptism despite the fact that he alone among the whole human race was completely free of the power of sin? The answer is, he did it for our sake. In his baptism, Jesus acted in obedience to his Father, renouncing the power of sin over us, and submitting himself to death in order that he may be raised up to new life for our forgiveness and justification. There is a vicarious nature to every baptism, not just those of infants, because we are all baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our faithfulness in empowered by Jesus’ perfect righteousness at work in us through the power of the spirit. Even our faith in Jesus is only possible through that same spirit within us. This is why our promises made in Holy Baptism are punctuated with the statement, “with God’s help.” All of this demonstrates, “That we love God because he first loved us.”

We are not saved by our repentance alone. We need the righteousness of Jesus. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but it wasn’t enough. It was a mere symbol, a type of what was to come. He himself told the people, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Our epistle reading today from Acts also tells us that those who were baptized by John had need of another baptism in the name of Jesus. The baptism that Jesus commanded his disciples to perform in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is more than a mere symbol. It has the power to inwardly transform us through uniting us to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The Gospel is good news for tiny babies as much as adults because Christ died for them too. We baptize them into his name as a sign and seal of the redemption he purchased for them. One of my heroes, the Anglican theologian, F.D. Maurice wrote,

“Infant Baptism has been a witness for the Son of Man and the universality of His kingdom, like no other. It has taught parents that to bring children into the world is not a horrible crime. It has led them to see Christ and His redemption of humanity through all the mists of our teachings and our qualifications. It has explained the nature of His Kingdom to the hearts of the poorest.”

The Gospels tell us that many in Jesus’ day brought their infants to him so that he might bless them. When his disciples tried to chase them away, Jesus rebuked them and said something startling, “whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.” What does this mean? I think part of what Jesus meant was this, “If you think you are more worthy of my attention than these infants you are wrong.  You think you are independent and capable but you are not. If only you realized that you are as helpless and incapable of coming to me as these tiny babies. You need to be carried by someone stronger. You are utterly dependent on another. It is only when you realize this that the kingdom will be yours.”

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