August 27, 2017
Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
This morning we welcomed Eli Mgenzi Mberruka into a larger family than he has ever known before. He is now not only the beloved son of Jackie, but also the beloved godson of Debbie Barwick, Trish Nemore and me. And beyond that, we welcomed Eli into God’s family, specifically into Seekers Church, “a Christian community in the tradition of the Church of the Saviour, linked with the people of God throughout the ages.” Eli is now a part of that mystical Body of Christ. Over time he, with the help of Jackie, my fellow godparents, all of you, and the help of many others will discover his specific gifts that he provides the Body, the way in which he functions to make the Church a healthy organism.When Deborah approached me on behalf of Celebration Circle to ask if I would be willing to preach today she emphasized that Eli was going to be dedicated and not baptized. I readily accepted the invitation. I come to the ceremonies of infant dedication and baptism with a broad context of personal experience. I was baptized as an infant in a Lutheran Church (This is my baptismal cap.) and confirmed in the Presbyterian Church at the age of 14. My wife Sharon was not baptized until some years after we were married, after we began worshipping in the Church of the Saviour. The Church of the Saviour was explicitly ecumenical, welcoming those from the whole range of Christianity. There we learned that not only were both infant baptism and adult baptism acceptable doctrinally but that to argue about which was the superior practice was not only fruitless (the expression I remember was that it was like debating the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin) but that such doctrinal arguments were not in the spirit of ecumenism — doctrinal arguments tend to tear apart the Body of Christ rather than build it up. Because Sharon and I had different experiences with and views about infant baptism, when our daughter Meredith was born we had a dedication ceremony for her in Seekers Church. Meredith was baptized by immersion in the Chester River at Camp Pecometh after she had reached adulthood. Somehow we never got around to even dedicating our younger daughter Erica (as Erica reminds us periodically) and she too was baptized as an adult. I believe it is also relevant that I am a member of the Children’s Team, a group of Seekers who care deeply about, and I may dare to say, are called to helping raise the children of this congregation in the Christian faith so that they have some spiritual resources to draw upon as they reach adulthood. The Children’s Team recruits teachers and selects curricula for Sunday School, recruits people to do the Word for the Children each Sunday, and helps our older children decide if they are ready for baptism and confirmation.
The diversity of practice about baptism and infant dedication in my own family reflects the diversity of practice within Christianity. Seekers is also an ecumenical church and the personal experiences we have had with respect to baptism, dedication, and confirmation and other sacraments and rituals also reflect that diversity. Hold your hand up if you were baptized as an infant. Now, hold your hand up if you were dedicated but not baptized as an infant. Hold your hand up if you were neither baptized nor dedicated as an infant. Hold your hand up if you don’t know because you were too young to remember and no one ever told you.
The Bible emphasizes adult baptism and over the centuries this is the baptism most widely studied if not the most widely practiced. Adult baptism is derived from ritual immersion (mikvah) in Judaism, performed to restore a Jew to a state of ritual purification. The mikvah reflects a person’s awareness that he or she has been in a condition that has isolated the person from the faith and practice of the Jewish community. This self-awareness was the basis for John the Baptist’s practice of baptism. In early Christianity, John’s baptism developed into the doctrine that baptism is for the remission of sins. It is more than just physical washing, it is becoming pure in heart and in good standing before God, a regeneration in heart and soul. The self-aware sinner acts to become reunited with God. The person is born again as Jesus described it to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. Paul, our earliest New Testament writer clearly discusses this regenerative aspect of baptism in the 6th chapter of his letter to the Roman Church.
Due to the importance of repentance, spiritual rebirth, and proclaiming Christ as Lord it became important to prepare the adult new believer for baptism. Preparation of an adult to be baptized is one of the earliest practices in Christianity. Our earliest reference is probably Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Such a new believer, a “catechumen” had to be at least an adolescent and had to undergo a period of study from a catechist (teacher) in the principles of Christianity, its professions of faith and creeds, and its rituals. The catechumen publicly made a profession of faith in Christ. Only then could the catechumen be baptized and confirmed in the faith to become a member of that church. In the early Church catechumens couldn’t actively take part in any service because they weren’t baptized and couldn’t stay for the Eucharist. In some congregations they were required to watch the mass from the side or a gallery, or near the baptismal font. At other locations catechumens were barred from all services until they had been baptized.
A lot of Protestant denominations, especially those influenced by the Anabaptist movement, and non-Trinitarian sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, United Church of God, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints only perform adult baptism; they do not baptize children. Many if not most of these churches also restrict participation in the Eucharist/Communion/Lord’s Supper to those who have been baptized, and some limit participation further to those who were baptized in their denomination. For these churches, faith in Christ is the precondition for baptism.
However, the baptism of infants also has a very long history in the Church. The earliest written reference to infant baptism is by the Church Father Irenaeus in his five-volume work translated as Against Heresies, published around 180 C.E. At about the same time the great theologian and Church Father Origen mentioned it in three passages as traditional and customary and Tertullian mentioned that adult sponsors customarily spoke on behalf of infants being baptized. The document known as the Apostolic Tradition, written sometime between the end of the second century and the middle of the fourth century described how to perform the ceremony of baptism and referenced infant baptism.
Christian churches that practice infant baptism usually believe that it is the New Testament counterpart to circumcision in the Hebrew Scriptures, the religious ceremony of initiation into the Christian community, but obviously open to girls as well as to boys. Moreover, to Catholic Christians infant baptism shows that we cannot earn our salvation through good works but rather salvation is an unmerited grace from God that frees us from sin. The child does nothing; God does the acting to reconcile the child to God. Lutherans believe that baptism is a means of grace that “works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this…” and because God is the sole creator of faith; it doesn’t depend upon the age or action of the person to be baptized. Other Christian denominations practicing infant baptism believe that it is a symbol. For example, Methodists use the principle of prevenient grace, that infant baptism is God’s promise or declaration to the infant that will call that child to believe in God’s promises for salvation when he or she reaches the age of decision-making.
In short, churches that only practice adult baptism emphasize that baptism is about the person doing something, while churches that do practice infant baptism as well as adult baptism emphasize that infant baptism is about God doing something.
But here is the common ground: both the churches that limit baptism to adults and the churches that practice infant baptism take steps to ensure that the children of their members learn the Christian faith, or as many of us put it, “grow up in the faith.” By the time of the Protestant Reformation, churches that limited baptism to adults had long had the practice of christening infants, that is, bestowing Christian names on them in religious ceremonies, and/or combining it with the dedication of the infant to God, in a ceremony similar to the one we had earlier today for Eli. They also put an emphasis on Sunday School. In my childhood and youth, it didn’t matter whether I wanted to go to Sunday School and church or not — I went! If I pretended to be sick, I had to be so sick that I had to stay in bed, far too sick to be allowed to be downstairs and watch TV. And I think that my parents’ insistence that I go to Sunday School, that I learn the Presbyterian catechism, that I take confirmation classes – in short, that I “grow up in the Church” served me well. I hope those of you who had a similar grounding in the Church feel the same way.
In “The Call of Seekers Church”, the concluding paragraph reads “Seekers is committed to participation by persons of all ages. We see children, youth and adults of all ages as valuable and valued parts of our community, and desire their inclusion in our care, our ministry, and our life together.”
In both a ceremony of infant baptism and a ceremony of infant dedication the officiant charges the parent(s) to do what Jackie committed to do: to raise the child so that he or she grows in a relationship with God. In both ceremonies the officiant charges the child’s extended family and any godparents to do what Debbie, Trish, and I committed to do. And in both ceremonies the officiant charges the congregation to do what we all committed to do. I suggest that whether an infant has been baptized or dedicated, the commitment of the adults to help the child grow in faith is vitally important. This is serious stuff. Jackie met with Celebration Circle in preparation for her commitments. I can’t speak for Debbie or Trish, but after I agreed to be Eli’s godfather I thought a bit about what that would mean. I hope you thought a bit before you gave your response in the dedication to love, support and care for Eli.
In our epistle for this week Saint Paul urges us to let our natures be transformed so that we can discern the will of God, that we be humble, and that we remember that as we are united in Christ we form one body, serving individually as limbs and organs to one another. We form one body, serving individually as limbs and organs to one another. We are given a variety of gifts to do this, and we are called to exercise them accordingly. How can we do this to love, support and care for Eli? There are a number of ways we can support him and our children and youth and be faithful to our call as Seekers Church. We can give up our occasional worship experience to be with Eli downstairs during worship over the next few years until he is old enough for Sunday School. We can take turns watching him in the back yard using the playground equipment. We can take regular turns teaching his Sunday school class. As he gets older, we can talk to him about his life and answer his questions. And we don’t have to limit these to Eli alone. We have other youth and children who also need our love, support, and care: Alvin, Makayla, Cynthia, India, Naomi, Oslin, Tommy, Eli and Elad, and Arnold.
And what we do here on Sunday morning isn’t all. It isn’t enough by a long shot. We can provide occasional emergency child care for Jackie and other parents. We can help our youth find and participate in community service projects. We can help them prepare for the possibility of attending college as Judy and Sharon have been doing with Alvin and Kimonie. Talk to one of us on the Children’s Team: Judy or Michele or Sallie or Jacquie Wallen or Larry or me. Between us we’ll have ideas of how you can use your gifts – or develop a gift you never knew you had!
And there is more we can do outside of Seekers Church. We can vote for candidates at the local, state, and national level that support children and youth here and around the world, promoting justice and peace. We can advocate with our elected officials to enact laws and regulations to implement these policies, and especially to insist that they vote to fund the public programs and grant programs that support these laws, including tax reform so that everyone pays his or her fair share. We can participate in marches and protests in support of policies and funding that help children and youth or in opposition to policies and funding that make the lives of children and youth more challenging. In our personal lives we can act in the ways that set good examples for them of how Christians should live and relate to each other and to those who aren’t Christians. We can serve individually as limbs and organs to one another. Serving individually as limbs and organs to one another.
And above all, we can pray for them. We can pray hard. We can pray that Eli and also Alvin, Makayla, Cynthia, India, Naomi, Oslin, Tommy, Eli and Elad, and Arnold come to know Christ deep in their hearts so that one day each of them can say to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God! And I choose to follow your way.”
Welcome, Eli Mgenzi Mberruka, into Seekers Church, the Body of Christ, the family of God.