A Sermon Preached at the Baptism of Molly Robertson
On April 26, we’ll be celebrating baptisms at saint benedict’s table. A couple of adults will be baptized, and several others will be confirmed and/or renew their baptismal vows. We’ll also be baptizing an infant, which will cause at least some folks to pause and wonder what that is all about. How it is that we can proclaim words which confess the faith and pronounce regeneration over the life of a baby or young child, who clearly has no idea as to what is going on? The following is a sermon preached at the baptism of my niece, in which I hopefully manage to set out some framework for understanding how this tradition has made sense of this action. I should, however, add that in fact adult baptism remains the defining norm in this tradition, and it is only in light of the adult rite that the baptism of a young child of baptized Christian parents can even begin to make sense.
want to offer something by way of an interpretative word regarding this thing that we have just done; celebrated and administered the sacrament of baptism, and thus, as the Book of Common Prayer phrases it, received Molly “into Christ’s holy Church, (making her) a living member of the same.” In some real sense, it could be argued that we have, in the words of that liturgy, said all that needs to be said. In those extraordinarily rich and powerful words there is already a fully articulated baptismal theology, and that to suggest that I need to say more is to imply that I can somehow go Thomas Cranmer one better. I make no such claim. Yet in a community in which this action and these words are so familiar, it is useful to sometimes dig in a bit deeper, and remind ourselves of just how potently subversive is this act of baptizing an infant or young child.
So let me begin by saying some things about what we are not doing here today.
- We are not inoculating Molly against something – as if “in case of unforeseen tragedy she is now ultimately safe.” In spite of the powerful language about corruption of nature and baptismal regeneration, this is not to be interpreted as some kind of personal eternal life insurance policy. God’s grace cannot be so controlled or domesticated. As Robert Capon says, “the work of Christ is wider than the sacramental manifestations by which it can be grasped” (The Third Peacock).
- We are not performing some sort of familial rite of passage; a great family event, with fine photo opportunities, doting grandparents, and a post-service Sunday brunch. Oh, the grandparents are here, the photos will be taken – the christening gown may even stay intact for a couple of those pictures – there is a brunch planned… I mean, the uncle even flew half way across the country to preach and preside at the event. But that is only the window-dressing, and none of it is even vaguely necessary to the sacrament itself.
In fact, the family piece courts a bit of the sentimentality that we should probably keep at arm’s length from any baptismal theology. In a former parish of mine, a clergy colleague made the comment that “baptism is like getting a big hug from God,” which is about the most bland and sentimental reading of the sacrament imaginable. There is nothing sentimental about baptism – not if we take seriously the words which this liturgy has us proclaim. To put it bluntly, the baptism of an infant or child demands that we greatly enlarge our understanding of how we position the life of a child in our midst.
Tricia and Neil can no longer say that Molly is their child. She has been “grafted into the body of Christ’s Church” – she is ours – but even more significantly, she has been signed with “the sign of the Cross” – she is His. Whatever illusions parents harbour about a child ever being theirs are pushed to the wall in this sacrament. Molly is under their care and stewardship, which is an enormous responsibility, but she belongs to Christ and is a member of Christ’s Body with us: that is now her primary identity.
Some very powerful words were spoken on her behalf; words about the renunciation of evil, and words confessing the Lordship of Christ. We stood, all of us, and proclaimed the Apostles’ Creed with her and for her. Today Molly understands none of this, and at some point down the road she will make some of her own decisions around whether or not she is going to lay hold of those words in her own life. In the mean time, it is up to us – parents and godparents, yes, but also everyone else who is bearing witness, standing with her, confessing the faith in the words of the creed – to shape her and nurture her and create the context in which faith can flourish and discipleship take place.
The baptism of a child is a bold and audacious act, demanding that we do much, much more than coo and take pictures and congratulate the proud parents. It places a claim on us to be the Body of Christ with her, and possibly the deepest part of that claim is to let our usual assumption around community structures and membership status be undone. We might assume that the job now is for us, as the informed and responsible adults, to shape and form Molly; full stop. We are to shape and form this child, but not to bring things to a full stop at that point. You see, if we take seriously the proclamation that she is adopted into Christ’s body, that means she is really a member now; she is now bringing us something that we need in order to be the Body of Christ. We cannot create some hierarchy that says, “well I’m the real member, because I’ve been here a long time, contributed to the memorial fund, sung in the choir, served as a warden, helped to paint the parish hall… she’s just one of the kids.” As we read from the Gospel according to Mark (10:13f), the disciples were prone to that kind of thinking, and Jesus’ response was to take the children close and say, “Let the little children come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.” And that, by the way, has nothing to do with a romanticized or sentimentalized version of childhood. It has nothing to do with some supposed innocence or purity of childhood – which all parents know is actually more than a bit of a myth – and much to do with issues of power, status and vulnerability.
We need Molly to remind us of who and what we are; we need her to teach us how it is that we are to receive the kingdom of God. The baptism of a child subverts all of our usual human assumptions about how things work and who deserves what. But of course it does, because that subversion is pure gospel. All through the gospels, we keep witnessing the undoing of assumptions and expectations. In today’s reading from Luke (18:31f), when Jesus speaks to his followers of the shape of his Lordship – of his coming trials and death – they just can’t see it. Those closest to him, who have known him and followed him and witnessed all that he is; they can’t see it. But a blind man – a beggar who lives hand-to-mouth on the margin of that society – he can see Jesus as the source of what he most needs. While elsewhere in the gospel narrative, educated, devout and committed Pharisees are called “blind guides,” here the physically blind man is revealed as the one with enough vision to reach out for what is most needful.
As a child, Molly will do something like that for us. As we shape her and form her and make space for her in our life together, she will also shape us and form us and enlarge our imaginations.
It is a bold and audacious thing to baptize a child. It proclaims God’s sheer, gracious love. She is His, not based on merit or anything she has done or believed, but by grace alone. And she is one with us; fully one with us. We need to enact that, by being responsible for her and by forming and loving her, but also by making real space for her, such that she may exercise her ministry to us – so that the gift that is her childhood may be for this community a recollection of what it is that fits us for the Kingdom of God.
Preached at St George’s Church, Halifax, February 26, 2006