A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock
2024.0114.B.X’s Bap (transf.)
[Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11]
I know someone who was baptized twice. As a member of a practicing Christian family, he was baptized as an infant. He was “re-baptized” as a mid-life adult. In a conversation with him a few years ago, I asked him what the reason was for this “redo” baptism. His answer came quickly and clearly: “I didn’t know what I was doing in my first baptism. I do now.”
I don’t think that this “redo” baptism practice is extant, (except where manifestations of the “True Church” are to be found!); but the practice does raise a few crucial issues about what Christian Baptism means and what baptism is about. And I raise this example with you to ask this: What would you say to someone in his position about being baptized a second time? Moreover, what would be your reference points in making your response?
As you ponder what you might say to someone in this baptismal quandary, one of the foundational resources that I commend to you for your reflection is the Prayer Book’s Catechism and what that reference says about Baptism.1 The question the Catechism starts with is, “What is Holy Baptism?” The provided response is: “Holy Baptism is the sacrament [that is, the “outward and visible sign] by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.” Again the question at hand: what do we make of this definition? Does it clarify the meaning of Baptism for you? To what extent – if at all -- does this notion guide the way you and I strive to live our lives?
I have never had the opportunity – or more poignantly, I have never taken the opportunity -- to follow through with this guy about “redoing” his baptism; but in light of what that decision raises, I want to underscore two overarching points to contest a “second baptism”.
The first point is that Baptism primarily rests with God. God initiates; and God offers us something we cannot give to ourselves. So it is that baptism is our promised response to this gift, in which we seek to make our lives a living thanksgiving. Practice. Practice. Practice.
In the case of the person I mentioned, to be sure he may have not known what he was doing when he was baptized as an infant; but God did!
The second point I wish to raise follows from the first: namely, that God and God’s life are all about being in relationship – being in relationship with the Creator of heaven and earth and responding to the Holy One’s deep yearning to be in Communion with us all, all the time. What this means in terms of that correct statement of not knowing what he was doing at the point of his infant baptism is that in responding to God’s constant love for us, to God’s constant reaching out to us, we have the opportunity to grow up – to grow up in and with this life of Holy Communion.
Our experience of all relationships (if they are to be honest and healthy) are tracked as sine waves. The variations of the ups and downs chart the fluctuating movement between our times of connecting faithfulness and our times of separating fearfulness. Our relationship with God and our relationships with one another are not a static line – certainly not a “one and done”. From those relationship times of great joy and appreciation, we celebrate with gratitude. From those times of failed bonds of affection, where we have missed the mark of our promises, true communion gives us the opportunity to admit our shortfalls, to make amends for them, and to learn that true love involves forgiveness, mercy, and new life. As the catechism indicates, Baptism lies first and foremost with God, whose love and life, whose grace and mercy are never ever defined by us.
The one who felt the need for a second baptism based on the grounds that at his infant christening he was ignorant of what it all meant and entailed, that recognition is accurate; but Baptismal awareness is never a one-and-done matter. Relationships – certainly with God – are meant to be like fine wine. With time, relationships can mature and grow and deepen. As St. Paul explained: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. [But] when I became [an adult], I put the ways of childhood behind me.2
In Baptism, the initiative is always with God. As the writer of 1 John declares, We love, because [God] first loved us.3 Therefore, Baptism is our “yes” to God’s initiating “Yes”. And while it may take us a life-time to appreciate – not to mention to understand – the fruitful interaction between God’s “Yes” to us and our promised “yes” to God, this is precisely what the spiritual life and the life of faith are all about.
A side point here: If Baptism is all the outward and visible sign with which we have to express our relationship with God, then how might we demonstrate our deepening appreciation for the God-life? In such a limited situation, I suppose the only option to mark this ripening relationship is to “redo” baptism. But in light of knowing our life with God and our subsequent life with one another as a mutual relationship that is sealed with promised commitment, we need and deserve – and have ways to honor God’s steadfast faithfulness and our own frail understanding. By standing (as in our version of the Catholic tradition) before a bishop and re-committing ourselves publicly to what God has started with us and in us. That’s what Confirmation is meant to be and what the opportunity for “Reaffirmation” of our Baptismal vows are all about. From our human standpoint, our life with God, being in Communion with God ,is never a “one and done” thing.4 Otherwise, how do we deal with our relationship as a living and organic reality? What was promised needs renewal, to be sure, but not redoing. God is not in doubt. We may be; and that human vicissitude needs exposure and addressing.
A second side issue is this: What about those of us who have been baptized and even Confirmed – what about the fact that so many of us have turned our backs on the promises we made? Are those promises (which lie at the heart of every Christian marriage, every baptism witnessed, every Holy Communion taken) – what about those of us who are spiritually AWOL? Do we dare reflect upon what our absence means – to God and to the rest of us? Or is this yet another case of disposing of inconvenient vows?
Let me close this with one more question – one that stems from the gospel we read today for the occasion of Jesus’ own baptism. If John the Baptist’s baptism was about ritual cleansing from sin and starting over afresh from that which keeps us separated from God and the God-life, why did Jesus feel compelled to come to John for his baptism? More to the point, given that Jesus is claimed to be sinless – a concept that simply means that he would rather die than break Communion with God (a truth that the cross conveys in devastating detail), why did Jesus receive John’s baptism of repentance? The answer stems from Christmas and the essential reality of Incarnation. Very simply, God demonstrates the depths of God’s commitment to us by having his Son (the divine, creative Word in human form) wade into the depths of the very same water you and I unavoidably live and move in. That Jesus receives the Baptizer’s baptism of repentance is not for any reason of his sin (that is, of separation from the Father). It is rather because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth; and we have beheld his face.”5 Jesus is the face of God loving us and claiming us so much that divinity relinquishes all privilege and fully takes on every aspect of human life and experience – even unto death. In this, Christmas connects with the Cross to reveal the deepening and enduring nature of God’s “Yes” to us.
And it is for these reasons that on this day and on the other “traditional” days for Baptism6 we “renew” our vows, that Baptism is not a private matter but an event in which we all get wet with the love and life of God.
In Holy Baptism, we are (as the Collect of the Day says( adopted by God and made the Holy One’s heirs of the life we have seen in Jesus. God first as the Source; our responsive promise is to work on receiving the life we need and cannot provide for ourselves. Baptism is our roadmap. Thanks be to God. Amen.
1. Book of Common Prayer. p. 858
2. 1 Corinthians 13:11
3. 1 John 4:19.
4. Ibid., page 415
5. Genesis 1:14
6. Book of Common Prayer. page 312; paragraph #1