When Carrie and I lived in Wilmore, there was one Sunday morning that I turned on the TV and watched the first few minutes of a sermon given by a preacher in Lexington that was broadcast on a local channel. In a sermon on baptism, the preacher opined a great deal about how infants “don’t know what’s going on in a baptism like those who are able to make a conscious decision are” and how wrong infant baptism is. He even suggested that infant baptism had pagan roots and declared that it is a “heathen practice.” And as if his lack of doing serious homework about the history and tradition of infant baptism wasn’t enough, I suppose he hadn’t considered that what he was about to say next went directly against the logic that he was spewing. In the very next sentence he began to make a connection between the practices of circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New. He said, “just as circumcision was the outward sign of an inward change in the old covenant, so was baptism the sign of the same in the new covenant,” drawing on the connection Paul makes between the two practices in Colossians 2:11-12. (Ummmmm…Maybe he didn’t know about the practice of infant circumcision?)
Of course, opponents of infant baptism typically do not appeal to such a strong connection between these two practices, but the analogy between them is worth exploring and is part of the reasons why United Methodists baptize infants (see more in this official document of the UMC). The connecting point between them is that they are the distinguishing signs, or seals, of the covenant(s) God makes with God’s people. In making covenant, God initiates the relationship and agreement, through giving grace and making promises that would be unattainable through mere human effort or merit. Nonetheless, there are expectations of the covenant people to maintain their end of the covenant, which involves obedience to divine commands, living holy and loving lives in response to God’s gracious actions in claiming and redeeming the lost or enslaved people.
When God established covenant with Abram in Genesis 17 (and therein changes his name to Abraham), God says that circumcision will be the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham/his descendants. The commandment given to Abraham was that every male offspring from his line should be circumcised on the eighth day of his life. The covenant seal was to be given to males born in the lineage. Were the infants aware of the expectations they would be expected to meet when they were circumcised? Of course not. But they were taught from the beginning of their lives that they were an already graced and redeemed people in the midst of a dark and broken world. And that there were expectations of being the people of God for those who had been given this grace: expectations including continually turning to God and the ways of God, offering sacrifices for the ways in which they failed to live into their expectations of the covenant, as well as being a “light to the Gentiles.” For Abraham and Ishmael and for the uncircumcised Israelite men about to enter into Canaan (Joshua 5), the ritual signifying and sealing this was done (much to their pain) when they were adults or older youth, as they were about to embark upon the fulfilling of the promise. For every other male born into the lineage, the rite was to be done in infancy.
When God established the new covenant through the death and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus with those who identify as followers of the Christ, the sign and seal of the covenant is baptism. Baptism is the liturgical language used to describe Jesus’ death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-14, Mark 10:38-39 to name a couple). At the birth of the church (i.e., Pentecost), Peter urged the crowds to repent and be baptized that they might receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. His very next statement is that this promise is for the people who respond and for their children. By this, I see already the seeds of where the practice of infant baptism is congruent with this new covenant established by God in Christ. In baptism, we are washed in water and born of the Spirit and this, I read, is not just for adults but for children too. And much of what could be said above re: circumcision can be applied to this new covenant, sealed in baptism. That they (and we) are taught from the very beginning that we are an already graced and redeemed people in the midst of a dark and broken world. And there are expectations of being the people of God for us who have been given this grace in Christ: to live a life of continually turning to God and God’s ways through repentance and confirming or professing one’s faith to the community; receiving the grace of reconciliation and renewal offered through the body and blood of the Lord by partaking in the meal that celebrates the new covenant; and being the “light of the world” that stands in need of this grace.
There are a couple of differences worth mentioning, too. 1.) This sign of the covenant makes no distinction between ethnic distinction. When entering into the waters of baptism, there is no need to attempt to change your appearance, skin color, or ethnic identity. The good news is for all peoples. 2.) This sign of the covenant makes no distinction between genders. Whereas circumcision was a rite only done to males, baptism is for male and female, for in Christ there is no distinction (Galatians 3:28).
For the crowds gathered at Pentecost and for the world who was about to hear about the gospel of Jesus for the first time, the ritual signifying and sealing this was done (without the pain of circumcision) when they were adults as they were to receive the promised Spirit. For every other person born into a family of this faith, the rite could very well be done in infancy. “The promise is for you, and for your children…”
Thanks for tuning in. More to come as we’ll look more at the book of Acts next time…but don’t let that stop you from commenting or or raising questions in the mean time! 🙂