A few weeks ago I was talking to my sons Clayton and Samuel about baptism. “It’s when you put water on the baby’s head and the baby officially becomes part of God’s family,” I said. Clayton furrowed his brow and said “But the baby is always a part of God’s family, even before you put the water on her head.”
Smart kid. He speaks the truth. Our scripture reading for this morning is one of the stops on the way to Jerusalem that we’ve been taking this Lenten season. The text tells us that Jesus, when he blesses children, says “People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them.”
When Jesus is challenged by the disciples on this he says “It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
As Presbyterians we baptize babies for this very reason. We remember that we don’t choose God but rather God chooses us, through the mystery of faith. Our book of common worship says
“Through baptism we enter the covenant God has established. Within this covenant God gives us new life, guards us from evil, and nurtures us in love. In embracing that covenant, we choose whom we will serve by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ.”
Clearly a baby can not yet do this, but we choose to bring babies before our congregation as a reminder that God has chosen them. We make promises to one another as a community of faith to do our very best to bring the children we baptize up in the church, that they might come to make their own profession of faith one day. The community is important. How is a child supposed to come back and make his or her own profession of faith if he or she isn’t a part of the community?
This is why our work is only just beginning after the baby is baptized. After baptism we have the hard work of Sunday School training, and Vacation Bible School, we have to get our children involved in faith formation at home and be willing to show our children, by example, what it means to follow Jesus. We don’t simply have a baptism ceremony and walk away. It’s the beginning of a life-long process.
It’s for this reason that our Book of Order requires that at least one parent be a member of our congregation or another congregation for a child to be baptized. The reason is important, and I understand it. Yet I am challenged by how strong our Book of Order is on this. It uses the word “shall” which means it’s a requirement.
A stranger on an airplane once dramatically challenged my view on this requirement. I’m not much of a chatty person on airplanes. I like to put on headphones and listen to music or podcasts. This one particular flight, though, I got to talking with the person next to me. When she learned I was a minister she said,
“I never went to church, ever, growing up. When my daughter was born, I wanted to have her baptized, but nobody would do it. I called every church in town but they all said no because we didn’t belong. After that I decided we didn’t need the church.”
Those words “we didn’t belong” really stuck with me. It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? To think of a mother who wanted to explore this mystery of faith for her newborn child and was constantly told “no.”
If she called a Presbyterian Church, I imagine that the pastors she talked to were thinking of our Book of Order that requires a parent to be a member in order for a child to be baptized. And yet, strict adherence to that requirement ensured that a woman and her daughter never ever set foot in a church again because they didn’t belong. How tragic. How unlike Jesus.
Jesus said “Let the little children come to me and do not stop them.”
What might have happened if just one of those churches my seat mate called had said “yes”? What if this woman and her daughter received such a warm welcome in to God’s family that they decided to stay and learn more and be transformed by God’s love? I think the church messed up when we said no to that woman and her daughter, when we said they didn’t belong. It’s not actually true, in my opinion. They do belong. Jesus says so.
Our own Book of Order says
“When a child is being presented for Baptism, ordinarily the parent(s) or one(s) rightly exercising parental responsibility shall be an active member of the congregation.”
I’m grateful for that word “ordinarily” because I think it provides some room, perhaps, to say “yes” to someone like that seat mate of mine who came searching for her daughter, some room to say “This whole thing isn’t about us anyway, it’s about God who chooses us even when we don’t choose God.” Ordinarily, yes, we bring our children to baptism out of a community, to stay in that community and grow up in faith. But there may be times, I think, when God uses the sacrament of baptism to actually bring people to faith. Who are we to stop them?
“The baby is always a part of God’s family, even before you put water on her head.”
Truer words were never spoken.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says.
“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.