Just under a year ago, we welcomed baby Tessa to her first service and gave thanks for her safe arrival. Now her parents are ready to dedicate her into the life of the church, so we will do this during the service on Sunday. For those of you from non-Baptist backgrounds, it may look a little different to what you are used to: there is no water, and she will not be christened. So what, then, are we doing?
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” We understand this to mean that children do not need to be baptised as infants: God’s culture is already theirs.
This is not because they are intrinsically super-spiritual or particularly in touch with the ultimate realities. Instead, God’s culture belongs to children because they are deeply vulnerable, and rely completely on others to live. In this they model Jesus’ perfect life, ministry, and death. For Jesus relinquished all power and took on vulnerable human form. He relied absolutely on God for love and guidance, and the ministry of angels, women, and men for his needs. He also relied on religious institutions and the state for justice and mercy, although he did not receive them; and so, like too many children even now, he accepted their violence on his own body, even unto death.
And so, in her vulnerability, and in her utter reliance on her family and others for love, food, shelter, kindness, education, justice, mercy, and safety, Tessa is already part of God’s culture and embraced by Jesus. We perform a rite of dedication, then, to remind her family and her faith community – us! – of our responsibilities to her, and to commit to raising her in the patterns, practices, language and worldview of faith.
We do so in the hope that, one day, she will recognise and accept for herself God’s promise of abundant life through God’s life-giving culture, and will choose to enter the waters of baptism. As Baptists, however, we want her to have some idea of what it costs and what she is giving up when she makes this choice; to manifest signs of an integrated, dynamic, lived faith; and, because we are baptised into the church, to be able to participate meaningfully in the church meeting, before she makes irrevocable baptismal vows. In the normal course of things, we would expect she will be ready to do this in her teenage or young adult years.
This is not to say that christening a baby is wrong. Different denominations have different practices, which emphasise different interplays of grace, faith, and belonging. Because nothing can separate children from God’s culture, Baptists focus on personal freedom, owned faith, and individual commitment. In this view, baptism is seen as a mature response to God’s grace. This focus has its strengths and weaknesses, just as christening an infant also has strengths and weaknesses. I won’t write an essay about it here, but I’m happy to talk with you about it; perhaps the fullness of baptism is glimpsed when we recognise and respect variations in baptismal practice.
We will have a few visitors to witness Tessa’s dedication and make the vows with us, so, in the name of hospitality, please bring a little extra food. But most especially, please come ready to commit to help her hear the Gospel of Christ, and encourage her, in word and deed, to find her home in the household of faith – just as we do these things for every child in our midst.
Peace be with you.
Emailed to Sanctuary 10 January 2018 (c) Sanctuary 2018.