Baptism — How Important is it?


“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
(Galatians 3:26)

I was teaching an adult Sunday school class recently at a local suburban Presbyterian Church. Staying on for worship, I experienced a real treat: a Baptism. The infant was winsome; the young parents were beaming; the grandparents were both elders in the church so they asked the congregation to promise to nurture her in Christ.

After the water on the child’s forehead and the prayers, the pastor lovingly walked with the baby up and down the center aisle as the congregation sang,

Child of blessing, child of promise, Baptized with the Spirit’s sign,
With this water God has sealed you Unto love and grace divine.
(The Presbyterian Hymnal, 498)

As I watched and reflected that day, I thought, “This child may grow up to awaken to being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.” How important is this Baptism for this person and for us?

Baptism is the ancient entrance into the family of God, which is the Body of Christ. Christians in the past have killed one another over the meaning of Baptism and the question of whether children should be baptized or not. The Presbyterian Church bases its practice of infant and adult Baptism upon references in Scripture. And Presbyterian tradition is clear that our Baptism is the primary qualification for service in any office of the church. God adds to it the call and the gifts to do the job.

It is thirty-three years since the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) barred lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members from ordination to the offices of deacon, elder and minister. One of the serious consequences of this prohibition has been the undermining of Baptism as a Sacrament of the church. In essence, we have said to our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members, “Too bad, your Baptism pales in the light of our judgment of you.” This weakens our faith in the power of the Holy Spirit at work in all our Baptisms.

In her testimony last summer at the General Assembly, Libby Davis sounded a ringing call for returning the standards for ordination in the PCUSA to gifts, call, readiness and suitability for service. She sees the revision of the ordination standards to be a reestablishment of Baptism as God’s adoption of each child. Check out her thoughts by the power of the Internet.

Think about all the children we have baptized, taught in Sunday School, lovingly invited to the front of the church for the Children’s Sermon, seen head off to church camp and service trips, cheered on as Youth Group leaders. When some of them realize at some point — Chuck Nichols said he knew he was different when he was five years old– that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender what they hear from the church is, “You now no longer have a place here. Go away.” Even silence shouts this at them. Their friends and families hear this chilling judgment, too.

How important is Baptism? I stand with Libby Davis in crying out to the Church and the world: The falling of the Holy Spirit upon each child at Baptism is absolutely the most important thing. That is true the day before our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children share the truth about themselves with us, and the day after.


Reverend Janet

9 Responses
  • pennyjane hanson on April 10, 2011

    oh my, how God must sometimes shake His head in wonder at how lost we can get; that we would kill each other over HOW we baptise! i wonder, did Jesus instruct john at His own baptism?

    but then, He holds out His light throughtout the night and celebrates when we do find our way back to Him.

    i was not baptised in the presbyterian church…but i should have been very pleased to have been. more than just the sealing of the relationship between God and the baptised, at least in our church, it is a covenant that adds the congregation to the mix. we are asked to see to the care of this child…or adult as the case may be. THIS congregation assumes responsibility for acting as God’s hands and feet in the life of the child as long as he or she is with us, they are in our care.

    i wonder…as the child is passed among the congregation..does anyone cross their fingers and add…”unless you are gay, or, God forbid, incongruent of body and spiritual gender!” who would really want to make a promise to God in such bad faith?

    i’m reminded of all the trouble that has come from questioning God’s call. all the difficulties that were heaped on the israelites because they questioned moses during the times in the wilderness…the real price that they paid for failing to heed the message the (God ordained) spies brought back from canaan…and on and on and on. you’d think we’d eventually learn that God rarely calls the obvious, He more likely calls those He has prepared and equipped to answer according to His instruction. the called are more likely to react like moses than like mary.

    maybe, when we are considering a call, we’d be better advised to base our judgments on things we DO understand than on those things we don’t. we can understand love and committment, but what do we really know about loving attraction? we can very often identify love when we see it, but how often can we say “why” one loves? maybe we should just stick to looking to see if there is love and leave the why’s to the One who does know.

    being baptised is step one but i am always humbled and often mortified when God does call me for anything, those are the times when i am israel. there is only one God and He is: “I am who I say I am and I will be who I will be.”

    much love and hope. pj

  • Janet Edwards on April 10, 2011

    Dear pj,

    What a great connection you make between Israel’s caution about entering the Promised Land and our hesitance to open ourselves to God’s new thing! And I get that this hesitance applies to us as individuals when God calls and to communities like the PCUSA.

    May God give us all the courageous alacrity of Mary, as you say, rather than the second guessing of Moses!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, pj.

    Peace, Janet

  • pennyjane on April 10, 2011

    hi janet….mary, courageous? hmmm….i wonder, was it courage or maybe, in her faith, she was just simply fearless?

  • Helene Loper on April 19, 2011

    Baptism has always represented for me not only a covenant with a congregation, but also the sign of GOD’s covenant with believers. It is a sign of both fact and future. As a sacrament in Presbyterian understanding, it is established by Christ. For an infant the promise is of nurture in the faith. When grown it is manifest in the gifts of the Spirit for service in the church. The nurture may vary, but in the promise and gifts God never fails. So for my understanding of the sacrament in regard to gays and lesbians, the problem is in the church, not God’s calling or love. The disillusionment is in the ability of the institution to fulfill it’s part in the covenant. What God will do about that is up to God. I’ll just keep on with the spiritual journey that my own baptism as an infant began. God is faithful.

  • Janet Edwards on April 21, 2011

    Dear pj,

    You raise such an intriguing distinction here!! What is the important difference for you between “courageous” and “fearless?”

    Thanks for chiming in! Peace, Janet

  • Janet Edwards on April 21, 2011

    Dear Helene,

    I am grateful for your helpful elaboration upon the complexity of Baptism.

    As a Sacrament (an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace), God’s promise in Baptism is trustworthy and true for all baptized, both child and adult. The church fails in following through on the nurture we promise the child and the reception we promise the adult. This seems to me to be what you are saying, Helene.

    If I did not understand you correctly, please let me know.

    Peace, Janet

  • pennyjane hanson on April 21, 2011

    hi janet. i really do think there is a distinction between courage and fearlessness….and i think it comes down to surity of outcome.

    it takes courage to face that you fear and you are unsure of how things might come out.

    fearlessness is more like facing something that might seem quite fearful on the surface, but you have no doubt about the outcome.

    i learned the difference between the two when it came to transition. there were times in my life before i transitioned when i might have, maybe should have…but i didn’t have the courage. every outcome i could imagine seemed like disaster. had i the courage, i may very well have jumped off that cliff anyway…but i was not so endowed.

    it was only after i became totally convinced that it was God’s will for me to do so that i became more certain of the outcome….that it, in fact, would not be a disaster and no matter what circumstances i might encounter would be His will and He would see me through…i lost my fear and thus it took no courage at all. as crazy as it might seem, to myself and to others, i was convinced that He has His plan and i would be fine if i submitted myself to His will. He wanted me to become a better person than i was and, through His Holy Spirit, pointed out to me that living a lie was not the way to grow in Him.

    that’s just a small example. in the prophets i can see great courage. i see men of uncertainty, of questioning and weak faith, who none-the-less, listened to God and did as instructed. in the case of mary, i read it differently. in her magnificient simplicity i feel that she just accepted God’s will at face value and jumped off that cliff with no fear of the outcome at all.

    i could easily be wrong…but i thank and praise God for that one day of great faith in my life when He didn’t leave me to depend on courage, but took my fear away.

    much love and hope. pj

  • Janet Edwards on April 22, 2011

    Dear pj,

    What a fantastically helpful clarification!

    I have long used the Serenity Prayer with its petition to receive “the courage to change the things I can.” Applying your understanding of these words, “courage” here would be attempting to change the things I can without fear of the possible outcomes or consequences. Have I understood you correctly?

    I am eager for your further thoughts.

    Peace, Janet

  • pennyjane hanson on April 22, 2011

    hi janet. i am not very good at articulating the feelings i have about courage and fearlessness, though the distinction is palatable for me.

    if courage were involved in changing those things you can, then fear is implied…by the very word. it takes “courage” to face that which we fear, it takes none to face what we have no fear of.

    in the example using my transition…i knew there would be negative consequences…the same consequences i hadn’t the courage to face. it was only when God took my fear away that i was able to go ahead with His plan. all of those horrible things i envisioned, the things that kept me chained to a life i wasn’t free to fulfill, came to be. i got kicked out of my church, i lost my job, my family abandoned me, my friends were all horrified, i was a public clown, even got called that to my face…in anger.

    all of those things were horrible, i don’t even imagine the kind of courage it might have taken to survive that time. if it had taken courage i would have backed out the first day, no doubt about it. but, it didn’t. i knew these things might come and yet i didn’t fear them, i trusted that God would see me through. i was convinced that this was HIS way and so the end would be good…i had His assurance.

    some might think of fearlessness as a bit crazy, and maybe it is, but fearlessness born of grace…like a lot of things Jesus does, just turns crazy on it’s head. now i think of transition as maybe the sanest thing i have ever done. it’s brought me closer to God than i ever imagined and i feel like a useful tool instead of a frightened wallflower afraid of everything and everyone. when one is too afraid to do her own will, how can she attempt to do His?

    i guess that still doesn’t make much sense, but…i equate courage to fearfulness and fearlessness to grace.

    much love and hope. pj

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