Last Sunday was a special day in the life of our family. Our daughter, Emmaline, was welcomed into the family of God through the sacrament of baptism.
Emmaline did not make the decision to be baptized, as she is two months old. Her parents, partners in a clergy couple who are fluent in the language of theology, made that decision for her. Some would say that we have made a theological error, that baptism requires a decision on the part of the one being baptized. There has been significant chatter in recent weeks in the United Methodist world about the merits of infant baptism. Baptism is more meaningful, the argument goes, when it occurs to an adult. Adults who were baptized as infants wish they had waited.
To this I say: preference misses the point.
Baptism is a sacrament. Sacraments are outward signs of inward grace, and grace flows from God. In the United Methodist tradition, grace goes before us, pulling us towards God and one another, even before we know of grace's power or God's goodness.
In baptism, we are claimed by God and initiated into the church. We are not saved through this act, because salvation is a process much longer and more complex than a simple act. But we are claimed by God. We are offered grace. We are reminded that God can act even in a child; you might remember that it was through the birth of a child that Christianity began.
It is true that the church (and the clergy) facilitates this act, but baptism is initiated by God whose grace goes before us. Infant baptism reminds us that God's power is much larger than a simple decision; salvation is much broader than a moment in time. When we see an infant baptized, we see the ultimate argument for the power of God's grace: even in this child, who cannot feed herself, or clothe herself, or make her own decisions--even in this child--God is at work. I am reminded that while I am called to work alongside God, the good I do is not for my own glory, but for God's.
My own memory is also beside the point. When the church reminds me to "remember your baptism, and be thankful," I am not supposed to pull up in my memory bank the specific incident. I am supposed to remember that I am God's, that I have been claimed, that through the sacrament of baptism the collaborative God is at work in my life.
Let me say one more thing about the merits of infant baptism. Even among those who affirm the importance of baptizing infants, there is frequently a subtle preference for adult baptism. I have heard it said that churches ought not be judged by the number of baptisms, but by the number of adult baptisms, as this latter number supposedly more accurately represents a church's commitment to reach out to those outside its walls; these baptisms are seen as "meaning more" than the baptism of a child.
I do affirm the importance of reaching out, and I do believe (as Bonhoeffer says) that the church is only the church when it exists for others. We ought to be baptizing new people, for all people are God's children and all people deserve to know God's amazing grace. It is an important day when an adult is baptized. I, myself, was baptized as an adult.
And yet this subtle privileging of adult baptism over infant baptism once again places the focus upon the individual, rather than God, for it matters less how one comes to be claimed by God than it matters that one is claimed by God. Yes, we ought to be reaching out, and those who did not receive the sacrament of baptism as children ought to receive it as soon as they are ready to receive it. But baptism is baptism, and God's grace is God's grace, and no matter when we are claimed by God, it is an important day, and a day in which the company of Heaven rejoices.
Watching our daughter be baptized, surrounded by so many who love her so much, has reminded me of what a good God we serve. And when she is old enough, I look forward to telling Emmaline stories of the people who surrounded her in love and prayer--and in the promise to see that she is raised in the faith--so that she may remember her baptism, and be thankful.
Because the redeeming love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, extends to
all persons and because Jesus explicitly included the children in his
kingdom, the pastor of each charge shall earnestly exhort all Christian
parents or guardians to present their children to the Lord in Baptism at
an early age. (The United Methodist Book of Discipline)