In last week’s story from Acts, Philip baptised the man from Ethiopia in a roadside pond. In this week’s story from Acts, there is another baptism.
The book of Acts tells the story of the early church, starting with the Ascension of Jesus – which we celebrate on Thursday, then the day of Pentecost, which we celebrate in two weeks’ time. And then the first half of the book of Acts tells the story of Peter, and the second half tells us about Paul.
In the book of Acts, we get glimpses of how the early church operated, and we hear tell of a number of baptisms. And I have to tell you that there was no consistent practice, because they were still working things out. And also because the Holy Spirit was not going to conform to any sense of order.
Now the way we do things in the Church of England is that baptism is the way you become a member of the church; that is the act of first commitment to following Christ, whether you are making that decision for yourself, or whether the parents and godparents are making that commitment on behalf of a child. In the early church, the bishop was responsible for baptising new Christians, and as part of the rite, the bishop would lay hands on the candidate and pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit. As the church grew, the bishop simply couldn’t be available for every baptism, and so that rite was split. Baptism – particularly of infants – was delegated to priests, and when the child was old enough to make their own commitment to Christ, they would come before the bishop at a special service and the bishop would confirm their faith and pray for the Holy Spirit. So Baptism and Confirmation are really parts of the same process.
In today’s story, it all happens the other way round. Christianity grew out of Judaism, and the early Christians were all Jews. But then Peter is asked by a gentile, a non-Jew, called Cornelius, to explain the faith of Christ. While he is talking to them, the Holy Spirit comes upon the people who are listening to them. Nobody was expecting that to happen! We will hear a lot more about the Holy Spirit over the next couple of weeks, but the first thing you need to know is that you can’t control the Holy Spirit. Peter sees this happen and realises that he cannot deny what the Holy Spirit is doing, so allows Cornelius and his family to be baptised.
In this story, the Holy Spirit comes first, and the baptism confirms the action of the Holy Spirit. In other stories, and in current church practice, it’s the other way round.
There is a question about how easy should it be to get baptised, and that is something I am still struggling with. Families come along with babies and small children and ask for baptism, and the tradition has been to assume that the families want the children to be part of the faith of the family, and that they will bring the children up at Christians. But very often, we don’t see those families again. We try to be as welcoming and helpful as possible, to give the families a good experience of church, so that they don’t get reasons to hate us. And then we just have to trust to the Holy Spirit. It takes a huge amount of humility not to resent the families who just come because they want the party afterwards.
Years ago, I was having my hair cut. The hairdresser was telling me that she was going to Christening. She said how much she liked going to Christenings. I saw an opportunity for a theological discussion. “That’s interesting,” I said. “Why do you like going to Christenings?” “Oh,” she said, “because I don’t normally go to the pub on a Sunday.” End of conversation.
Over the last few years, we have had more and more Iranian people coming to church, which is great, and it is a joy to have them with us. Many of you have already been baptised – mostly by Fr Tony at Wakefield Cathedral. Sometimes people ask me for baptism. I am told that the statistics show that 90% of Iranians who ask for baptism do so because they think it will help their case for asylum. I don’t know. To begin with, I would baptise people when they gave me what I perceived as some evidence of genuine faith. As time has gone on, I am learning to delay baptism until I am more certain that their request for baptism comes out of a real desire to follow Jesus. And now that we have the Bible class going, I would want people to attend regular classes.
There are cases in other churches where an asylum seeker has said to the priest, “I wanted to be baptised so that I could get asylum, but then I discovered Jesus for myself, and my conversion became real.”
As far as the Home Office is concerned, baptism does not necessarily prove genuine conversion. Being baptised will not automatically give you residency. I have baptised people who were then not successful in getting residency. And when I go to the immigration court to support anyone, the court wants to know how many Iranians are still going to church after they have got residency – it is seen as a measure of how good I am at discerning genuine cases of conversion.
Confirmation can happen later, when you have obtained residency and when you feel you are ready to make that additional commitment.
In welcoming people from other countries into church, who started life following another path of faith, we are a bit like that encounter between Peter and Cornelius and his family. We need to respond with generosity and love, a real genuine welcome. And then we need to develop wisdom about how we help people grow in faith, and how we perceive when faith is genuine. Because the situation here is more complex than Peter baptising Cornelius or Philip baptising the Ethiopian, because of the dimension of asylum.
Pray for those who come to church to be baptised:
- For the families who bring small children, that they may genuinely want to follow Christ;
- For those seeking asylum, that they grow into the true faith of Christ.
- For yourselves and your own walk of faith, that you may grow in loving Christ and in loving your neighbour and your enemy.