Writing about baptism, my experience of it and its relationship with our understanding of time, has been very enjoyable and has been a subject of discussion not only in the comments on those posts but also in the churches where I am serving. I’ve promised to write more about the doctrine and practice of infant baptism, and in the previous posts I wanted to give just a few introductory thoughts and lay a little groundwork to prepare the way for a more substantive explanation and defense of the practice. In the next few posts I want to delve into what is probably the most common critique of infant baptism, namely, its supposed absence in Scripture. Folks who oppose the practice of baptizing infants are quick to point out that there is never an explicit example of an infant being baptized in the Bible.
The validity of that critique could be challenged (more on that later), but even if the statement is true, I could simply say, “Psh. There are a whole bunch of things that all churches do that aren’t explicitly done in Scripture.” Nonetheless, given the central importance of the rite of baptism in the life of the Church (it is, after all, a one-time only event for every Christian), it is worth giving a biblical explanation for why we United Methodists recommend to administer the sacrament to a person “as soon as possible and practical,” which means that infants are appropriate candidates for receiving the sacrament.
Examining the etymology of the term “sacrament” reveals that the term means a “sacred oath” and is meant to draw our attention to God’s action in making a covenant of grace with us. When we use covenant terminology and envisage the sacramental expression of the salvation of God’s people through water, our minds may go to several different parts of Scripture. The chief one, though, is the Exodus story and proclamation that God brought God’s people “out of Egypt,” words that we find throughout the Scriptures that identify and tell the story of the deliverance of God’s child(ren) from the bondage of slavery. Similar to what I said in a previous post about the “when” of one’s salvation, if you asked any Israelite or Jew in the post-Exodus era, “When were you saved?” the response would be something like, “When God led Moses and our predecessors out of Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea.” The stress, again, is on God’s action and intent to save a people prior to any decision, experience or response on our part as individuals. In this post I want to point out three occasions of the “out of Egypt” phrase, one from each the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospels.
First, let’s look at the opening line of the covenant established in the immediate aftermath of the Exodus. In treaties or agreements in the Ancient Near Eastern world between two people groups, if the more powerful party wanted to indicate their benevolent intent toward the other people group, it would be stressed in the opening line, or what we call the preamble. What are the introductory words to the Ten Commandments, which is at the very beginning of the covenant made at Sinai? “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” In this covenant and in the UMC baptismal covenant, one recognizes the action of God in the saving acts, not primarily the decision or response of the people (or person). In the Exodus story, the LORD acts as the people’s cries for help reach God’s ears (Exodus 3:7-8). And when we think of the initial cries that humans offer up in search of help or grace, these may come from any person, including infants. (We might also find some significance to Moses’ infancy narrative in that it was in and through water that he was named and drawn out, or rescued! See Exodus 2:1-10)
Next, let’s turn to the Prophets, where we see perhaps more than anywhere else the pathos, or emotive expression, of God’s compassion towards God’s people. Behind the sharp words offered from the fearless spokespersons we find God’s concern for justice and compassion as well as the Lord’s desire that the people turn from their faulty ways and recover their identity as God’s children and mission of being God’s light to the rest of the world. This is especially seen in Hosea chapter 11, which describes God at the point of weeping in compassion as God’s children drift further away from their identity and purpose. And that passage begins this way: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” In this warm expression of divine compassion, God calls attention to when God showered love and grace on the people from the earliest stages of their life:
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
God’s children are beckoned to remember the covenant made in faithful, parental love by their sovereign deliverer. The image of the people in this is that of an infant being brought into covenant relationship which God wrought through the waters of the Red Sea and continued in growing the people in grace.
And it is precisely the Hosea 11 passage that Matthew quotes in 2:15 in saying that the flight to Egypt and back to Nazareth by Joseph, Mary and Jesus “was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’.” Matthew’s account of Jesus’ infancy is filled with details that are meant to remind the reader of the narrative of God’s people in Egypt: the prominence of a person named Joseph who has prophetic dreams, folks coming from far off to pay homage, and of course from Exodus, a paranoid tyrant who being afraid that his power may be in jeopardy orders a slaughter of all male infants. The point: it is in Jesus’ infancy when he embodies and fulfills the story of God’s people being called and delivered “out of Egypt,” which occurred through the waters and the covenant established by God with them.
More to come…