Baptism Reloaded: Listening to God’s Original Love Song

Matthew 3: 13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Message:

Early Church pictured Jesus going down or dipping in the River Jordan, and as he comes out of the water the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove and the voice speaks from Heaven: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17).Reflecting on this, they soon began to make connections with the Creation story which involved Water and spirit. At the beginning of creation, Genesis tells us, there was watery chaos. And over the watery chaos, Holy Spirit was hovering. There is watery chaos, there is wind of God’s spirit. Out of the watery chaos comes the world. And God says ‘This is good.’ This is how St Paul connected Baptism of Jesus to the Creation account and therefore gave the apt title to Christian life as New Creation. So the beginning of Christian life is a new beginning of God’s New Creative work. Just as Jesus came out of the water, receiving the the Spirit and hearing the voice of the Father, so for the newly baptized Christian the voice of God gives a new identity saying “This is my son/daughter, whom I love; with her/him I am well pleased.”

There is a tribe in Sierra Leone  called the Himba Tribe where the birth date of a child is counted not from when they were born, nor from when they are conceived but from the day that the child was a thought in its mother’s mind.And when a woman decides that she will have a child, she goes off and sits under a tree, by herself, and she listens until she can hear the song of the child that wants to come. And after she’s heard the song of this child, she comes back to the man who will be the child’s father, and teaches it to him.And then, when they make love to physically conceive the child, some of that time they sing the song of the child, as a way to invite it. And then, when the mother is pregnant, the mother teaches that child’s song to the midwives and the old women of the village, so that when the child is born, the old women and the people around her sing the child’s song to welcome it. And then, as the child grows up, the other villagers are taught the child’s song. If the child falls, or hurts its knee,someone picks it up and sings its song to it. Or perhaps the child does something wonderful, or goes through the rites of puberty, then as a way of honoring this person, the people of the village sing his or her song. In this African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them.
The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity. When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything to prove yourself or usurp what is not yours.

God is singing the original song at our Baptism where he says “You are my beloved son/daughter.” That is our identity and we should often be reminded of the original song.

What is the significance of Jesus’ Baptism. Jesus restores the creation to its purpose of ‘It is good’. When Jesus who restored humanity to the Original love song of God, entered into the river Jordan, symbolizing entry into the chaos of the human world. Jesus entered into our level, where things are broken, shapeless and meaningless, in a state of vulnerability and risk, to give birth to a New Creation of humanity. So when we share in the baptism of Jesus, it is not going to be a life that is going to be successful and in control of things, but it is going to be a life that reaches out from the pain of brokenness and loneliness (chaos), to be touched by the hand of God. So where do we find the Baptized? In the midst of brokenness, pain, death, illness, risk, in short “in the neighbourhood of chaos.”Being baptized means to be lead to where Jesus is. Therefore baptism means being led to the chaos and neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its identity and destiny. But more so, Baptism touches the depths of not just outside chaos, but also the chaos of her or his own life. Because the chaos is not just outside but also there is a lot of inhumanity and muddle inside us. A baptized person should have the honesty and courage to look at the chaos inside and should combat the chaos outside. If this is so, baptism does not confer on us a status that makes us special or a claim of privilege. It is a claim a new level of soladiruty with other people through Christ. Therefore Baptism never is a convocation or graduation ceremony for the privileged elite, but it is an entry into the messy, needy, contaminated world with Jesus. When Jesus rose from the water, it symbolizes that, through the resurrection of Christ, we will also overcome the forces of death and destruction. Baptism opens us to the chaos of the world and at the same time it opens us to the Holy Spirit. Baptism opens up to the brokenness and pain of the world and also gives us the joy of communion, with the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. It helps us listen to the voice of God, constantly reminding our identity as His beloved.

Now we have wasted a lot of energy, debating the validity of infant baptism and adult baptism. We have turned baptism into a validity contest of who is right and who has the entry visa to Paradise. That is how we completely miss the point. Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:3-4) It calls for a complete identification with Jesus. . Church identifies Jesus to have lived a threefold identity: the prophet, priest and king. Baptism calls us to live a life identifying with these 3 roles. We do not see ourselves in such a perspective. Let us analyse these 3 roles

  1. Prophet: We have reduced a prophet to just foretelling the future. But biblically if we analyze, the role of a prophet is to challenge the community to be what it is meant to be. So the baptized person, reflecting the prop[hetic role of Jesus Christ is a person who needs to be critical, a questioner. A person who asks, “Have you forgetten what you are here for?” “Have you forgotten the gift God gave you?” Prophetic role reminds us that we are God’s beloved and therefore questions the human practices in the wake of our identity. Prophetic role is a risky role as we pose uncomfortable questions to ourselves and to people around us, commiting ourselves to the identity that God has given us. We hold each other accountable to our faith and action. Prophetic role is not just about having a private life of faith, but a faith that overflows to combat injustice, discrimination and suffering. Let us remember our prophetic role.
  2. Priest: The role of a priest in Old Testament is one who interprets God and humanity to each other. Priest was seen as somebody who builds bridges between God and humanity when that relationship has been wrecked; somebody who by offering sacrifice to God recreates a shattered relationship. This is the priestly role Jesus espoused and we can try to identify with that role of being peacemakers and bridge builders. We offer ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:2). In a world characterized by brokenness and estrangement, Baptism calls us to the priestly role of building bridges between communities, races and people from different hues
  3. King: King is a one who had the freedom and power to shape the law and justice of society. King is a one who had the power to bring to fruition what he wishes to see. While prophets are those who break dividing walls and dismantle new structures, kingly role calls to build alternative structures. Kingly role calls us to shape our lives and human environment in accordance with the justice of God. We are part takers of the freedom and liberty that God gives us to make the world a better place.

So Baptism is not just a vain speculation of whose Baptism is valid, but it initiates us to a life of playing the role of Prophet, Priest and King. We live in times of mediocre faith that makes us feel that one must just tag along. Baptism is just seen as a societal necessity. There is a theory called Pygmalion effect. In the Greek mythology Pygmalion is a sculptor from the city of Crete. His statues were very popular and he was deeply admired. There were many girls who wished to marry him but he refused to do so. One day he sculpted a beautiful woman. It is said he fell in love with this statue. He kept telling the people of the city that the statue of the woman is his wife. People thought he had lost it to call a statue a stone, as his wife. It is said that his constant love and affection on the statue gave breath to the sculpture and the lifeless body came to life. Pygmallion effect says that any person ordinary, if endowed with expectation, love and responsibility can rise up perform beyond expectation. Through baptism, ordinary humans like us are endowed the love and expectation of our Lord to rise up to live the divine-human life of discipleship consisting of the roles of Prophet, Priest and King.

Rev Merin Mathew

Bethel Mar Thoma Church

Kolar Road, Bhopal

Ps: This article is adapted from Archbishop Rowan Williams’ book ‘Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, PrayerBaptism 2

 

 

 

 

 

Baptism: Confusions and Doubts Regarding Infant Baptism

 

 

I Corinthians10:1-6

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.

Message

Many of us live in doubt whether our Baptism is valid as we do not proclaim our faith. This gives us the impression that maybe our church practice is wrong. How can an infant affirm his or her faith? He or she is not aware of what he is getting into, so the baptism is a meaningless ritual is the common argument. This is a common rationale to persuade many believers in adult baptism as the first baptism is neither biblical nor true. Historically this argument comes to the fore, thanks to the 16th century radical group called ‘Anabaptists’ which means ones who had rebaptised. Their argument was that one has to affirm his faith before baptism. This strand of argument is adopted by many Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal Churches. I am not questioning their position. But I debate that their argument is not tenable. We need to analyse the given text and understand its symbols and significance. This section is called “ Warnings from Israel’s History”. According to Rev. Dr. Abraham Kuruvilla, the Principal of Mar Thoma Theological Seminary, Kottayam, Baptism is not a graduation of faith as is presupposed in the arguments of Believers’ (Adult) Baptism. He contends that Baptism is the initiation into the ‘Salvation History’ and Eucharist is the edification in the journey of Salvation History. He elucidates this with the support of the above text. Here we see Paul’s Hermeneutics at work which is allegorical. He symbolizes the cloud that guided the Israelites in the wilderness and the Reed sea that they walked through as a process of Baptism. They were being initiated and guided into the journey towards ‘The Promised Land’. Spiritual food here is alluded to be the manna that Yahweh fed his people with. The drinking from the rock that is Christologically alluded reminds of the incident of Moses striking the rock with the rod from which people in their Journey drank water from. The manna and the water symbolize the Eucharist which edifies us in our journey as being part of ‘The Salvation History’. Verse 5 strikes the ultimate warning that even though the Israelites were initiated into the journey towards ‘The Promised Land’, “God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.” Though many started their journey very few made it to the promises land. Verse 6 explicitly states that this occurred as a warning for us that we may not fall into the trap of being assured of completing our journey. Baptism initiates us into the faith community where faith is not an individual or personal matter but is formed in the context of a community. During our first communion we own our Baptism and faith and are edified with the salvific memory of the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Abraham Kuruvilla illustrates that being initiated in the education system at the nursery level is not a graduation but an initiation. One is not guaranteed to finish his education process. One needs to review and work at it. So let us be clear that Baptism and Eucharist are important landmarks in our faith journey, but it has to be regarded as Initiation and edification respectively.

Note- the above are reflections of our Principal, Rev. Dr. Abraham Kuruvilla, and it is brought to flesh with my limited comprehension about the subject.

On the basis of the above thesis let us look into the biblical and theological basis of infant baptism.

 

Biblical And Theological Grounds For Infant Baptism-

The major confusion of the Mar Thoma Christians is directly related to the validity of Infant Baptism. The lack of clarity on this subject and the illusion that it is not biblically based has caused major concerns for the Mar Thomites who are succumbed to believe that this particular practice is not biblical. This is a challenge and an opportunity to clear certain misconceptions regarding this topic. We will first consider this historically. In the time of the Apostles we have direct evidence that 3 distinct families or households received Baptism; that is the household of Stephanas, Lydia and the Phillipian Jailor. The term household signifies infants and children included as well. Even in Acts 2: 38-39, it signifies clearly Child Baptism. Origen mentions that the “ Church has an order from the Apostles to give baptism to the infants.” At the Council of Cathage, A.D. 251, the question was asked that whether it was not necessary to postpone baptism of infants until the fourth day , when it was decided that “no person should be hindered from receiving baptism, especially infants and those newly born.” The fourth Century Archbishop of Milan, Ambrose, wrote on the subject of “ Infant Baptism in the time of the Apostles.” This also shows that infant Baptism was uniformly practiced by the Early Church. W.F. Flemington in The New Testament Doctrine of Baptism argues that baptism of infants is a thoroughly legitimate development of New Testament teaching, a practice in full accord with the mind of Christ. J. Jeremias , the New Testament scholar says that Colossians 2: 11,12 shows that Paul considered Baptism equivalent to Circumcision that opened the way for Christian parents to baptize their children. The Old Testament says that circumcision was practiced on the 8th Day, which admitted the child into the Jewish Church. Nowhere in the Bible are children treated outside the scope of blessing. As we have seen that Baptism is the seal of faith. Romans 4:2 says, ‘ And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of faith, which he had yet being uncircumcised.’ So there is a connection of circumcision to be ‘ seal of faith’ and baptism that is called a seal of faith which are tied to respective covenants. As in Gen 17: 11,12 that says “Circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the mark of the covenant between you and me. Throughout the ages, every male among you, when he is eight days old, shall be circumcised…”. So this is a ‘seal of faith’ and ‘token of covenant’. Circumcision then like baptism now fulfilled a double purpose. It is the seal of the believer’s faith and also the sign of God’s covenant.

So who is included in this covenant? The answer is found in Acts 2: 39 “ the promise is unto you and your children.” Let me quote from Dr. Wall’s “ History of Infant Baptism”( vol 1., p. 3) as follows ‘It is evident that the custom before Jesus’ time was to baptize as well as circumcise any proselyte that came over to them from nations. This was based on their belief that rest all were impure and not worthy to enter into a Covenant without a washing or baptism from their uncleanness and this was called baptizing unto Moses. If any such proselyte , who came over to the Jewish religion, and was baptized into it, had any infant children then born to him, they also were baptized and circumcised. The child’s inability to declare his faith was never looked on as a bar against his reception into the covenant.”

Bernard Manning in his book, “Why Not Abandon the Church”, summarizes beautifully about baptism. He says “In Baptism the main thing is not what men do, but what God has done. It is a sign that Christ claims all men as his own and He has redeemed them to a new way of life. That is why we baptize children and infants. The water of baptism declares that they are entitled to God’s mercies to men in the passion of Christ. Your own baptism ought then to mean much to you. It ought to mean all the more because it happened before you knew anything about it. Christ redeemed you on the Calvary without any thought or action on your part. He did not wait for any sign or confirmation on your part. Similarly we baptize a child and declare to the world in a solemn manner what God does for us without our merit and even without our knowledge. In Baptism, more plainly perhaps than anywhere else, God commends His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

We have to realize that the objection to infant Baptism needs to be rooted to the cult group called the Anabaptists who gave importance to the profession of faith as an imperative for Baptism. This logic is reductionist and places the onus of faith on an individual. No faith is individual but it is a formation of the community that fosters faith. Infant baptism sets apart a child and he becomes part of the Body of Christ to be formed by the faith practices of the community and the God Parent is the representative of the community to ensure that the child is formed in faith. The family is the nucleus of this faith formation. So the corporate formation of faith has been given emphasis in infant Baptism.

Conclusion

As we have surveyed the theological basis of baptism and the rationale for infant baptism, we the ministers in formation need to engage deeply with the liturgical practices of baptism. I personally feel we need to pay a lot of attention in teaching this to the youths, sevika sanghams and prayer meetings in our parish assignments. I have observed the lack of clarity on this topic has made many of our church members vulnerable. We personally need to learn more about it to be convinced about our baptism and to relive and reaffirm the faith that was symbolized at our day of baptism. May God guide us.

 

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati