Baptism and the Beginning of Identity

A sermon by Revd Will Morris.

Readings for this service: Genesis 1, Mark 1

In the beginning, we are told in Book of Genesis, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the face of the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the waters. There was no night and no day, no land, no plants, no animals, nothing with a name, and no mankind. Just darkness, the waters, and the spirit of God.

Likewise, at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, there’s no baby Jesus, no shepherds, no donkeys, no star and no three kings. Jesus is seen for the very first time coming up out of the baptismal waters of the River Jordan over which is hovering the spirit of God. Two stories, one theme. Creation, water, and Spirit coming together, first to form a world, and then to form a person. Creation, water, and sprit coming together to form an identity.

And this coming together may help to answer what has always slightly puzzled me about infant baptism. Why do we celebrate this apparently life-changing event for a human being at a time when that person, as a baby, can have absolutely zero understanding of what’s going on? Why do we have a ceremony where instead of asking the person involved to make a commitment, we instead ask a bunch of often unrelated adults a series of questions they can’t truly answer? The answer, I think, lies in the coming together of those three factors – of creation, and of water, and of Spirit — to create a person’s identity.

Think of Genesis. At the beginning of our life, before we are actually born, we are formed in the water of the womb, in darkness, but, we believe, with the spirit of God watching over us. As the writer of Psalm 139 says: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb … my frame was not hidden from you when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” God is with us from the beginning, from before we know it, making us into human beings, giving us our identity. In the beginning there is creation, water, Spirit.

And in the baptism of Jesus, we again receive our identity, this time not just as humans, but as individuals. When we are baptized we receive a name by which God, and our fellow humans, know us. We take another step along the road of creating an identity which begins with our conception, accelerates with our birth, and continues throughout our lives. Again, creation, water, Spirit.

But why isn’t this a process which starts only when we can understand it? Why don’t we wait for baptism until we can fully appreciate what it means – as indeed some other churches do? And the answer to that, simplistic though it may sound, is because our life starts at the beginning, not halfway through. Not when we’re ready, not when we’re prepared, but at the beginning. Our identities, at least for those of us who are lucky enough, are formed before consciousness begins by parents and grandparents; by siblings and friends. In our earliest years they are what envelop us, form us, begin to make our identities, begin to make us who we are. They are if you will, the water that continues to surround us and protect us, even as it also shapes us. And so it is that at an infant baptism, such as Grace’s today, parents, grandparents and friends, those who will form her personality, play a role. Not, as it turns out, answering on her behalf, but, rather, answering for the role that they themselves will play in forming her.

But in the creation of that identity, of her identity, of Grace’s identity, the baptism of Jesus that we recall not just in the Gospel reading, but also in the words of the baptismal prayer, also plays a role. Because, as I’ve just said, our identities are formed before we are conscious by those around us. But they’re also formed by the God who made us; the God who died for us; the God who loves us. Jesus’s baptism in the wilderness in Mark’s gospel reminds us that God also met his chosen people, the Israelites, in the wilderness. His baptism in the Jordan reminds us that it was here that the forty wilderness years of the exodus from Egypt at last came to an end. At the Jordan, God’s people entered into the Promised Land leaving their old selves behind and gaining a new identity. Exodus, wilderness, and, at last, coming home. We are born into a dangerous world – our identity is formed by hardship as well as blessing. But the symbolism of crossing the Jordan in safety, and coming home, is the hope at the heart of Christianity. Watched over by God, we are always led safely through dangerous waters. And not just led though them, but also nourished by them, and blessed by them. And so, in this symbolic act of infant baptism, at a time when we can have no conception of what is happening, we are given an identity as one of God’s pilgrim people entering into the Promised Land.

But really, you’re asking, does infant baptism really play a role in creating our identity? Well, yes, I think it does in at least two ways. When I was baptized well over 50 years ago, I remember nothing of the event. But there are photos of me in a christening gown of Victorian lace sitting on the knee of my great grandmother who had worn that lace at her wedding almost 70 years before. There are photos of me with my grandfathers, both First World War veterans, and neither of whom I ever knew that well. And there are family stories, told and retold, including of my uncle driving his sister in law to the local railway station to put her on a train back down south following a blazing family row at the christening party. That event, those memories, unknown to me then, but, nevertheless, both foundational and vivid now, mark the starting point in the formation of my identity.

But there was also grace and gospel there, although I could not then be conscious of it. New beginnings, even though I couldn’t then know it. The Spirit hovering over the waters, even though I couldn’t then see it. But, unconsciously, unknown and unseen, it began also in a spiritual sense to form an identity in a way that I only truly began to realize much, much later. When I was preparing the paperwork for my ordination, I had to produce evidence of my own baptism. Inevitably, the baptism certificate was long gone, and an engraved silver napkin ring, however handsome it might be, wouldn’t quite do the trick. Eventually, however, I tracked down the relevant church register to the old Westmoreland Country Records Office. And it was, truly, a moment of grace – incredibly moving, almost physical – when I saw that copy of the register, signed half a century before by a priest long dead, attesting to an event of which I had no memory. But it was so moving because there was – perhaps for the first time – a clear and obvious link, an unmistakable straight line, between the Christian identity that began to be formed on the day that I was baptized, and the identity that continued to evolve as I approached my ordination so many years later. Formed in water, led safely though water, blessed by water.

Baptism is the beginning, and it is, therefore, appropriate it should be celebrated at the beginning. Like many of the other sacraments – confirmation, marriage, ordination, anointing for healing – baptism marks a step in our life journey that helps to form our identities. Identities as human beings, identities as members of families, but also identities as children of God: loved, cherished and nourished, as Jesus of Nazareth was by the Father. As Grace is baptized, surrounded by her family, she begins a journey that will last until her life’s end. She begins, today, to form an identity as Grace Anne Barbour, a unique individual, a child of God. We wish her well, and she goes with our hopes and prayers as she starts the process of becoming the person that she will be. But we also go out from here today, in the knowledge that once we were like her, but through the initial gift of baptism, and through other gifts since, our identities have formed and continue to grow as God’s pilgrim people. People of creation, of water and of Spirit. Amen.