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Second Sunday after Epiphany

Readings: Isaiah 62:1-5, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 & John 2:1-11

Normally my sermons are based on the readings for the day that are set out in the Lectionary, but I’m not doing that today. Two weeks ago, during our Spiritual Cafe session at North and Eight cafe on Buckley Street, the topic of baptism came up, and I was asked what the difference is between “christening” and “baptism”. 

We had such a good discussion, which seemed to be helpful and informative for people, that I thought it would be good to share it with everyone. And given the focus of my sermon last Sunday was the ‘baptism of Jesus from a Jewish perspective’, I thought it made sense to continue with the theme of baptism, but more from the perspective of what baptism means for us and the church in general today.

Perhaps the best place for us to start this morning is for me to correct a popular misconception that we are baptised into a denomination. When we are baptised, we are baptised as Christians, not as Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Greek Orthodox or any other denomination. 

In the Great Commissioning, at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said to the apostles, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. (Matt. 28:19 NRSV) He didn’t say baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and then separate them into all of these different categories. That’s unfortunately something that human beings have managed to do all on their own.

The reason this is important, is that sometimes, a person who was baptised in, let’s say the Anglican Church, might decide to leave the Anglican Church and join the Assemblies of God Church, and they think believe they have to be baptised again, but this time as a member of the Assemblies of God. You only need to be baptised once. You can always reaffirm your baptism, if that is something you want to do, but you can’t be re-baptised. 

As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3–4 NRSV)

From the perspective of Anglicanism, baptism is one of the two sacraments recognised by the Anglican Church of Australia; the other being Holy Communion, which is also referred to as the Lord’s Supper.

The definition of a sacrament is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given to us by Christ himself. The outward sign in baptism is water, in which the person is baptised “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. The inward and spiritual grace is a death to sin, and a new birth to righteousness.

People sometimes use the term “christening”, especially when they are talking about getting their baby baptised. So what is the difference between “christening” and “baptism”? For us in the Anglican Church of Australia, the answer is none – the two terms basically mean the same thing and are often used interchangeably. 

Within the Anglican Church, we tend to use the term baptism rather than christening. If you look at the liturgy in a A Prayer Book for Australia, there is no mention of christening. The rite of initiation into the Church is the service of baptism. However, I’m sure there parishes and priests here in Melbourne who still use the term christening, and I think this might be a throwback to the Church of England.

 Even today on its website, the Church of England lists “christening” separately to the term “adult baptism”, which suggests that a christening is a service to be used with young children and infants. However, on the “christening” page of the website, in answer to the question ‘is a baptism different to a christening’, the website states, “there is no difference between a christening service and a baptism service. Some churches will use the word ‘baptism’ and some the word ‘christening’. The moment when your child has water poured or wiped on their head is the actual baptism and is at the heart of the service. Babies are baptised during a christening service just as couples are ‘married’ during a ‘wedding’ service”. 

We can define Christian baptism as the sacrament of initiation into life in Jesus Christ. It marks the beginning of a Christian’s participation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It signals a person’s death to an old way of life, and their birth to a new way of life in Jesus. Baptism is seen as being the ‘cleansing’ or ‘washing’ of a life marked by sin. 

In the same way that water washes the body clean, so God’s forgiveness washes away the sins of people who truly repent. But if baptism is the commencement of Christian life, signifying a dying to an old way of life and and the rising to a new way of life with Christ, together with the washing away of sins we have committed in life, then we perhaps need to ask the question what sense does it make to baptise babies?

For centuries there have been objections to infant baptism raised by people in the Baptist traditions, but more recently they have been raised within Protestant theology by the well known twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Barth’s objections to infant baptism are three-fold:

  1. There is no clear basis in Scripture for infant baptism.
  2. Barth argues that infant baptism has led to the assumption that people become Christians by birth. Because infants are obviously incapable of deciding their faith for themselves, Barth believes they are therefore forced into the Christian faith, which in turn undermines the idea that we are justified by the grace of God if we believe in Jesus.
  3. Barth’s main argument is that infant baptism clouds the true meaning of baptism as the entrance into free and responsible Christian discipleship. Baptism marks the beginning of a new life in Jesus, where people are free to make their own response yes to a call from God, and to commit themselves to a life following Jesus. But that doesn’t happen in the case of infant baptism.

It is difficult to argue against Barth’s objections to infant baptism, but one line of thinking, offered by Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, is that in infant baptism, the child is welcomed into a loving Christian community that takes responsibility for helping the child to mature in the Christian faith. In this case, it is the faith of the parents and the community that responds to the grace of God. And when the child is old enough, he or she can answer for himself or herself and reaffirm their faith. In the case of those baptised in the Anglican tradition, this happens through the service of Confirmation. 

For us Anglicans, A Prayer Book for Australia tells us that at our baptism we were made members of the body of Christ, we became children of God, and inheritors of the Kingdom of God. 

In baptism we promise turn to Christ and renounce all evil; to put our trust in God; and to strive to live as a disciple of Christ all of our days. And we commit, with God’s help, to keeping these promises. We thank God for calling us to salvation in Jesus Christ, and we pray for God’s grace that we may continue in this way until our life’s end.

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