Having attended a more evangelical seminary, there were lots of different views on the sacrament of baptism floating around. And I was given no shortage of opportunities to explain the Presbyterian view of baptism being an outward sign of an inward change or even to defend … er I mean, explain … why Presbyterians continue to baptize infants and children. I have always been proud of the Presbyterian theology behind both of these decisions: It isn’t the water that takes away our sins, but Jesus Christ. Baptism is more than just one moment; it’s the beginning of choosing Jesus for a lifetime. And, being baptized as an infant or a child is just confirmation of the Reformed belief that God chooses us before we could ever even conceive of the thought to choose God. In the case of infant or child baptism, it is a family/parental promise to give that child any and every opportunity to know God and choose God back in his or her own life.
Amusingly enough, I never considered why I loved the theology and the Bible stories behind baptism so much. But a trip down memory lane helped me understand.
I was baptized as a 3-year-old, which is a really odd age for a Presbyterian baptism. Traditionally, most children are baptized as infants or later on at confirmation (which usually happens around eighth grade) or as adults. But my parents were searching for a denomination that could somehow join them together as Christians. My mom grew up Catholic and my dad rarely attended church as a kid. I’m sure it was driving my maternal grandma crazy that they waited “so long,” but it was February of 1985 by the time they got around to it. Of course I don’t remember it, but my baptism was not just about me; it was a family affair. My twin sister was also baptized. Yes, this is special, but we did everything together, so I’m sure I probably expected it even as a toddler. There was one other family member that shared our baptism with us: my dad.
When I graduated from college, my dad mailed me some of my important documents: my social security card, birth certificate and my certificate of baptism. On a card that came with it, he wrote, “It was a great day!” I don’t remember it at all, but I like to imagine back to what it was like. And, a couple of details come to mind.
First, without any trying on their part (and except for the “without delay” piece), I think our family baptism resembled the baptisms of the New Testament in a special way. Part of the defense for infant baptism is that entire households or families were baptized together (Acts 16:33). Three of us in my family share this spiritual birthday together. There is something special about being united through baptism in Jesus. Second, though I firmly believe baptism to be symbolic, it is a sacred milestone in our lives because in it and through it we make ourselves vulnerable, declaring our need for forgiveness and reliance on Jesus throughout life. It is quite a sacred thing for a father to share this vulnerability piece with his daughters — to all make that decision together on the same day. And it was and is even more powerful to follow your dad as he lives it out. Last, baptism, though a symbol, is such a Spirit-led ritual. New Testament baptisms seem to happen all at once and in a rush, but as you read the words on the page, it seems clear that the Holy Spirit was acting and they were unwilling to let the moment pass by.
Today, it seems that we often struggle with the opposite challenge. Parents seem to sense that “it is the right thing to do” to get their child baptized as an infant and they don’t always wait for/consult the Holy Spirit. As a pastor today, I so often hear baptism becoming about “making grandma and grandpa happy” or doing it because “our mother is a member of this church.” In that case, it takes more faith to wait – to wait for the time when the Spirit moves. I don’t have all the reasons why my father (and his family) waited for him to be baptized as an adult, but I am confident that the Holy Spirit worked the timing out just right.
JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey. Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.