Baptism has been important in the lives of the followers of Jesus and their families since Jesus himself stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin, John. However, within the Church, and more recently within the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church, the focus of baptism has changed over the centuries.
Following the tradition of the Jewish faith into which Jesus and many of his early followers were born, baptism meant birth into a new life – a life focused on a person’s relationship with God. For the early Church, baptism was primarily a new birth into the resurrected life of Christ – and Paul spoke about this rebirth in many of his letters.
Baptism during the next few centuries focused more on the forgiveness of sins – following the teachings of John the Baptist. At baptism, all one’s sins were forgiven. However, all sins after that remained on the person’s “permanent record.” Consequently, many people waited until they were on their deathbed to be baptized, so that a lifetime of sins could be forgiven, and they had very little time, if any, to commit further sins.
The primary meaning of baptism changed over the centuries to one of being marked as having faith in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of all. This faith was believed to be essential to an eternal. Given the high rate of mortality among infants and young children, parents were eager to have their child baptized as soon after birth as possible, believing that those who were not baptized would never be able to “go to heaven.”
In more recent times, baptism has been seen primarily as the moment when the Holy Spirit descended upon a person, much as what happened to Jesus at his baptism. In the Episcopal Church, however, that belief was modified in the last few decades. Our current belief is that the Holy Spirit enters a person at birth and that the Spirit is part of every human.
Within the Episcopal Church, baptism is now seen primarily as a full initiation into Christ’s Body, the Church. As it has been in the past, baptism also allows a person to share in the new life of the Holy Spirit and gives forgiveness of sins. When I was growing up, Confirmation was required before a person was fully initiated into Christ’s Body. Consequently, a person needed to be confirmed before receiving communion. Now, nothing other than baptism is required for full membership in Christ’s Body, which is why all those who have been baptized, including infants, can receive communion.
Although thinking about baptism has changed over the centuries, the joy has always been there. Joy at being given new birth into the life of Christ, joy at having one’s sins forgiven, joy at being named a person of faith, joy at receiving the Holy Spirit, joy at being part of the Body of Christ on earth. Joy, joy, joy.
Go with God,