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God in action: re-imagining baptism


In my former parish, baptisms took place once a month. They were held at the morning eucharist, on a Sunday. The reason we held baptisms at this service was simple: baptism is a church event, public not private.

Sr Liz Baptising

Our decision to baptise at the main act of worship always seemed right to me. Nonetheless, it proved troublesome in practice. That’s because a large number of baptisms would take place at the same time. One Sunday, for instance, we baptised nine children during the same service. This meant we had over three hundred people in church, the majority of whom had never stepped foot inside the building before. Things quickly got out of hand. Mobile phones rang, people chatted, with some walking in, others popping out, and there was some pushing and shoving around the font as the crowd jostled for prime viewing space. It was pretty chaotic.

From where I stood, it was clear that our visitors were not getting what they expected, which was a picture postcard ‘christening’, with lovely photos, all neat and tidy. Instead, the messiness of church was unsettling them, something especially evident when they found themselves centre-stage, pronouncing their promises, and clearly uncertain of their standing in the community. It just didn’t look like they fitted – and I don’t just mean their suits. As a result, I judged them.

With critical thoughts racing through my mind, I began to question whether anything – other than their physical presence – showed that these people really meant this. From what I could see, they clearly didn’t, and so I was left wondering whether we can make sense of such baptisms today. I believe that we can, but it requires us to think about God – and that is never easy.

First, a confession: we do not know how baptism works. That’s because baptism is a sacrament, and though we can make sense of these sacred mysteries, we cannot explain their fundamental mechanics in the same way we can other events. On one hand, sacraments are simply creaturely signs of God’s work. They are like signposts on the journey of life. Baptism states: Jesus Christ is the truthful way through death to resurrected life. But because they are sacraments, the things we do don’t just point to Jesus. They also bring about that which they signify. They are instruments as well as signs.

Imagine a sign and instrument like this. You are standing on a platform at the train station. You look up at the departure board to see what time your train will depart to your destination. The electronic board signifies what you need to know, but if the board was a sacrament it would also take you on your journey as well. A sacramental event, therefore, can be understood as a means by which God gathers his people into Jesus Christ, and a human sign of that action.

With this in mind, a brief detour will help us catch sight of what might be happening in baptism. Baptisms clearly have something to do with identity. The child is named during the service, and identified with God’s people. Now, as the theologian Robert W. Jenson – to whom I’m indebted throughout – shows, identity has something to do with completion. Think, for example, of the way we communicate. If the person speaking doesn’t finish their sentence, we can’t identify what they mean because the point is incomplete, the meaning left open. It is like me writing, “Here we must see baptism as…uhm…”, or, “The sacrament of baptism is a… uhm…” You wouldn’t know what I mean because the sentence is unfinished. In similar fashion, we might have known a person for years, but we don’t really know them because their life remains unfinished. Tomorrow, they could do something so amazing or so terrible that we’d be forced to re-imagine them. “Well, I always thought Smith was a good man, but this shows he’s terribly vicious.” “Well, I always doubted Jane, but wow, she’s so brave to attempt that”. The jury’s still out on our identities because we have a future.

If this is how things stand, our identity is known only when we die. Death fixes identity because it means there’s no longer a future for us in which the unexpected can happen. Death really is our end.

A theological point follows from this: if Jesus never died, but was instead happily walking around Galilee and about to celebrate his 2016th birthday, we couldn’t know whether he’d wake up tomorrow and reveal something new about himself, a spiteful side or a selfish streak perhaps. But Jesus did die, and so we know his identity. He is the one we meet in the gospels, the friend of tax collectors and sinners, the truthful man of peace and mercy. It is this Jesus who is raised from the dead, eternally alive, with death now behind him. We can really trust him because his identity is fixed.

What has this got to do with baptism? The God of the gospel is eternal. This doesn’t mean he is without time, but instead has the fullness of time. In his freedom, he is time’s Lord and it cannot contain him because he outpaces it, embraces it. The past and the future are neither lost nor separated for God because he infinitely has the beginning, middle and end present to him as he transcends them through the eternal life of Father, Son and Spirit. Thus, our lives are strangely present to him in a way that they’re not to us, not because our lives are over determined, but because God is free from the restrictions of time’s single direction. He can go ahead and he can return.

If all this is true, then we can say that God, who is present in the baptismal event, has always-already seen our end, thereby knowing the highs and the lows and where we’ll end up. We are fully known by him because he transcends our limits, coming at us from every direction, including beyond the grave. With this in mind, baptism can be understood as the event in which God promises today what he already sees ahead of us. He declares that the identity of the baptised is to be found in Christ because he sees them die in Christ in the future. Baptism is therefore God’s anticipatory word on the question of our identity, a strange word from the future by which God establishes what lies ahead.

If baptism is a divine word of identifying action from our future then the human action of the candidates – and their parents and godparents – becomes less central. The human act is located within the live miracle of divine action which takes place amidst the messy open-endedness of life. Of course, the candidate must still be carefully prepared, supported, and incorporated into the ongoing life of faith. But these processes are to be understood within a theological account that has divine action at its centre. Consequently, there is less pressure on us to police the purity of everyone’s intentions, because we trust the intention of the eternal God whose identity is the mercy of Jesus Christ. That, I think, is very good news.  f


Revd Dr Lincoln Harvey is Assistant Dean and Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St Mellitus College in London, as well as being Associate Priest at St Andrew’s Fulham Fields. He was previously a novice in SSF. He is author of A Brief Theology of Sport (SCM Press, 2014).