Recent discussions with new parents about baptism have given me a lot of time to reflect on the meaning of baptism, especially the language that the Presbyterian Church (USA) uses to express its theological beliefs about baptism.
Even though the PC (USA) affirms infant baptism while some other denominations do not, that hasn’t been the focus of my conversations of late.
The focus of my most recent conversations has been on baptism as the beginning of a covenant relationship with God, rather than a liturgical or spiritual act that stands alone, apart from the gathered community of disciples of Jesus (the Body of Christ).
Presbyterians believe that baptism marks a covenant between God and the people of God. When pressed to explain the term covenant in a way that is easy to understand but still reflects the depth of its meaning in the Reformed tradition, I usually explain that we can think of a covenant as a promise that begins a relationship.
In a wedding ceremony, two people make some promises (also called vows) and those promises mark the beginning of their life together. In that way, marriage is a good example of a covenant. It is a covenant between two people and God.
Baptism is similar. In baptism the covenant is between God and the person to be baptized and the whole Body of Christ.
The baptized person promises to follow Jesus, the congregation promises to nurture the person in their faith, and (of course) God has already promised God’s faithfulness, love and grace to the person.
When we’re talking infant baptism, of course, we know that an infant can’t make any promises. To me, that’s what’s so precious about infant baptism: before we can promise anything or understand the theology of baptism or even focus our eyes fully, God has already claimed us as God’s own and promised to be faithful to us.
That’s powerful stuff.
That’s not to say that there aren’t promises made in infant baptism. The parents make promises on behalf of the child. They promise to not only teach their child about God and about the life of faith … they also promise to be role models, allowing their child to see their own life of faith and to learn from their actions what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
In that way, these promises mark the beginning of an ongoing relationship.
The congregation (as representatives of the whole Body of Christ) makes promises, too. The congregation promises that they will be the vessels of God’s grace and love to the child, that they will provide instruction so that the child can learn ways of drawing near to the God who has already claimed her or him, and that they will make opportunities (when the time is right) for the child to profess a faith that is their own in response to the God’s grace given in their baptism.
Again: the promises are only the beginning.
Baptism is the way we mark the beginning of an ongoing relationship with God and with each other. (Although, we can never fully mark the actual beginning of our relationship with God, since God is present with us long before we are ever able to recognize it!)
It is the way we celebrate God’s love and care for us and the way we enter into relationships of love and care for one another.
It is the way we commit our lives and our children’s lives into the hands of the One who knows us best and loves us most, recognizing that our life with God is inextricably woven in and through the lives of others.