I’d like your opinion about a couple I know, about something they did, did to their child. Of course they loved their baby to bits and surrounded him with all the care in the world, cooing and cuddling, bathing and bonding, taking tender care about all his needs and his feeds and his smelly little deeds. They were good parents. But then one day they made a decision: they decided they didn’t want to keep their baby to themselves, or even to their own kin; they decided they wanted to share their child with other people, indeed to raise their child as part of another family, a genetically unrelated family, where their child would have not only other brothers and sisters, but also other mothers and fathers too. In fact, this new family would, in principle, supersede their own family as the child’s true and ultimate home. Tell me, what would you think of parents who would do such a thing with their child?
And another thing. To mark this transition from the biological family to this new family, this couple arranged for a special occasion – but what an odd occasion it was. For one thing, it took place on a Sunday morning, when most other folk were still in bed, and in a rather odd building. For another thing, there was no booze (fancy a special occasion without any booze!). And then there were the guests: many of the people at this occasion the parents didn’t even know, or didn’t know very well. In fact, it was precisely these people, many of them quite old, and a few even a bit doddery, who turned out to be their child’s new parents and siblings. Again, what would you think of such parents?
And a final thing, perhaps the most outrageous thing of all. At this occasion there was a man wearing a sombre black gown, as if he were taking a funeral. In fact, that is precisely what the man said was happening: that his parents were bringing their child to this occasion to mark his death, his death to the world from which he was brought, but which (so the man in the black gown declared) is a world that is itself passing away, yet a world that spends most of its time and energy pretending it will go on forever, thereby entangling itself all the more inescapably in the cords of its own extinction. For is that not the nature of the world we live in? Do we not live in fear and denial of death, compulsively seeking longevity, security, the ultimate risk-free environment, which, however, a moment’s clarity exposes as the sheerest fantasy? On this occasion, however, (so the man in the black gown declared) we get real and deny this denial of death, as the child, in the ritual of the occasion, dies and is buried, with everyone present acting as celebrants of his funeral.
Again, for the last time, what would you think of such parents? Let’s be honest: bringing their child to be handed over for shared parenting is outrageous enough, but bringing the child to his own funeral, what kind of parents would do such a macabre thing? You might think that, at best, they were being irresponsible, at worst, abusive, and that they should be reported to the police and social services. In fact, if you are not a Christian, you are bound to think this way. In fact, many Christians themselves think this way. Which just goes to show how domesticated and sentimentalised baptism – because, of course, that is what we are talking about here, baptism – it just goes to show how domesticated and sentimentalised baptism has become, and how the church itself has colluded in “watering-down” the meaning of its sacrament of initiation. Indeed it goes to show how close the church is coming to losing its identity, and in losing its identity, losing its very soul.
Hear again Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Rome, which go straight to the point: “Surely you know that when were baptised into union with Christ Jesus, we were baptised into union with his death. By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death …” (Rom 6:3-4a).
There it is in the Bible (I’m not making it up!): to be baptised is to die – but it is a certain kind of death: it is to die with Christ. And it is a certain kind of funeral: it is to be buried with Christ. But if that is so, it means that, appearances notwithstanding, in baptism our deaths are now behind us. Which, in turn, means, that we are released from our obsession with death, our fear of death, our denial of death, all of which speaks of our enslavement to death – from which baptism frees us. For not only is death now behind us, above all life is now ahead of us. But again, a very specific kind of life: it is life in Christ. For as Paul continues: “By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from death by the glorious power of the Father, so also we might live a new life” (6:4).
We are all gong to die. One day Adam is going to die too. But today we proclaim that, in fact, Adam’s death is now behind him and that life, the life of Christ – a new life of love, joy, and peace – is Adam’s future, and indeed is there now for the taking – or rather the receiving – through his union with Christ.
And that’s where we come to Adam’s “new family”. For in being baptised into union with Christ, Adam becomes a son and brother of everyone else who has been baptised into union with Christ. He has been born anew, of water and Spirit (John 3:5), born, that is, into a new family, with new siblings and new parents (including the doddery ones!). Fellow Christians are now, in fact, Adam’s closest relations. “Blood is thicker than water,” people say. Not so, Christians say: “Water is thicker than blood.”
I am under no illusions of just how mind-blowing all this is. And not only because baptism is, ultimately, supernatural, but also because (as I have tried to suggest) it is quite unnatural, and a quite unnatural way of life follows from it, a way of life that contradicts the way the world and his wife go about their business. For if we are introducing Adam to the new way of life of Jesus, we will try to teach him not to become an earning, shopping, and consuming machine, ever agitated and restless, or someone who wants to be “famous”, but a human being who is happy in his own skin and, above all, grateful just to be. We will also try to teach him not to become a cunning climber and schemer, ever out for Number One, but a human being whose Yes is Yes and No is No, who doesn’t deceive or discard other people but puts them first. And, finally, we will also try to teach him not to become an eye-for-an-eye kind of guy but a turn-the-cheek kind of geek, who is kind to everyone, who takes a punch rather than gives one, who prays for those who wish him ill, who lives at peace even with his enemies.
Yes, all this is so radically counter-cultural, for it clearly involves living an exposed and vulnerable life, a life at considerable risk, a life on which the “health and safety” bureaucrats might like to slap a restraining order, a life that might incur suffering in some contexts, even if only ridicule, for its eccentricity, in our own.
That’s why bringing your child for baptism – some may think it’s sweet; in fact, it is quite heroic. If you want a life of ease, pleasure, and success, a gated and protected life among your own, then the last thing you want to be is baptised. If, however, you want a life full of real meaning and lasting purpose, the kind of life God wants us to live, the kind of life, in Jesus, God shows us how to live; if you want a life that is not ephemeral but eternal, a life not just for now but forever, life as it is going to be when God completes his work in progress, life that begins even now, in the sacrament of baptism that proclaims the old world going and a new world coming, and calls us to live tomorrow’s life today – then you’ve come to just the right pace, you’re taking part in just the right occasion, you’re watching a sneak preview of the end of time as we know it, and the beginning of time as you couldn’t imagine it in your wildest dreams.
Today, the Lord says, “Adam, welcome to my world!” Indeed God’s invitation is always open to everyone to enter this strange new household of the church, and this strange new world of being a Christian.
Kim Fabricius, 'Welcome to My World: A Baptismal Sermon', July 2010 (originally posted here)