What good does baptism do?
Is there any difference between a child baptised and a child not baptised? Are the children who have been baptised here over the years and whom we never see - any better than children who were not baptised? With whom they go to school and play? With whom they will work beside in later life? As they live out their lives? As in time they come to die and leave this earth? Baptism’s primary meaning is found within the life of the Church. If baptism brings people and children into the Church and if they live out their lives in the Church, baptism does a great deal. Baptism is the spiritual anointing of the Lord Jesus Himself. It is by His command that we do this. He is in the middle of it, baptism’s source and purpose, inspiration and guarantee. It must be good. The leaders of The Reformation were clear that it is the active faith of the parents which makes baptism valid. It is their vows and promises to God that matter because they take them on behalf of their children. In the New Testament whole families were baptised at once on the conversion of the parents as we heard in our reading from Scripture earlier. The assumption is that the little ones will be brought up in a Christian environment with good example from parents and the family circle.
In the history of the Christian Church baptism came to be the default setting for the newly born. It was expected that every child be baptised. That goes back both to the New Testament and to ideas about baptism that grew in the 5th and 6th centuries from the teachings of St Augustine. Fear of eternal damnation became a negative impetus towards baptism. It was taught that no-one could be saved outside the Church. That is still the basic theology of the Church but the Church keeps quiet about it in this multi-cultural age. Since baptism was the means of entry to the Church, it guaranteed salvation. The Church of Scotland has always maintained that its task is to bring the ordinances of religion to everyone in Scotland. That is very second hand language and it explains and underpins all the nominal parish church going of past ages and today. In other words, ‘getting the wean done’ was part of life in Scottish Christianity whether Protestant or Catholic. Even then, at its most formal and tentative, baptism was still important in the past. There was a view also that a small child required baptism to thrive. In ages without science based medicine, spiritual power and spiritual health was more important to people than it now is today. Imparting God’s real and actual blessing, strengthening and presence in a child was understood to be the best start in life. Times have changed. But - are children the better for not by and large being baptised - even nominally - in the context of a parish Church?
The Church teaches that baptism is a saving sacrament. In the Church of Scotland there are only two, the other being Holy Communion. We mean by a saving sacrament a visible sign of the actual forgiving and saving love of God being active in our midst. Baptism lasts forever. Some people who have never attended church but who are coming to the end of their lives remember that they were once baptised. The point here is that God keeps his Covenant with us, even if we neglect or reject our side of it. The whole burden of the Old Testament is that God remains the God of Israel even when Israel wanders from the path of fidelity and commitment. Suffering comes however to the People of Israel as a result of their apostasy, of their leaving God out of their lives and indeed, of turning to other gods. If parents have their children baptised and do not then continue in the life of the Church - they are the losers. But so is the Church. Because we need every life and soul for witness to Jesus Christ.
Does this mean that being a faithful Christian all your days and never darkening the door of the Church are equal in God’s sight just because there is a baptismal certificate in your name? Parents have children. Some children in families are closer to parents than others. Often one child is closer to a parent than the others. In many families a child or children disappear in adult life and make no contact with the parents for years and decades. Some ignore their parents and do nothing to help them in later life. And some are like Ruth in the Bible who clung to her widowed mother-in-law Naomi and would not be parted from her and cared for her all her life. But parents will tell you that the lost child and the faithful child are still their children. They cannot deny their own flesh and blood. They may bring them no joy nor even any company, but they brought them into the world and cannot reject their own offspring. The wonderful story of the Prodigal Son in the Bible illustrates this clearly. The father loved both his sons, the skellum and wastrel and the dutiful, ever present - equally - differently to be sure - but equally. I was a part-time prison chaplain at Shotts Prison many year ago. One of the most moving sights was seeing the mothers of prisoners visiting their sons. Some of these women were elderly and their sons in middle life. Some were lifers and the only person in the world who still loved them was their mother.
So God loves those baptised in His Son’s name even if they have no time for God in their lives and do not make a profession of Christian faith in adulthood. But - they are the losers because they live out their lives without God’s close and active presence and blessing in their lives. Not knowing Jesus as their personal Saviour, Friend Guide and Lord. Not having the inspiration and energy to think of others and contribute positively to others. And it shows. And it shows in their children and theirs. And the gap widens - into eternity. The good that baptism does is made clear in the keeping of the baptismal vows by the parents. It is the same for those who profess faith and join the Church. Many do - not so many keep their vows. If everyone who professed faith here attended, we would not have enough seats for them all.
In Psalm 51 we learn of the deeper purpose of baptism. 'Wash me and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness…blot out all my iniquity'. Baptism is the sign that our sins are forgiven. Maybe someone here needs that forgiveness today. Even for an adult, baptism has the same power. Our human nature is far from perfect. Without someone to follow, we are prey to all sorts of lesser choices. We make things to worship instead of worshipping the living God. We stray into forbidden territories and activities, harmful and dangerous, addictive and catastrophic. Attending séances and consulting spiritualists, spending endless hours on violent computer games, looking at internet pornography, sleeping around, gambling hard earned cash, drinking excessive alcohol and getting into drug taking. These have become a way of life for many in this nation - once Christian - no longer so. We need to be cleansed and made whiter than snow. We need forgiven. We need a new start. We need to live better lives.
Baptism is a family thing and its blessings work in and through and out over the years if the parents keep their promises to God. They are already witnessing to Jesus Christ in seeking baptism and professing their own faith in Jesus Christ. It is counter cultural nowadays. Being a Christian in this country is not as acceptable as it once was. Let us encourage those who come here with their children and share in their happiness in their little ones. It is the Lord who has met them here as well as us. No-one who has met Jesus Christ forgets Him.
The jailer in Philippi believed and was baptised with all his family. The text says he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God - he and his whole family. Our Scottish Christianity is not historically associated with a lot of joy. We are seen as dour and even miserable - poor adverts for our faith. But the whole Bible says that joy accompanies friendship with God and our Lord Jesus told his disciples that His own joy would be theirs. Baptism does a lot of good and not the least is assurance of the love of God and the inspiring presence of Jesus Christ throughout our lives and those of our children down through the generations of those who are faithful.