Baptism at First Church
In the United Church of Christ we celebrate two sacraments: Baptism and Communion
This is prepared by the Board of Deacons and ministers of the First Congregational Church to assist us to follow the command of Jesus Christ: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In particular, this booklet is designed to help individuals coming to be baptized or parents bringing their children to be baptized to understand more fully the meaning of this sacrament.
The paragraphs that follow are not hard and fast requirements. They are witnesses to the rich tradition of the Christian Church regarding this sacrament which we all share. They are offered so that your participation, together with us, might be more meaningful.
BAPTISM IS A SACRAMENT
Because of the central place of baptism in the New Testament, because Christ himself was baptized, and because he commands his disciples to baptize others, the Church regards baptism as a sacrament, traditionally defined as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” It is a public symbol and act that reminds the individual and the congregation that God reaches out to us in love. It provides the individual (or the parents) an opportunity to give public expression to a personal Christian faith. And it is an expression of God’s grace offered to each person. Baptism is, therefore, an act celebrated by the whole church as a sign and seal of God’s love and redemption, and the incorporation of individuals into the family of God, as sisters and brothers of Christ.
BIBLICAL BASIS FOR BAPTISM
Baptism has its roots in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, and Luke begin their accounts of Jesus’ ministry with the story of his baptism by John in the Jordan River, (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22). The Gospel of John begins with the account of John’s ministry which culminated in his bearing witness to Jesus as the “one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” (John 1:19-34)
Jesus himself speaks of baptism during his ministry. He tells Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) And the risen Christ commands his disciples to baptize all the nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)
In the Acts of the Apostles, baptism is seen as the proper response to Peter’s preaching of the good news on the day of Pentecost: “Repent, and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) The apostle Paul describes baptism as a sharing of Christ’s death and resurrection, inaugurating in each believer the new life of Christ. (Romans 6:3-4)
One other passage is frequently used at infant baptism. While not referring directly to baptism, Jesus’ invitation to the children, “Let them come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14) has traditionally been interpreted by the Church as one basis for receiving children into God’s family.
The Church has also found rich images in the Old Testament which bring added dimensions to our understanding of baptism. The story of Israel’s passage through the Red Sea in Exodus suggests baptism as a sign of deliverance and the beginning of a pilgrimage toward the land of promise. The story of Noah and the Flood has suggested to the Church that the waters of baptism be viewed as a judgment on the old way of life and as the means of traveling toward the new way of life.
THE 1982 WORLD COUNCIL STATEMENT ON BAPTISM
In 1982, the World Council of Churches issued a statement on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, which soon became a landmark in the ecumenical movement as it was the consensus of the widest range of Christians that had, to that date been developed. The two opening paragraphs summarize beautifully the essentials about baptism.
“Christian baptism is rooted in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, in his death and in his resurrection. It is incorporation of Christ, who is the crucified and risen Lord; it is entry into the New Covenant between God and God’s people. Baptism is the gift of God, and is administered in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. St. Matthew records that the risen Lord, when sending his disciples into the world, commanded them to baptize. (Matthew 28:18-20) The universal practice of baptism by the Apostolic Church from its earliest days is attested to in the letters of the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, and the writings of the Fathers. The churches today continue this practice as a rite of commitment to the Lord who bestows his grace upon his people.”
“Baptism is the sign of new life through Jesus Christ. It unites the one baptized with Christ and with his people. The New Testament scriptures and the liturgy of the Church unfold the meaning of baptism in various images which express the riches of Christ and the gifts of his salvation. These images are sometimes linked with the symbolic use of water in the Old Testament. Baptism is participation in Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12); a washing away of sin (I Corinthians 6:11); a new birth (John 3:5); an enlightenment by Christ (Ephesians 5:14); a reclothing in Christ (Galatians 3:27); a renewal by the Spirit (Titus 3:5); the experience of salvation from the flood (I Peter 3:20-21); an exodus from bondage (I Corinthians 10:1-2) and a liberation into a new humanity in which barriers of division whether of sex or race or social status are transcended (Galatians 3:27-28; I Corinthians 12:13). The images are many but the reality is one.”
WHAT DOES BAPTISM MEAN?
Our church holds the view that there is no single answer to this question. There is instead a range of meanings reflecting the
diverse heritage of our Christian faith as well as the depth and richness of the sacrament itself.
Acknowledging this, we can say that baptism means:
responding to a call by God to become a member of a new family, the worldwide family of the Church;
making God’s love visible by doing this with the church, the people who are also members of this new family;
following the example of Jesus’ baptism;
using water as a symbol of cleansing and as a symbol of God’s love for all people;
being joined with Jesus Christ by acting out his death to (the old way of life and his resurrection to) new life with Christ; and
proclaiming the unity of our faith by sharing this experience with believers of every century, every nation, every denomination.
Baptism is a positive, beautiful gift of God, not a negative act which suggests that we take out an “insurance policy” against sin and hell before it is too late. The keynote of Christian baptism is love, joy and celebration, not fear of damnation. Baptism is a sign that God calls us into the church and gives us the promise of an abundant life in Jesus Christ. For an infant, God’s love and promise are sufficient. For an adult, forgiveness and understanding are also involved. Frequently, all these gifts to the baptized person are summed up by saying they are given by the Holy Spirit. To speak of the Holy Spirit is to indicate that God works and acts in our present world and in our everyday lives. Since baptism signifies that God has given us the gifts necessary for a meaningful life, since Christ instituted it and promises the Holy Spirit to people who believe in him, the Church baptizes in the name of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This is the first part of baptism: what God has done. It is always the same, no matter what the age of the baptized. When an infant is brought to be baptized, it is a strong illustration of the fact that God loves us and wants us even before we can ask for or think that we have “earned” that love. In fact, by baptizing infants, we are saying that we do not earn our way into God’s family at all. Our acceptance by God is a free, undeserved gift.
The second part of baptism is our response to God’s gift. This varies with the age of the individual. The most direct answer can only be given by the person being baptized: “I accept the fact that I have been accepted by God.” So, when an adult is baptized, the answer is joining the church. When an infant is baptized, parents make the confession for themselves on behalf of the child. Then, at a later date, the maturing child makes a personal confession in the rite of confirmation. At that time, the young person “confirms” what was promised by parents at an earlier time in the baptism. In this way each child baptized as an infant makes a personal confirmation of that baptism. For both the adults and children, the Church’s response remains the same: “We welcome you into the family of God and promise to fulfill our responsibility to you as your brothers and sisters in Christ.”
WHAT IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY IN BAPTISM?
As an adult, baptism becomes the occasion for making a public confession of faith, for becoming an active member of a local congregation, and for beginning a lifelong journey of faith. For an infant, baptism is an occasion for parents to reaffirm their own faith and commit themselves to the task of teaching their child about the Christian faith at home and through the Christian education program of the church. Because baptism is a significant event and a serious commitment, there may be times when a decision not to have a child baptized is the most honest and appropriate one. The minister will assist you with this decision and will remind you that God’s love and care is present regardless of your decision.
WHERE DOES BAPTISM TAKE PLACE?
Baptism usually takes place during a regular service of the church. One primary meaning of baptism is that the infant or adult is being received into God’s family. Baptism at a regular service indicates that there is a mutual bond between the congregation and the individual. This bond is also often symbolized by the presence of a Deacon in the baptismal service. In the case of infants, this also offers an opportunity for the congregation to share in the joy of the family on the occasion of their child’s birth.
The fact that the local church is sponsor may help parents decide whether to have their children baptized in the “old home” church or in the “new church” in their present community of residence. Baptism properly belongs in the church where the family worships on a regular basis, where the child will attend church school, and where the relationship with pastors and members is regular.
CAN I HAVE SPONSORS OR GODPARENTS?
The true sponsor of every baptized person is the church. It is the local congregation and the whole church that assists you in the raising of your children, a fact explicitly affirmed in the baptismal service as the congregation accepts its responsibility toward you and your child. Sometimes parents will choose special persons to stand with them as sponsors in addition to the congregation. While not necessary, this may have special meaning for the family or continue an honored family tradition. These persons, by their close friendship or family ties, represent one of the special ways the church fulfills its pledge. They should be instructed in advance of the meaning of baptism or their responsibility as individual representatives of the church. To be a sponsor or godparent is not a legal commitment – the legal role of guardian is done through the instrument of a will.
WHEN SHALL I HAVE MY CHILD BAPTIZED?
There is no “right” or “wrong” age for baptism. It will depend upon you and your child. Baptism is normally celebrated once a month during a Sunday morning service (usually the third Sunday of each month). You may make your request for baptism by contacting the ministers, or the church office. Please allow sufficient time for counseling and preparation.
WHAT IF MY CHILD IS NOT AN INFANT, YET NOT OLD ENOUGH TO JOIN THE CHURCH?
If a child is old enough to have some understanding of baptism, but too young to be confirmed (high school age), one of the ministers will want to talk with the child prior to the service to explain what will happen and to answer questions. Depending on the age and maturity of the child, a simple question indicating the child’s growing awareness of God’s love may be asked during the baptismal service.
THE DAY HAS ARRIVED
On the day of the baptism the entire family is encouraged to be present. Brothers and sisters are invited to come forward with their parents. The family is encouraged to remain for the whole service. Younger children, however, may want to attend the church school for the remainder of the service and there is a nursery for infants. Finally, because baptism demonstrates God’s action in our lives, which the church and the ministers are privileged to administer, there is to be no gift, fee, or honorarium.