Baptism: initiation into the people of God

water-baptism2-300x204West Africa has many people groups. Different tribes “mark off” their babies with distinctive scars. One of my adult students, Francis, had an inch-long scar on his right cheek, just under his eye. During a break in class, I asked him about it. “This mark shows that I belong to my people,” he explained.

This practice may seem strange to those born in a Western setting, though with the rise of tattoos, perhaps less strange than in days gone by. Yet for any student of the Bible, African scarification immediately evokes how God marked off the ancient male Israelites as God’s own. Genesis 17:23-27 explains:

On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, and his son Ishmael was thirteen; Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day. And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.

For both Africans and ancient Jews, personal identity evokes “we” more than”me.” The people to whom I belong is of first and overriding importance. My story is important only as it is caught up in the larger story of my people.

The Old Testament people of God

The Old Testament takes this concept of group solidarity and goes one step further. Not only is the individual enfolded into the story of his or her people – the priority of “we” over “me” – but the people’s story in-turn is caught up in a much bigger story, the Story of God. In a land infested with idols to false gods, the prophet Jeremiah warned of a coming exile, but gave the hope of a people reconstituted one day:

They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me and that all will then go well for them and for their children after them (Jeremiah 32:38-39).

“They will be my people, and I will be their God.” This is the language of covenant, a solemn agreement between Yahweh and the people of God. Isaiah 49:6 is just one of a constellation of Old Testament passages that speak of Israel as a “light for the Gentiles.” They were to be a holy people, an example to the nations. Isaiah 56:6 speaks of “foreigners” who would come to Jerusalem, the “holy mountain,” to pray and make sacrifices to God. God’s people were to be a righteous, winsome, counter-cultural presence in the world, attracting even foreigners like a magnet to worship the one true God in the beauty of holiness.

The New Testament people of God

Old Testament passages like those in Isaiah are a bridge to the New Testament. In the New Testament, the people of God is no longer defined as blood descendants of Abraham. Rather, the people of God is comprised of anyone – Jew or Gentile – who are persons of the new covenant, the “new and living way” to God opened up through the sacrificial death of Christ (Hebrews 10:20). These individuals of the new covenant – this people of God – is the church.

Just as the ancient Jews “marked off” their male children through the rite of circumcision, so the new people of God, the church, marks off its young through a rite, that of water baptism. This replacement of circumcision by baptism is most explicit in the words of Paul to the Colossians:

 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form,  and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 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 (Colossians 2:9-12).

When the church evangelizes in communities largely untouched by the Gospel, many adults who come to Christ will not have had the blessing of growing up in a Christian home. In the United States, this is becoming more common. In some states, church attendance on a Sunday morning involves less than 10% of the population. Converts in such a context are unlikely to have a Christian heritage and – therefore – unlikely to have been baptized younger in life.  So, though older, they have never been initiated into the people of God. They, too, will pass through the door of water baptism into the household of faith, like the Ethiopian eunuch Philip baptized in the desert (Acts 8:26-40). As for the child baptized as an infant, they should receive later at a time when they can understand (traditionally around age 12) instruction in the meaning of their baptism and what it signifies to belong to the people of God. It is then – at the time some call “confirmation” – that they can affirm Christian faith as their own. By doing so, they  acknowledge what their parents by proxy accomplished when they presented them as babies for baptism. Confirmation means saying: “From the start, my parents always intended me to follow Christ, to be part of God’s people. Now, I openly acknowledge that these are my people, that Jesus is my Savior, and that I am His follower.” Like in many African cultures, so in the Christian family, the “we” precedes the “me.” This vital progression from “the faith of my family” to “my faith, too” is found in Paul’s words to Timothy:

I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also (2 Timothy 1:5).

Across Africa, there is an influx of converts to Christian faith. In a context where most are exiting African traditional religions, it is normal that most who are baptized are older. Yet as time goes by, the practice of baptism of those who are infants or young children is likely to increase, as portrayed in the book of Acts when entire families were baptized together (Acts 2:37-41, 16:33). Likewise, as believers in the West shift from the “Jesus and me” perspective to that of “Jesus and we,” the frequency of baptizing the young will surely grow. In any case, there is one baptism, not two (Ephesians 4:5). Baptism remains the once-in-a-lifetime sacrament (literally, “visible word”) of initiation into the people of God, though it may be performed very early or later in life, depending upon the circumstances.

Whether the sacrament of baptism is administered to an infant who later is confirmed or (alternatively) to an adult candidate, the people of God are the people of the covenant established by the blood of Christ (Luke 22:20). The “marking off” of baptism is an initiation into that holy people, at whatever age it occurs. It is an acknowledgment of the priority of who we are together, that the people of God predated me and they will continue when I am gone. I am a chapter in a book, an important chapter, to be sure, but  the book is a story of “we” with many chapters. Through baptism, I have been caught up in this bigger, divine/corporate story, the story of God and God’s people. What a story!

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Image credit: Horizoncrc.org

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