Luke 3.15-17, 21-22
There’s a lovely cartoon image doing the rounds on the ecclesiastical social network at the moment. It is a picture of Jesus, as a toddler, standing on the surface of his bath. Not in his bath, you understand – but standing on the surface of the water, as only Jesus can. In the background of the picture is Mary, his Mother, with a cross look on her face, and a speech bubble with the word ‘In!’
Some people would find that picture offensive. It suggests that Jesus was being ‘naughty’ – but I think there’s a deeper message at play. We know very little about Jesus’ childhood. We only have one story, from a chapter earlier in St Luke, of the boy Jesus at the Temple.
But with the eyes of our imagination, we can infer some things. We know, for example, that he was capable of testing the limits of his parent’s authority – exactly what happened in the Temple. We know also that while Jesus was wholly God, he was also wholly human. Like all human beings, he needed to learn and grow – to fulfil all his potential. No doubt, as for all humans, that learning process required some testing of the boundaries.
St Luke records that ‘Jesus was around 30 years old when he began his work’ (Luke 3.23). So we can infer that he took around 30 years to grow, to mature, to read and understand the Scriptures – 30 years to plan and then execute the Work which he was sent to do. And his Baptism was the point at which that ministry began. It was his ‘coming-out’ party; his ‘prom’ (as American children might say). This was the moment when he chose to reveal himself to the world, by the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove, and with God’s words ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’.
Jesus’ baptism then was a turning point in his life, as it is for us. It was the moment when he put away childish things (as St Paul was later to say). It was the moment when he embraced the future that God had planned for him.
For us, baptism has a similar tone. By it, we are born again, filled with the Spirit of God. We are given, like Jesus, a new start, a turning point. God puts away the darker sides of our human nature, and encourages us into the light of his presence. We are marked with the cross, the sign of Christ, as a signal that we are His for ever. Our parents and our God-parents lift us in prayer, and place us in God’s hands. It’s a momentous moment for every human being.
There are, as you will know, many arguments about when Baptism should take place. Indeed, there are large numbers of Christians, especially Baptists, who believe that baptism can only be given to an adult, when they make their confession of faith. But in the worldwide Catholic and Orthodox churches, we have always believed that Baptism should happen as soon as practically possible. That’s because we draw an important distinction about what is happening, spiritually, at the moment of Baptism…
We believe that baptism is a sacrament – that is ‘an outward sign of an inward spiritual reality’. Baptism is God’s gift to us, whoever we are, whatever age we are, whatever we have done, or whatever we might yet do. It relies entirely on God’s action, not ours. It is God who causes us to be born again. It is God who fills us with his Spirit. It is God who ignites his light of love in our hearts. It is God, through Christ, who washes away our sins in the water of baptism. There is nothing we can do to deserve this. We cannot make God act – he acts because he chooses to, out of grace and mercy.
Believers in adult-only baptism, though, believe that Baptism is requires the faith of the person being baptised to be real. In other words, they believe that God needs something – namely our repentance and our declaration of faith, in order to act.
This is a subtle distinction, I know. And I hope that your eyes aren’t glazing over! But ultimately, it comes down to different ways in which God is perceived. Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches teach that God is utterly sovereign, over all. God acts to save us because he is God, and because his mercy and grace, literally poured out in baptism, are unstoppable forces. We baptise all who ask for it because Jesus commanded us to do it. It’s a simple as that.
Believers in adult baptism, on the other hand, hold that there are pre-conditions to God’s activity – and that he would (and indeed does) withhold his Holy Spirit, until certain conditions are met – the conditions that the person being baptised has to have repented and confessed…they have to have ‘done something’ to earn God’s favour.
Frankly, I don’t know who is right about this. And I guess that none of us will ever know until Jesus comes again – and we can ask him! What I hold onto, in the meantime, is that we are all called by God, whoever we are, to walk in the Light of his Love. We are given, every day, the fresh start that is symbolised by our Baptism. We can choose, every day, to put away childish things, and to begin the work that he has given us to do. Just as Jesus did.