1. Our Ever-Changing World
In an ever-changing world, nothing stays the same for very long. In a little over fifty years we’ve seen some dramatic changes: TVs have gone from black and white, to colour, to stereo, to digital and now to 3-D. Recorded music has gone from 78s, to 45s, to LPs, to cassettes, to CDs, to being available to download online. Computers, that once filled an entire room, now sit on your lap. We’ve been to the Moon, and now we’re looking at Mars. And the pace of life seems to get faster and faster.
If ever there was a period of change in history this is it. However change is not just a feature of technology, it’s part of every aspect of life. Indeed, it affects our businesses, our friendships, and our family life.
So in a world of constant change, what we need to do is periodically stop, take a breath, and examine who we are, where we are, and where we are going. We need to see if what we are doing is still relevant.
2. Our Changing Church
And one the things that seems to be going through a bit of a shake-up in our churches at the moment is the idea of initiation ceremonies—the rites of passage at important points in life—birth, marriage, and death. But if I were to tell you that that was nothing new about that, would that surprise you? Because if we were to look throughout history, even in the bible, practices have continued to change.
B. RITES OF PASSAGE: WEDDING AND FUNERALS
With marriage, in early Old Testament years there was an emphasis on a relationship being consummated without the need for any ceremony or celebration at all. And the story of Isaac and Rebekah is an example of that. Skip then to the New Testament and the wedding at Cana, and we can see the whole village being invited to attend the celebration. However there is still no record of any ceremony whatsoever. Celebration, yes; ceremony, no. Indeed, in biblical times, even from external sources, there is no evidence of their being any wedding ceremony at all.
With funerals, in biblical times, the general practice was to bury people within hours of death. There was generally no preparation of the body, no pomp, and no ceremony. The attendance by a priest would have been strictly forbidden—it would have made him ceremonial unclean and unfit to carry out his duties. And it certainly wouldn’t have been performed in any consecrated building. As a consequence, it is only in later years that a more ritualised approach was adopted.
So in earlier times neither weddings nor funerals would have been conducted by a minister of religion. Nor were they conducted in any consecrated building. In fact, even in the Christian church, the earliest evidence of a church wedding, dates back to the 4th century A.D., to a period when Christianity had been adopted (for political reasons) as the religion of the Roman Empire. But even then, it was not for the masses. For even in England in the middle ages, it was customary for the general population to come to the vestry door for approval to live together, without the need for any church ceremony at all.
When we see changes in practices in regard to weddings or funerals today, then, we shouldn’t be surprised. Weddings and funerals have always been tied very much to the culture of the day. And history tells us that they neither practice has any real connection with the church at all.
C. RITES OF PASSAGE: BAPTISM
But what about baptism? Because baptism is the only one of the three that has any real religious ceremonial base. Is it alright for that to change too? Well as you can probably guess baptism is something that has evolved over time too.
Originating in early Old Testament times, the idea was not an immersion in water, but rather a simple ceremonial washing or cleansing with water.
In the Old Testament, during the time of Moses, priests who went into the Tent of Meeting needed to wash (Exodus 29:4). It was a simple ceremony symbolising the removal of any stains. The ceremonial washing indicated the washing away of things they had done wrong, the mistakes they had made. They were then symbolically pure and clean before the presence of God and could carry out their duties.
As time progressed the washing idea developed further. It became a rite of initiation, but for gentiles. It involved baptism: immersion in water. And the idea was that people of non-Jewish backgrounds who wanted to adopt the Jewish faith could symbolically wash away their past, clean themselves of previous beliefs and practices. They could then start life again as a new person, with a new found relationship with God. Baptism signified a desire for the gentile to adopt the Jewish faith. But, at the same time, it provided the means for Jewish believers to accept the gentile believer into the community of faith.
Despite that, however, at the beginning of the New Testament, and with the advent of John the Baptist, we are faced with a radical change. Because John’s baptism wasn’t just a ritual washing or a method of including gentiles into the faith. Rather John called on his own people—the Jews—to repent of their past ways and be baptised too.
John’s emphasis was on the need for moral change. Baptism was a commitment to put away the past, with all its mistakes, deliberate or otherwise. It was a commitment to put away self-interest, and to put away putting oneself before God and others. And with that it brought a new emphasis: It was about a total commitment to God and, as a consequence of faith, a total commitment to a Godly way of life.
John’s baptism included not only the need to have a complete break from past practices, but it required people to admit their mistakes, to confess their sins (Matthew 3:6), and to commit their whole way of life in a totally new direction.
And yet whilst John’s baptism was a radical change from the past, he still saw that his view of baptism was only temporary. Indeed he pointed to the time when the Messiah would come, and that baptism would be changed even more radically.
Consequently, with the arrival of Jesus, we should not be surprised that two new ideas were incorporated into the concept of baptism. The first, to equate baptism with the idea of death (Luke 12:50), with the necessity of Jesus’s own death and resurrection. (And with that many different images are provoked, like the need to die in order to gain life, and being dead to the old, and alive to the new.)
And secondly, the idea that baptism with water was incomplete. And that to be truly baptised one needed to be baptised with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11) too.
In other words, Jesus acknowledged the value of a physical baptism with water, as something which cleanses; as something which is symbolic of our wish to put away our past and start again; as a sign of wishing to become a member of the community of faith; as a sign of repentance; and as a means to commit ourselves to focussing our lives on God. But he also acknowledged that we need God’s help. Consequently there was a need to include in baptism: The idea of accepting Jesus in his death and resurrection; and the need to accept the gift of the Holy Spirit to dwell inside each and every believer.
And that was a radical change to the meaning of the baptism of John the Baptist, and all the various meanings of baptism and ritual cleansing that had gone before.
D. COMMENT ON BAPTISM
So, then, when we talk about baptism today, what we’re actually talking about, is a number of ideas that have gathered over time, culminating with the stamp that Jesus put on baptism himself. And we have to remember that when we consider the relevance of baptism today.
Christian baptism is then (in brief): Firstly, a simple ceremonial washing; a washing away of the dirt of the past and becoming clean before our God. Secondly, it’s an initiation ceremony. It’s an act expressing a desire to be a member of God’s kingdom, and an acknowledgment of acceptance into the community of faith. Thirdly, it’s a decision to acknowledge past mistakes, to turn over a new leaf, and a commitment to something quite new. And fourthly, it’s an acknowledgement of the necessity of Christ’s death, with all the symbols that his death and resurrection conjure up. And it’s an acknowledgment of the need of the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, that is so essential for a true relationship with God.
And that is why when we practice baptism, in particular, we need to remember three things: Firstly, it is something that Jesus told his disciples to go out and do (Matthew 28:19-20). Secondly, Jesus taught it was to be administered in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). And thirdly, that water is to be used as an outward and visible sign (Acts 8:36) of something that should have already happened spiritually inside.
The practice of the early church was to administer baptism not only to individuals (Acts 8:38), but to whole households (Acts 16:15): parents, children, slaves, etc. And it is on this basis that many churches still practice infant baptism today.
E. IS BAPTISM STILL RELEVANT?
Having said all that, we again need to ask the question: “In our changing world, is baptism still relevant?” After all, weddings and funerals have changed—and probably many times over the years. But what about baptism? Does that need to change with the times too?
Well, to the question of whether baptism is still relevant, I think the answer is “Yes”. Man’s basic spiritual nature hasn’t changed; mankind is still very much in need of God’s solution to salvation. And that is what baptism is all about.
But if that’s true, does the form of the ceremony need changing? Well I think the answer is “No”. The symbol of water to indicate washing, cleansing, and even drowning to the old and rising to new life is still very relevant. And the ceremony in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is just as relevant now as it was in New Testament days.
So if the meaning and form are still relevant, that only leaves the question of when baptism should be administered. And in this we have to remember that baptism isn’t a simple naming ceremony, it is not an initiation ceremony into the world. And if that is what we want to use it for we undermine the whole meaning and purpose of baptism.
No, baptism is a serious response to God concerning salvation for the faithful to whom baptism is targeted. And if that is true, then baptism is just as relevant today, as it was when Jesus commanded his disciples to practice it nearly two thousand years ago.
Christening—or giving people new names—as an added symbol of putting away the past, may still be relevant for older people wishing to be baptised. But for non-believers, who are looking for some sort of ceremony to welcome their children into the world, an alternative, even secular welcoming or naming ceremony, would be far more appropriate.
Because baptism is not a ceremony that one should goes through and then forget. There are deep implications with baptism that shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Not least of which is the need to acknowledge mistakes, to put the past behind us, to make a concerted effort to live a new life, and to maintain and nurture a commitment to a healthy relationship with our creator.
So where does this all bring us to today?
Well, the church may have been involved in the conduct of baptisms, weddings, and funerals in the past. And in days gone by, when a greater proportion of the population went to church, the church’s development in that direction may have been understandable—although not necessarily wise. But things have changed, and with the diminishing interest in the church in our community and culture, it is perhaps time to put things right.
Some today may look sadly, on the changing role of the church, in regard to rites of passage, but let’s think about it for a moment:
With weddings, for many, the religious ceremony has completely dropped away. And for others even the cultural side is being abandoned—with no ceremony at all. But doesn’t that just take us back to where it all started, when no one had a wedding—religious or otherwise?
With funerals, the number of families opting for a non-religious funeral service is ever increasing. But then originally it was not normal to have a service at all, and in any event, it would not have been performed by a priest or in a consecrated building.
Of the three rites—baptisms, weddings, and funerals—only baptism is the exclusive property of the church. And that, as we have seen, is just as relevant today as it’s always been.
Indeed, with all the changes, it is right that the church should be left with only the one rite—baptism. Because it is the one rite that should have been its central focus all the time.
Jesus said. “Go and make disciples in every nation. Baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Teach them to observe everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). He didn’t say, “Go bury the dead.” (In fact he said the opposite). He didn’t say, “Go conduct weddings.” He didn’t even say, “Baptise indiscriminately.” No! He told his disciples to go and make more disciples, and to baptise those new disciples in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And if the church had strictly adhered to that in the first place, it would not have got itself in the tangle over rites of passage in which we can see it is in today.
Posted: 13th August 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis