Thinking Anew – ‘And now the mark of Christ is upon you’

Baptism confirms and establishes the love which is already poured out upon us. Photograph: Getty Images

Baptism confirms and establishes the love which is already poured out upon us. Photograph: Getty Images

 

‘Little child, you belong to God. You always have and you always will, and now the mark of Christ is upon you.” I read of a priest who speaks these beautiful words over every baby he baptises.

Last Sunday our focus was on the baptism of Jesus. His baptism was the taking of time and the making of space for a moment of truth to take place, an affirming of what already was. A voice was heard from heaven, “You are my son, the beloved”. This is a vital starting-place from which to reflect upon baptism. Baptism confirms and establishes the love which is already poured out upon us, before any work is done. Baptism is precious and multifaceted, like a diamond which catches the light and blazes fire, and it is mysterious. Is it God’s response to a person’s commitment? Is it a sign of God’s free-flowing love? Does a person receive the Holy Spirit at the time of baptism or is this something different?

All the blessings of God available for us in Christ are reflected most brilliantly and beautifully and colourfully in this ancient rite. The varying emphases by different parts of the church each have a valuable contribution to make, enriching the whole.

Yet baptism also has a dark side. It is brimful of the grace of God, and anything which is freely given (like the grace of God) can be easily abused. It has been (and remains) deeply divisive; in fact – unbearably – conflicting beliefs around baptism have historically driven Christians to ostracise, dishonour and even slaughter each other, in the name of Christ.

Whenever I conduct a baptism I share the following illustration: I hold up an envelope, which represents the love of God, and I slip a card in the envelope, representing the person being baptised. “We are already completely loved by God and surrounded by his love”, I say. “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. But in baptism, this envelope of love is officially sealed.” I seal the envelope.

That’s what baptism does. It seals us into God, forever. It’s like the adoption papers have finally come through. We belong to God already, and we also now belong to each other, officially. Baptism is our welcome into the Church. The waters of baptism cleanse us, refresh us, drown us. Through baptism we are plunged into the saving waters of the grace of God, from which there is no return.

This is where it gets confusing. Because we all know people who are baptised who don’t show any sign of or interest in belonging to Christ. In the same way we may know faithful Christians who for whatever reason have not undergone baptism.

Founders of the Salvation Army William and Catherine Booth, for example, decided to exclude the practise of baptism. They considered that baptism had been so abused that it had lost its meaning, and had become in itself a means of salvation, and a tool of power for the institutional church. This too is a response of integrity, offering an important gift to the wider body of Christ.

How can we square this with what we have just described about the beauty and power of baptism? How can such a deep and precious rite be at the same time so negligible, so unmeasurable?

On the one hand we know that God loves us already, pre-emptively. Yet we know also that baptism is not a magic spell. God graciously waits for our consent, however long this takes. We cannot presume to recognise this in anyone else, only seek to live out our own baptismal vows as faithfully as we are able.

The Holy Spirit cannot be seen, she goes where she chooses; just as we can’t see the wind but we know where it is because we can see the treetops blowing. I believe that our baptism holds us until the very end. In my mind’s eye I see the waters of baptism closing over our heads when we have taken our last breath.

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