A gift of love

Baptism of our Lord – 2013

Matthew 3:13-17

Marian Free 

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

 Last Sunday I attended a friend’s annual Epiphany party. In the course of the afternoon one of the guests began a discussion about godparents and in particular when the practice of having godparents began. Frankly, I had no idea. I thought that it was probably a late development as, up until the fourth century and even later, whole families, if not whole tribes, were baptised at the same time. It was an all or nothing situation, the head of the family or the king would be converted and the family and the tribe had no choice but to go along. There was no need for anyone to make promises for the children who would have had no say, then or in the future, as to whether they were Christian or not. As they grew up, it would simply have been a part of their identity. They would have absorbed by osmosis what it meant and their own children would have likewise been brought up in the faith of those around them

 An examination of that great source of wisdom and knowledge – the internet – revealed that I was wrong. Apparently, the equivalent of godparents came into being as early as the second century when parents made the confession of faith on the part of their child and were charged with their children’s spiritual upbringing. St Augustine allowed for exceptions to that practice, but apparently within a hundred years the exception had become the rule – parents were no longer allowed to sponsor their children for baptism.  However the relationship of a godparent  to the child was considered as close as that of a parent. This can be seen in the practice from the fifth century when baptismal sponsors were called “commaters” and “compaters” – co parents whose relationship to the child was considered sufficiently close that they were forbidden from marrying them.

Until recently, most children in this country were baptised. There was an assumption that this was a Christian country and that even those who rarely attended church were Christians and that their children should be formally identified as such. For some, there lay behind this practice a belief that a child who was not baptised would go to purgatory or to hell, but for many baptism was simply part of the culture of the day. Fear is no longer a driving force and in our time a great many people who no longer have any connection to the church, or who do not profess the faith, have come to the conclusion that baptism is at best unnecessary and at worst hypocritical.

The church has also undergone a change. Far from wanting to rescue so many innocents from the clutches of the devil, the church has had conversation after conversation about the practice of infant baptism and whether or not children of non-practicing families should be baptised. Some churches, including some Anglican congregations insist that parents attend church for a minimum number of weeks and attend classes before their child is accepted for baptism. The purpose of this is to ensure that the parents take their commitment seriously and that they will have some knowledge of the faith that they will claim to profess. Sadly this practice has led to a feeling of rejection and alienation among those who have felt that their good intentions were rejected when they were genuinely trying to do the right thing by their child.

Baptism as a form of initiation appears to be a Christian innovation. There is no evidence of a practice of baptism in Judaism. Purity laws meant that believers regularly had ritual baths to purify  themselves, but there is little to suggest that converts to the faith were washed or baptised. The Greek word Βαπτίζω simply means to wash. Jews washed away their impurities, but did not extend this practice to include the initiation of new believers.  John the Baptist appears to have taken the practice of ritual cleansing to a new level –  the idea of washing away sins and renewing of one’s relationship with God was unique to him.

Jesus’ baptism by John was controversial for at least two reasons. It was impossible for the Gospel writers to believe that Jesus had any sins to be washed away and it was equally impossible to imagine that John’s stature was such that it would warrant his baptizing Jesus. For both these reasons Jesus’ baptism seems to have been a cause of embarrassment for the authors of Matthew and John. Matthew tries to explain Jesus’ baptism away telling us that the Baptist insisted that Jesus should baptise him, to which Jesus responds that it is “proper for us to fulfill all righteousness”. John’s gospel does not mention Jesus’ baptism at all. However it clear that Jesus did seek and did receive baptism from John.

It is probably because Jesus himself was baptised that the early church adopted the practice as its form of initiation even though Jesus himself baptised no one. We have only a few New Testament references to baptism. Some scholars believe that Gal 3:28 is a baptism formula: “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” and Romans 6 uses the language of dying and rising with Christ. We heard in today’s reading from the Book of Acts that water was important for baptism – even though those who heard the message had already been filled with the Holy Spirit.

It is in the Didache (a second century document) that we find the first instructions for Baptism. The Didache tells us that we should baptise in this way. “After explaining all things you should baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. If you cannot do it in flowing water then do it in cold water, if not in cold then warm. If you have very little water pour it on the head three times in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Before the baptism both the baptizer and the candidate for baptism, plus any others who can, should fast. The candidate should fast for one or two days beforehand.” (The practice of fasting during Lent is an extension of this practice. The whole community would fast in preparation for the baptisms that were to take place at Easter.)

I’m not sure how many people fast before a baptism these days. Certainly, even for those encouraged to attend church for six weeks, the preparation is a far cry from the days when a candidate would spend four years learning the faith before they were accepted for baptism.

Over the centuries, the details of baptism services have differed, but the intent remains the same. Through baptism an individual, or godparents on behalf of that individual, declare an allegiance to the Christian faith and in so doing recognise and accept the place of God in their lives. In this overtly materialist world, those who bring their children for baptism acknowledge that the material world has its limitations and they express a desire to expose their child to the world beyond this world, to give their child an opportunity to see that there is more to life than what can be seen and felt and touched. The children whom we welcome into our faith community are already loved by God. In baptism we acknowledge God’s love for them and formalize their entitlement to that love. We recognise that everyone is loved by God and is a child of God.

Of course, that is only the beginning.  Jesus’ baptism signaled the beginning of his ministry. So too for us – our baptism is a gift that shows its true potential only when we set it free to act in and on us. Baptism is a gift of love that is activated most fully when we respond to that love. If we allow it, if we set it free, God’s love will empower and direct our lives, it will fill us with joy and it will activate our compassion and desire for justice and peace. Knowing our place in the spiritual realm will enable us to sit lightly with this world – not to be tossed about and driven by desire for material possessions, status and wealth.  Conscience of God’s presence always with us, we will face every difficulty with courage and every set back with grace. Having been affirmed as a child of God, we will strive to be worthy of that privilege.

Let our beginning not be our ending. May we, the baptised, give God the freedom to renew and transform us, so that we may become more truly ourselves – set free to love and be loved and to make God’s presence known to all around us.


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