Most people in most mainline Christian denominations that practice infant baptism don’t remember their baptisms, which is natural, because most would have been baptised before they they were really aware what was happening.
In looking through the baptismal records of this church I was interested to see that most of the older generation in this church would have been baptised not in church but in their family homes. The reason for this seemed to be an utterly practical one. The congregation in previous generations was so large, with so many children being born that to have had them all baptised in church would have meant that every second or third week it would have been a baptism service and there would have been very little room for much else in regular church worship.
I was never baptised as an infant. Although my father had grown up as an Anglican in South Africa, he met my mother while attending the Salvation Army where he had become a member. My mom had grown up as a member of the Salvation Army. The salvation Army doesn’t practice baptism because in their theology they did away with all sacraments. In the Salvation Army they would say that what is important is not the outward ritual or outward sign of Baptism. What is important is rather the inward experience of baptism, the inner experience of being transformed by God’s saving love. And so Instead of being baptised as an infant, I was taken to the salvation army to be dedicated.
It was only later, when we moved to a small town away from the city where there was no Salvation Army, that my parents started attending a Methodist Church. It was there probably as a 3-4 year old that I was finally baptised... I still have a memory of sitting on the edge of my parents bed with my Dad explaining to me and my brother what baptism was all about, in as much as a child could understand and, asking us if we wanted to be baptised.
It is not often in church that we have an opportunity to reflect deeply on the meaning of Baptism in Church. In the lectionary passage that is set for today we have read about the Baptism of Jesus. I thought it appropriate that we use this passage as a means of reflecting more deeply on baptism itself.
Firstly, in this passage, we see that Baptism is all about identity. We read that when Jesus is baptised, there is a voice from heaven saying: “This is my beloved son.” Baptism is meant to remind us of who we really are. In times past, baptism was used as a naming ceremony. In baptism the parents would formally name their child. This practice of naming a child at Baptism has largely fallen away now. But that practice is a reminder that baptism is all about identity. But our truest and deepest identity is not the name given to us by our parents, not our nationality of culture, not even what religion we are or what football team we support. Rather, our truest and deepest identity is that we are God’s beloved. Children of God, made in God’s image.
Secondly, in this passage we see that the true Baptism is not in water.... that is the outward sign. John the Baptist says in this passage: “I baptise with water, but one will come after me who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. The true inner meaning of baptism is that we are baptised into in God’s Spirit of love.
The Greek word baptizo means to immerse. The real immersion is not immersion in water. The real immersion is in the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit of Love.
Acts 17:28 reminds us that every moment of every day we are already immersed and drenched in God’s Spirit. God is not far away from us in some distant heaven, for “In him we live and move and have our being”. We are already living in God, surrounded, and immersed in God’s love and presence.
Baptism reminds us, and brings to our attention that which is already true, firstly that we are God’s beloved and secondly that we are, every moment of every day, swimming, immersed, drenched in God’s Loving presence and loving Spirit.
Thirdly, Luke uses another word to describe Baptism in this passage: The word Fire. John the Baptist speaks of being baptised with the Holy Spirit and with Fire... and he goes on to speak of it as an unquenchable fire.
“I baptise with water, but one more powerful than I will come... He will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with Fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn away the chaff with unquenchable fire.” vs 16-17.
Normally when Christians speak of unquenchable fire, they are most often referring to the fires of hell where they believe that unbelievers will suffer in torment for all eternity.
But the Scottish Presbyterian Minister George McDonald who lived in the 1800’s could not conceive of a God of love who could throw people into a fire of suffering and punishment for all eternity. He was a universalist, in the sense that he believed that in God’s grace and love, one day all people would be saved and would live in communion with God. In some cases it might take longer than others but in the end all would be saved. No-one would be lost forever.
For George McDonald, any reference to the unquenchable fire of God was ultimately a reference to God’s love. Just as fire is a purifying agent in the purification of gold, burning away all the impurities, so George McDonald believed that God’s love will purify us, removing all the impurities to reveal the precious gold that God has placed within us. And it is unquenchable, because there is nothing in this world that can ever extinguish God's love.
In our passage, the image is that of wheat that has been harvested. Once it is harvested and the outer chaff has been removed because it is no longer necessary, it is burned. These are not the fires of hell, but fires of purification that burn away all that is not necessary, all that gets in the way of the precious seed God has placed within us.
To be baptised into God’s love is to be immersed in a love that overtime will purify and cleanse us of all that is not necessary, of all that is not love.
But the imagery of fire is not just about the fire that burns. Fire also brings warmth and energy, and when we are warm and energised we become passionate. To be baptised in the Fire of God’s Love is meant to set our own hearts on fire, to make us passionate about life, to make us passionate about this world and to give ourselves away passionately as a blessing to others.
Baptism in the fire of God’s love invites us to ask: What am I passionate about?... and in what way can that passion bring life and love to others.
May this story of Jesus baptism remind you of the meaning of your own baptism...
- That you are God’s beloved, made in love, by love and for love.
- That moment by moment you are immersed in and surrounded by God’s love
- That the unquenchable fire of God is none other than the purifying love of God that will over time burn away all that is not love within us.
- That the fire of God’s love is meant to set our own hearts on fire with love, a love of life, a love for others, a love for the world, and that God’s purpose for us is that we should take those things that we are passionate about and use them a means of serving and blessing others.
Isaiah 43:1-4 Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob,
He who formed you, O Israel;
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
When you walk through the fire you shall not be burned,
And the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
And honored, and I love you.