Friday, August 29, 2014

Youth Questions: Why Do We Baptize Infants?

Note: I asked our youth to write down any questions that they had about faith, the church, or life in general.  This is a part of that series.

Question: Why do we baptize infants?

     A question about infant baptism reminds us that there are two ways to understand baptism, those who baptize infants, children, and adults and those who only baptize adults.  The second group is generally those who perform “believer’s baptism.”  This group (and a great many churches belong to it) believes that in order to be baptized, a person must be old enough to understand what baptism means and make a conscious decision to put their faith in Jesus before being baptized.

    Our church (the United Methodist Church) does not subscribe to this interpretation of scripture for two basic reasons (although I’m sure theologians could identify – and argue about - more).  The first reason for why we baptize infants is because the disciples did.  In Acts 16:14 Lydia and her household are baptized. In Acts 16:32 the jailer who oversaw the imprisonment of Paul and Silas, “and his whole household,” are baptized. In Acts 18:8, Crispus and “his entire household” are baptized and finally, in 1 Corinthians 1:16 Paul remembers that he baptized “the household of Stephanus.”  It was a time in history when the head of the household, male or female, decided the faith of everyone.  We might think that’s odd until we remember that our world isn’t all that different.  Few of us decided to attend church as children.  We came to church because our parents decided we were going to church.  Then, the head of the house decided for everyone, adults, children and even servants, and today parents still make some of those same decisions for their children.

    The second reason was one that mentioned in my last blog “What is Baptism?”  We believe that the “thing that happens” at baptism is something that God does and not something that we do.  At baptism, the Spirit of God enters into us and begins work inside of us.  After baptism, God’s presence goes with us and is active in our lives drawing us toward faith and a belief in Jesus Christ.  Since the disciples baptized whole families, we understand that God can do what God does in the lives of children even before they are old enough to make a conscious choice to follow Jesus.  We may not completely understand what it is that God does, or how God does it, but we choose to allow God to be a part of the lives of our children, even as infants, through baptism.

Previously: What is Baptism?

Next: Why don't we baptize older children?


Other questions and answers in this series can be found here: Ask the Pastor

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Youth Question: What is Baptism?

Note: I asked our youth to write down any questions that they had about faith, the church, or life in general.  This is a part of that series.

Question: What is Baptism?

    In order to understand what baptism is, it might be helpful to understand where it came from.  Jesus didn’t invent baptism but the events of his life, death and resurrection changed it forever.  But first, the history: If you’ve ever heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, you have probably heard of the Essenes, the folks who hid them.  The Dead Sea Scrolls are the most ancient copies we have yet discovered of many ancient texts and they tell us a lot about the culture of the people who left them behind.  From the scrolls and from archaeology, we know that these people regularly dipped themselves in water, not to remove dirt, but as a form of ritual purification, to become purified in the sight of God before worship or prayer.  In the same way, priests and everyday folk would pass through a ritual bath before entering the Temple during the time of the New Testament.  The priests often had ritual baths (called Miqveh, pronounced mick-vuh, or mick-vay) in their homes, but ordinary folk could pass through some swimming pool sized baths (men and women were separated, of course) that were just outside of the Temple.

    In that world, we meet John the Baptist in Mark 1:4-5 who appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”

    John’s baptism built on this cultural idea of ritual purification.  People came to John to be baptized as a symbol of their repentance before God.  But after the coming of Jesus, something changed.  In Acts 19:1-7, Paul and Apollos meet followers of God in Ephesus that had been baptized by John but who had not heard the story of Jesus.

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples  and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”

“John’s baptism,” they replied.

 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.”  On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.

    Something happens at baptism that is more significant than just ritual or symbolism, and more than just the repentance of the person who is baptized.  What happens at baptism is something that God is doing, far more than the people who are participating in the baptism.  In our church we say that baptism is a sacrament, one of the two (along with communion) in which God is present and is a participant in the event.  We believe that the “thing that happens” at baptism is something that God does.  This is why we do not typically “re-baptize” those who have already been baptized.  Doing so would be saying that God didn’t do it right the first time.

    But in addition to what God is doing, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus also added layers of meaning to the symbolism of baptism.  In Romans 6:3-5, baptism is compared to Jesus’ death this way…

 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.

    The symbolism of baptism is now more than just repentance, going under the water and coming back up also symbolizes Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection so that, through baptism, we too are buried and are raised to begin a new life.  Peter tells us (1 Peter 3:20-22) that baptism saves us through the resurrection of Jesus, just as the ark saved Noah and his family.

    And the final layer of meaning and symbolism is added by Paul in Colossians 2:10-12 where he says,

 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ,  having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.

    In God’s covenant with Israel (the Old Covenant or Old Testament) the symbol of joining and being a part of the covenant was male, infant circumcision.  But now, after the life of Jesus and the coming of God’s new covenant  (or New Testament), the symbol of belonging is no longer male circumcision, but baptism for all people.  For us, baptism is the outward sign that we have put our faith in Jesus Christ and have chosen to belong to God’s people.

Next: Why do we Baptize Infants?


Other questions and answers in this series can be found here: Ask the Pastor

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Youth Questions: Why Use Grape Juice Instead of Wine?

Note: I asked our youth to write down any questions that they had about faith, the church, or life in general.  This is a part of that series.

Question: Why do we use grape juice instead of wine for communion?

    There are potentially two reasons that our church decided to use grape juice instead of wine.  The first is real and the second one, though historically real, may or may not be connected to the original juice vs. wine decision.  That second reason goes back to John Wesley who used to preach against the evils of “distilled spirits”- which meant liquor.  As I understand it, the evil of liquor wasn’t its alcohol content, but that selling liquor was so profitable for landowners, that they distilled most of their crops into alcohol rather than selling them for the making of bread and other foods.  With the majority of crops being directed onto the production of distilled spirits, food became so expensive that the poor often couldn’t afford to eat. 

    Whether that is connected to what happened later, I’m not sure.  But as the temperance movement grew in the 1800's, the Methodist Church, and the Women’s Society (a forerunner of the United Methodist Women) were leading the fight to ban alcohol.  Being a part of the temperance movement and later, supporters of Prohibition, it was awkward for the church to serve wine during communion.  And so, in 1869, a doctor who was also a Methodist minister, named Thomas Welch used the newly discovered process of pasteurization on grape juice so that it could be preserved without alcohol in it.  For 20 years, the majority of Mr. Welch’s customers were churches like ours because his invention enabled them to serve communion without alcohol.  But after a while, Americans began to develop a fondness for this new beverage and I am sure that most of you can still find Welch’s grape juice on the shelves of your local grocery store.

    Today, The United Methodist Church no longer preaches temperance or lobbies for prohibition, but that history remains a part who we are.  Today you will find many churches, and many Methodists, who still abstain from alcohol.  Regardless of whether you, your family, or members of your church drink, that DNA and that history are a part of who we are, and so we continue the tradition of using  grape juice instead of wine when we serve communion.


Other questions and answers in this series can be found here: Ask the Pastor

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Youth Questions: What is Communion? Why do we do it like that?

Note: I asked our youth to write down any questions that they had about faith, the church, or life in general.  This is a part of that series.

Question: Why do we do communion the way that we do?

    Before we talk about how we “do” communion, we ought to talk about what it is, and why we do it.  The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Luke 22 is a good example) all tell the story of the Last Supper.  This was the Passover meal that everyone in Israel shared together every year to remember God rescuing them from slavery in Egypt.  In some ways, this meal was a lot like some of our families celebrate Thanksgiving.  Often a lot of the same people were together, if you were anywhere close to home you usually met with your family, and every year there were traditions, speeches, and toasts that everyone had memorized.

    This particular meal was the last big meal the disciples had together before Jesus was arrested and crucified and Jesus was the host.  But during the meal and he did some really unusual things that the disciples didn’t understand (until later).

    First, when Jesus broke the bread, instead of saying what everyone usually said, Jesus said this is “my body” broken for you.  Later, during the second toast of the evening, Jesus completely changed the script.  Instead of saying the usual Passover speech, Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” This toast had all sorts of connections to Jewish culture, from being a reference to the first Covenant that God made with Abraham, to having amazing similarities to the toast where a Jewish groom seals a contract (a new covenant) to return and marry his bride.  The disciples were understandably confused by this because it didn’t fit with Passover.  It all made sense to them later though after Jesus ascended into heaven and they began to understand that Jesus was the bridegroom and the church was to be the “bride of Christ” after his return.

    In any case, when Jesus broke the bread and drank from the cup Jesus asked his followers to “do this in remembrance of me.”  And so, just as the Jews celebrated the Passover every year to remember what God had done for them, we celebrate communion as we remember what Christ has done for us and also remember that Christ is coming back.

    But returning to the original question, there are lots of ways to “do” (we usually prefer to say “share”) communion.  We can have communion by intinction, in which we tear a piece of bread off of a loaf and dip it in a common cup.  In some cases, people all drink out of a common cup, but because of concerns about unintentionally sharing germs, that method is not often used today.  We also share with little pieces of bread and tiny cups, or with unleavened bread (which might be flat breads like pita bread or something like saltine crackers).  For very large groups there are plastic cups that include a small wafer of “bread” under a foil seal and a cup of juice under a second foil seal.  In that way, the ushers only have to pass out one basket that includes both of the communion elements.  At one large youth gathering I heard about, they wanted to share communion but didn’t have enough bread and juice so they used potato chips and cola (there are some theological problems with this, but their hearts were in the right place).


Other questions and answers in this series can be found here: Ask the Pastor

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