Baptism is one of the two sacraments recognized as such by the Methodist church. Maybe it’s because we don’t talk about sacraments enough, or maybe it’s because the Baptists have done such a good job making their case in many regions of the country, but many people are a bit foggy on the whole idea. What’s more, why do we perform it with infants!? Here are the three things you need to know to clear the muddy waters.
1. It is an everyday mystery:
To understand the sacraments, one has to start with the fact that these sacraments share in a profound mystery; however, the mystery is a common one that each person experiences every day of their life. We are both spiritual beings and physical beings. Most people can easily point to a place where they experienced something spiritual: a divine encounter at a camp, the Bible giving clarity to a problem, or a friend speaking truth into our lives out of the blue. Likewise, we can see our physicality clearly. We get hungry; we need sleep.
Yet, we don’t experience life as if we are two people. We don’t experience life as two personalities; we experience life as a single being. That is a great mystery, and that is the mystery of the sacraments. The bread and wine of communion and the waters of baptism are definitely physical things, but there is something happening there that is beyond the water, bread, and wine. It is something spiritual.
2. Circumcision for the New Testament:
The sacrament of baptism begins before the baptism itself. Before we are baptized, we experience the grace of God. Even before we choose to follow God, God calls out to us; he extends his wooing grace to us. Baptism is the culmination of the wooing grace of God, it is a celebration of that grace.
What happens in baptism? What is the point? I think the simplest way to understand it is by looking at the baptism of Jesus.After Jesus goes into the water and comes back up, the heavens open up and God speaks. He says, “This is my son, whom I love…” (Mt 3:17) that is what baptism is. Baptism is the sacrament by which we are included in the body of Christ. It is the sacrament by which we are recognized as sons and daughters of God.
This is not a new thing. In the Old Testament, God makes his covenant with Abraham, and it is sealed with the sign of circumcision. From that point on there was an interesting conversation had with any guy who decided to become a follower of Yahweh: “There’s good news and bad news: you will be part of the family of god and be part of God’s blessing to all the nations, but you are going to have to have a little surgery before it’s official.” Circumcision confirms the covenant, and includes new people into that covenant.
Baptism does everything for us that circumcision did for the people of Israel. By the sacrament of baptism we are included into the body of Christ with all that means and implies. It is through our inclusion in his body that we can share in his death and resurrection.
3. Beginning and Ending for Infants
The interesting thing about Jesus’ baptism with John is that it begins with John but is not complete until years later when he dies and is resurrected (check out Luke 12:50). That idea is the key to understanding infant baptism. We believe that, just like the covenant with Abraham, the seal of the covenant is for the children of believers as well as adults who want to become part of the body of Christ.
Children are incorporated into the body of Christ as the parents and the church covenant to be the agents of God’s grace wooing the child to God so that one day the child can confirm the covenant through their own decision. In infant baptism, the sacrament begins in baptism and is completed in confirmation.
The reason we do not rebaptize in confirmation is because it is not about our actions. We don’t have within us what is required to deal with sin. The only person who can deal with sin is God. That means that the sacraments are a divine act, not a human one. The fact that we didn’t get chill bumps or don’t remember it because we were too young has nothing to do with the power of God. He is both faithful and powerful. When he does something, he doesn’t have to redo it later to make sure it took.
Bonus – Infant Dedication:
Depending on which part of the country you live in, you may have to deal with the question of whether or not the Methodist church will dedicate babies. The short answer is: No. But, the best response I have seen is actually on the church’s FAQ about baptism. Check it out here.
Jeremy Steele has been working in youth ministry for the past fifteen years and now serves as the Next Generation Minister at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, AL. He writes for Group Magazine, RETHINK Church and various publications and organizations. You can find a link to all the places he contributes on his website at JeremyWords.com.