A common understanding of baptism is that it is a membership ritual. The candidate is initiated, with water and words, into the Church club. The candidate, or the candidate’s parents and sponsors, make statements assenting to the club’s beliefs, and promises about commitment. To be baptized is to choose to belong.
Those churches that practice believer’s adult baptism express this ‘becoming a member’ understanding most clearly. However, many churches that practice infant baptism have a similar understanding, but commitment is made by proxy. The parents and sponsors pledge allegiance to the club on the infant’s behalf until the child is of an age to make that commitment themselves.
The baptismal theology of the 16th century reformation has quite a different understanding. It is all about God choosing us, rather than presumptuously thinking that we are choosing God.
The reformers, Calvin and Luther, said that the baptism that creates belonging is the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words the word ‘baptism’ was used as metaphor for the saving work of Christ.
When the Anglican Prayer Book (p.933) refers to baptism as “the sacrament by which we are made children of God” it is not referring to the rite of water and words said around a font, but to the saving work of Christ. This is the basis of the well-known response of Karl Barth to the question “When did you become a Christian?” Barth responded: “In 33 A.D.”
So through God-in-Jesus the whole world is embraced, loved, accepted, redeemed, and said to belong. God and Jesus haven’t formed a church club, instead they’ve taken down the walls of the religion club and said ‘everyone belongs, those of faith or no faith, those deemed acceptable or unacceptable.’ There is neither male nor female, slave nor free, clean nor unclean, saved nor unsaved… all humanity is one, and loved.
Of course the reformers would not agree with my last two sentences. They, like many Christians, were still imprisoned in the delineation between saved and unsaved, still promoting the idea that they know what God thinks, who are God’s favourites, who has reserved seating, and who shouldn’t be let in. They still have a club mentality. In doing so I believe they belittle and shrink God.
The reformers would also not agree with me when I say that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus revealed the constant nature of God, rather than struck a new supernatural deal for humanity’s salvation. The essence of God, that power of mutual relation, was always one that embraced, loved, accepted, redeemed, and had everyone belonging.
That’s why my favourite baptism story is the one from the Sufi tradition that we heard read this morning.  The reprehensible youth – the unrepentant sinner – is, according to the Divine voice, a friend of God’s. When God calls him ‘friend’ the youth has not changed his proud and selfish ways. The youth didn’t come to his senses like the Prodigal Son did. The youth has not said sorry to God, or to his community.
Rather the initiative is solely God’s. God, who in the story is given a literal voice, states that this boy, like every boy and girl, adult and child, is God’s friend. God has always loved and accepted all people, extending grace even when no grace is warranted. And it is that love and acceptance that inspires this youth to go on and serve those entrapped in poverty.
So when a child is baptized we, the Church, are acknowledging the grace and acceptance of God extended to all. We are not saying this child – based on his or her good looks, intelligence, or parent’s beliefs – is special in God’s sight. Rather we are saying that all children, and adults, are special in God’s sight. Baptism is not an invitation to join a club. It is a sign and declaration that in God all the walls and policies and rules that religious clubs create fundamentally don’t matter, and don’t count.
In Luke 13:10-17 Jesus meets a woman who is badly crippled and he wants to, and does, heal her. The problem is that it’s the Sabbath day. The one day of the week where the club rules say ‘Honour God by doing nothing’ [a kind of church bureaucracy response to anything contentious].
Jesus argues with the Synagogue leader. But Jesus’ argument is pretty weak. Animals need water on the Sabbath because it’s necessary for survival. This woman and Jesus could have waited a day longer – I mean she had been like this for 18 years!
As we read the gospels we might realize how often Jesus did something rather than nothing on that one Sabbath day in the week. Whether it was plucking corn to eat (Mark 2:23), healing sick people (Luke 14:1-5), or casting out demons (Matthew 12:43-45). I think he did it deliberately. I think it was a deliberate part of his political-spiritual strategy of challenging the dominant religious club of his day.
Jesus’ sound bite for the press was simple: “The Sabbath was made for people; not people for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The rules were made for people; not people for the rules. In other words people’s needs trump club rules.
Yet Jesus had more to say than that. He wanted to radically change the rules. He wanted to open up the doors of the club so wide that the club would cease to be a club. It would become unhinged. Religion would change beyond recognition.
As I mentioned last week Jesus’ primary method of political protest was eating and drinking with outsiders and undesirables. The meal table exemplified in miniature the power structure of society. At the meal table Jesus refused to keep to the boundaries set by the religious club.
His critics were horrified, for example, at the thought of women, especially unmarried women, being at his dining table and thus accused him of eating with ‘prostitutes’ [the standard denigrating label for any woman outside of appropriate male control]. Those labeled ‘prostitutes’ were, in the opinion of his critics, people with whom open and free association should be avoided, less one be contaminated.
Jesus’ open policy and vision of inclusion was good news for those beyond the bounds of the religious club. Illness and poverty, for example, were seen as signs of sinfulness, reasons for exclusion, and dangerous contaminants. Jesus didn’t see it that way. He envisioned God’s realm as a banquet table where the last and little ones in society, the ill and the poor, would be welcomed in, polluting the party, and be served first. It was a topsy-turvy vision.
It was also highly political. First century Palestinian society was structured along hierarchical lines, with the patriarch in charge. Below the patriarch were the eldest son, then other sons, then the first wife, etcetera… with slaves at the bottom. It was a top down arrangement held together with strict social codes. Religion supported and emulated this familial arrangement. It was, and largely still is, a male hierarchy.
Jesus’ vision promised a new family beyond patriarchy where everyone, male or female, adult or child, slave or free, were equal siblings under God. Mutual affection, equality in decision-making, and fidelity to one another were worked out in the context of this new ‘family.’  The Jesus movement redefined family just as it sought to redefine both power and God.
How people imagine God and God’s power is directly related to how we imagine a decent person to be. For many generations the most highly valued person was the one with greatest power, wealth, and sometimes knowledge. So people inevitably imagined God as being like that. God was then, as Bill Loader points out, “as unapproachable and self-obsessed as such people have been.”  The way to live was to try to get on with the people of influence. The same applied to God. Keep the commandments! Commandments are not to be questioned. They have absolute authority because they come from absolute authority.
Jesus had a totally different way of imagining God. God is not modeled on the aloof king or the powerful father, but on the mother looking for a lost coin and the dad who cast aside his dignity and went to embrace the son who had hurt him deeply. The façade of dignity and power was dropped in favour of affection and love. It was a deeply challenging redefinition of God, God’s power, and how human power should be exercised.
Should a baby be baptized, welcomed and celebrated in church? ‘Of course,’ you might say. But what if its parent or parents are despicable scumbags and the child is likely to grow up the same? Shouldn’t the church uphold values of right behaviour and therefore discourage and punish wrong behaviour? Doesn’t God have standards? And shouldn’t we?
These questions, though valid, don’t reflect the vision of Jesus. Instead they reflect our need to form clubs, have boundaries, and set rules. Baptism follows only one rule – and that is grace. In the name of grace Jesus deconstructed the walls of the religion club and let all the bent and battered riff-raff in. To paraphrase Edwin Markham:
Religion drew a circle that shut many out
- heretics, rebels, failures no doubt.
But love and Jesus had the wit to win;
They drew a bigger circle that took everyone in.
 De Mello, The Song of the Bird, Gujarat : Sahitya Prakash, 1982, p.85.
 1 Corinthians 13, commonly read at weddings, is in context about the love and mutual affection within the Jesus community.