During a Community Lenten Worship Series this year, I made some remarks about baptism. Essentially, I had stated that baptism really wasn’t about the water — but that water used in baptism was, quoting Reformation leader Martin Luther, “a visible sign of an invisible grace” and that it represented God’s love being shown and God’s spirit being displayed.
I thought I would revisit this by explaining the Presbyterian understanding of baptism and especially why we baptize people no matter what their age, from infant on up.
Tom Walker, pastor of Palms Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., discovered an overstuffed shoebox in the back of a closet in his mother’s apartment. Inside were letters recording four years of correspondence between his parents and an adoption agency. The letters ended in February 1962 — the month of his birth and adoption. Four years of expectation and hassle, of yearning and hard work, of dutiful preparation and burgeoning excitement — all documented in that little shoebox.
Four years before his birth, his parents were hard at work preparing a place for him. Even before being given a name, before he could respond with the words “I love you,” his parents cared for and loved him. In that shoebox was a history of love and grace that preceded any action on the Rev. Walker’s part (Presbyterians Today, March 2006).
The Rev. Walker made two discoveries that day and hopefully will cause us to reflect on our Christian understanding of baptism. He did not choose his parents (after all, who really does) and that this reflected what the Bible teaches in so many places of God loving us, choosing us, of preparing the world for us. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19).
Baptism is not about us, but about God. It is about God choosing us, as God made apparent to the prophet Jeremiah before we were even aware of God, before we were even born (Jeremiah 1:5).
Concerning baptism and in our practice of infant baptism, Presbyterians focus on God’s action. Just as Jesus had said to his disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16), one can see in the Sacrament of Baptism God’s act of choosing. Whatever the age of the person being baptized, it’s God’s choosing that is the crucial action. Adults, as well as infants, will have to decide many times after their baptism whether or not to choose God back.
Let us all look to our baptism not as a time when we acted, but as a time when God’s love is made visible. Remember that God had already used the love of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, which is more powerful than any sprinkling or dunking to “wash” us and “cleanse” us.
But now thus says the lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1 ESV).