IIIM Magazine Online,Volume 4, Number 20, May 20 to May 26, 2002


by Rev. Russell B. Smith

Before performing the baptism, the priest approached the young father and said solemnly, "Baptism is a serious step. Are you prepared for it?" "I think so," the man replied. "My wife has made appetizers and we have a caterer coming to provide plenty of cookies and cakes for all our guests." "I don't mean that," the priest responded. "Are you prepared spiritually?"

"Oh sure," came the reply. "I've got a keg of beer and almost a case of whiskey."

It's one of the strangest things we do as Christians, and one of the least understood. So today, we're going to talk about baptism. To be up front, I know we have a lot of folks in our congregation who were raised in Catholicism and other folks who were raised in the Baptist church. We have widely divergent views of what baptism is and why we do it. I don't believe that a theologically precise understanding of baptism is essential for salvation, but I do think it helps us understand who we are as the people of God. Hopefully, we'll answer some questions today about what baptism is and why it is important.

First off, baptism is a sign and seal of inclusion within the family of God. This inclusion within the family is important because it speaks to one of the great problems of our time — isolation. Students of western culture over the past 500 years will be aware that one of the driving trends in our culture has been the trend of individualism, but along with that has come an increasing isolation and the sense of being cut off from the possibility of meaningful relationships. There is a deep yearning to be fully known and accepted for all that we are, and yet, we are increasingly denied that opportunity. Stephen Crane, the 19th century author best known for Red Badge of Courage, articulated it in this brief poem:

A man said to the universe
"Sir, I exist"
"However," replied the Universe...
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."1

Do you hear the feeling of being alone against the weight of the universe? This sense of isolation was captured in the film Being John Malkiovich. I don't recommend you see the movie — it's an abysmal film, but the entire premise strikes at the sense of isolation out there. A man finds a portal that when you go through it, you are inside the brain of actor John Malkiovich for a few minutes. Then suddenly, when your time is up, you are dumped out beside the New Jersey turnpike. He gets the brilliant idea to sell the experience to people. And they come in droves — why? Because they're searching for something real — they're searching for some kind of connection with another human being, even if it is only for a few minutes inside his brain. It's a terrible movie, but it articulates the loneliness and isolation that many feel in this accelerated and frenetic culture in which we live.

This is why baptism is so important. Baptism is a sign that you belong — you are a part of the family. You will never be alone. Not only do you belong to God, but also you belong to the people of God. You will always have a place with us. Reading our text (Genesis 17:1-16) for the day:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers."

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God."

Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner-those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

God also said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her."

Look at the promises God gives Abraham. He promises abundant posterity — a large family. He promises an everlasting covenant — a covenant is a special relationship of mutual commitment. He promises Abraham the land. And he promises to be the personal God of Abraham's descendents.

God gives similar promises to Sarah. She will be blessed with abundant posterity, and will share the same promises that were just made to Abraham.

What does God require, according to verse 1, is obedience. In verses 10-14, he requires a sign and seal of the covenant. The blessings of having the special relationship with God and the special relationship with God's people are to be appropriated by Abraham through obedience and receiving the covenant sign. Notice that the covenant sign here is to be given to every male in the household at the age of eight days. This is regardless of whether the male was a child or a slave, or whether the covenant leader fathered him or not.

Now God realized that we would not be able to obey him perfectly, and that's why Jesus came. Jesus did obey God perfectly and he gave his life to pay the penalty for our own disobedience. He paid the price so that we might enjoy the blessing of the covenant. The death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ opened up this covenant to all people, regardless of their birthplace. In other words, through faith in Christ, anyone can literally be adopted into the family of God and receive the blessings of relationship with God and relationship with the family. However, because the faith is revealed to all, a better (see Hebrews), non-gender specific sign was needed to replace circumcision — and that sign was baptism. Look at Acts 2:37-39. This was Peter speaking to Israelites — they would have had an understanding of the covenant sign. See now that it is administered as baptism, but it continues to be for all the generations. Or look at Galatians 3:26-29 as Paul talks about how when we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we are baptized into the family of Abraham.

When you received your baptism, you didn't just have a little water sprinkled over your head. It was a spiritual event where you were marked by the Holy Spirit as a child of God and a member of the family. When we baptize children, as we hopefully will do later in the year, we're not just dedicating them to God. We proclaim that this child is an heir to the promise of life. We proclaim that this child is one of ours and we are going to do everything in our power to pray for, instruct, and raise that child with the knowledge of their birthright so that when they grow up they will confirm that birthright with mature faith.

But it doesn't just stop there. We pledge to look out for each other as baptized members of the family. It is well attested that the founding fathers of our nation were reared in a Christian environment — it is no surprise then that at the end of the Declaration of Independence we read those marvelous words "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance upon the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." It is this relationship with God — the protection of Divine providence — and a supporting relationship with one another that is precisely what we commit to in the church when we baptize.

There are any number of ways that we live out this commitment to God and one another. Every time we come together for group worship, we live it. Certainly every time we participate in a baptism service, we reaffirm our commitment to this concept. But let me challenge you with something else.

This congregation is uniquely blessed with being multi-generational. We have a good chunk of people in the older generation and we have a good chunk of people in their 20s and 30s. And then there are those Baby Boomers who are in between. If we pledge ourselves to one another as part of the family, then a significant portion lies in investing in the next generation. The best way to do that is to have someone you meet with on a regular basis to guide them in what it means to be a Christian. Part of what it means to be the family of God is that the older people help raise the younger people. The technical term is discipleship.

To the older folks I say that if you don't have someone younger into whom you are pouring yourself — someone who you meet with regularly, pray for regularly, and guide through the Christian life — then you are wasting the precious gift of your experience. You may say "Well, I don't feel qualified — or "I don't feel called to do that." Hogwash and rubbish. I know you — many of you have been walking with Christ longer than many in this room have been alive. It is a crime and a shame for you not to share your experience. Be open to the opportunities and seize them when they come your way.

Gen-Xers and Millennials — Young professionals and students, here's your challenge. Don't fool yourself into thinking that you can get by on your own wits and intelligence. I know — I've been there and done that. Right now, I'm trying to work my way through the book of Proverbs, and the themes I encounter again and again is that the young should sit at the feet and learn from those who are older. I have 10 older people that I consult with in a regular capacity on various issues of life and faith. All I'm asking for you to do is find one. There is a wealth of experience and knowledge and faith assembled in this congregation. If you don't avail yourself of it, then you are missing a fantastic opportunity for growth. You need to take the initiative — you need to identify someone of the same gender you'd like as your spiritual mentor and approach them. Ask them out for dinner or breakfast. Then negotiate the relationship "We'll meet together once a week for the next six months" or "We'll meet once a month for this whole year." Whatever works for you — just do it. Ask them questions about what it means to pray, how to handle life issues that you are going through, how Christ got them through tough times. I guarantee you that if you take action on finding a spiritual mentor, you will both be blessed more than you can know.

Now for you baby boomers — you need both — you need a mentor. You need someone who can teach you how to look at the second half of your life through new eyes. But you also need to be pouring yourself into the next generation, preparing them for the journey you've just finished.

This is the level of commitment that we sign on to when we are baptized in the church. We're not just a collection of people who share this space for an hour on Sunday — we're family.

My dear friend, Lee Porter, who has sat beside the deathbed of more people than he cares to remember, said to me, "Russell, I've learned that you die like you live. If you live a life of loving and caring and pouring yourself into other people, you'll die surrounded by loved ones. If you live a life for yourself, you'll die alone." Brothers and sisters, don't miss out on the opportunity to pass on the heritage that you have been given. Don't miss out on the opportunity to enjoy the riches of the wisdom of the past. Don't miss out on affirming your place in the family.

1. A Treasury of American Poetry. p 339. Ed. by Nancy Sullivan. Pub. by Doubleday.