Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Response to Fairwinds Baptist Church Morning Sermon May 8, 2011

During the morning service at Fairwinds Baptist Church (Bear, DE) on May 8, 2011, Pastor Carlo gave an excellent sermon (though one admittedly peppered with some of the peculiarities of Baptist theology) on the Syrophoenician woman.  This is one of the great stories told about Jesus that is recorded in the Gospels.  (One can only imagine the countless meaningful stories about Jesus told that were not recorded in the Gospels, yet have been enshrined in the Sacred Traditions passed down to us through the ages within the Family of God, the Church!)

This is the story of a gentile woman of great faith who asks our Lord to heal her daughter, who is under the control of Satan (or a demon).  Here is the passage in full (Matthew 15:21–28, NKJV):

21 Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.
23 But He answered her not a word.
And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”
24 But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25 Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!
26 But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
27 And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
 Now, I'd like to repeat that Pastor Carlo has many edifying things to say about this passage.  Pastor Carlo and the Catholic Church are most definitely in agreement about the centrality of faith in the Christian life.  This passage demonstrates the great power of faith...especially when that faith is a persistent faith and a humble faith.  This woman acknowledges the reality of sin and the devil in the life of her daughter, she recognizes that she is unable and unworthy on her own to be able to heal her daughter, she recognizes that the only person who can help her daughter is Jesus, and she persists in begging Jesus to help her.  And Jesus responds: "great is your faith!"

As I was pondering Pastor Carlos's remarks, however, I suddenly felt myself becoming very sad for him.  "Why is this?" I wondered.

And then I realized that in six months, my third child will be born.  And because of the reality of the sin of Adam and Eve and its consequences, my child will be born under the clutches of Original Sin.  My child will be born completely devoid of God's sanctifying grace.  My child will be born dead in sin, unregenerate, and spiritually incapable of entering heaven, apart from some special provision of God's merciful grace.  In short, my child will be born in a state as dreadful as the daughter of the woman in Matthew 15, for to be separated from God's grace is truly an awful state of being.

Because of this dreadful state of our child's being that Christians call Original Sin, my wife and I, like billions of Christians before us down through the twenty centuries of Christianity, will humbly and persistently and faithfully ask Jesus to help our child.  We will come to Jesus and we will ask him to regenerate the soul of our child and fill him or her with the power of the Holy Spirit so that they can grow as a child of God with the assistance of indwelling grace.  We will ask our Lord to make our child a member of the mystical body of Christ and render his or her soul fit to be able to enjoy the beatific vision in heaven should he or she be taken from us at an early age.  We acknowledge before the Lord the reality of Original Sin, and like the woman in Matthew 15, we turn to the Lord humbly recognizing that only He can save our child's soul.  And we will beg our Lord for the gift of salvation for our child.

Yet, doing all of these things, Pastor Carlo would tell us that Jesus's answer will be "No."

Pastor Carlo's theology (which he inherits from his Baptist interpretive tradition) would tell us that Jesus only saves people who have made an act of faith in Him by accepting Him into their heart as Lord and Savior and confessing Him so with their mouths.  Since my child will not be able to do this, he or she will not yet be eligible for salvation.  This is why at Baptist baby dedications, Pastor Carlo prays that the children will be saved early in their lives--an implicit admittance that they are not saved at the moment.

At the same time, Pastor Carlo would also probably say that if a child before the age of reason dies, then they will automatically go to heaven.  However, this seems to contradict the Bible's teaching on Original Sin, which claims that through one man's (Adam's) sin, sin and death came to ALL.  This would include babies born in the state of Adam's original sin...and born under its effects.

Or, perhaps Pastor Carlo believes in the reality of Original Sin but admits that babies who die before reaching the age of reason are granted a special grace by God to be regenerated by the blood of Jesus so that they can enter heaven.

If he admits this last point, the Pastor Carlo is very close to the Catholic position after all, which also admits of an exception where Jesus will save a person (a baby) who is not themselves able to make an act of faith in the Lord.

There may, however, still remain a significant difference between the Baptist and Catholic practice.  Notice that in the Bible--a case and point being the woman of Matthew 15--that the times Jesus saves or heals people who are not themselves asking in faith for grace, he does so on account of the faith of the person doing the asking.  Even further, he doesn't chastise the person he is about to heal saying, "well, why can't they come ask me to be healed if they really wanted to be healed?  Oh well, I do it anyway just because you asked so nicely..."  He doesn't even say, "okay, I'll grant your wish just this one time, but next time you better make sure they ask by their own volition."

No!  What does Jesus tell the woman?  "Great is your faith!"  Great is the faith of parents who humbly ask Jesus to save their children.  Jesus here seems to be encouraging us to bring people trapped in sin to him for salvation who for one reason or another are not presently able to request salvation for themselves.  Further, he seems quite ready and willing to grant these requests.

So, what is the difference between a Catholic baptism and a baby dedication?  In a Catholic baptism, the parents step forward in faith and ask Jesus to save their child right then and there.  In a Baptist baby dedication, the parents don't ask this of Jesus.  Though they would not put it in these terms, their actions seem to express a lack of faith that Jesus would be willing to save and regenerate their baby.  They rather pray that the baby will be saved quickly once they reach the age of reason.

From the perspective of Matthew 15, it is Catholics who exhibit the humble, persistent faith of the Syrophoenician woman when they bring their children forward for salvation.  When Baptist bring their children forward for Baptist baby dedication, the people who usually receive most the prayers are...well...the parents!  Of course, this itself is not a bad thing, but it is a far cry from the picture of the savior Jesus painted for us in Matthew (and in multiple other stories like this one throughout the Gospels).  In Matthew 15, the woman prays not for herself but for the person who is truly in need: her daughter.

One reason that Pastor Carlo likely does not draw this conclusion is that at the back of his mind, he knows that he does not believe in any provisions for God to save infants (and severely mentally handicapped persons, etc.).  Yet, Christians for two-thousand years have believed--around the world in every time and place--that JESUS SAVES US THROUGH THE WATER AND SPIRIT OF BAPTISM.

Heresy! some readers may cry.

Yet, does not Peter himself teach us that "baptism...now saves us" (1 Peter 3:21)?  Did not Jesus himself teach us that we must be "born of water and spirit" to have eternal life (John 3:5)?  Did not Paul teach that "we are buried with Christ in baptism" (Romans 6)?  And, did not the early church--trained as it was by the apostles and their immediate successors--in every place begin baptizing infants with almost no question to the legitimacy of this practice?  (NB: none of the questions that did arise concerned the regenerative effects of baptism, or the eligibility of babies to receive the sacrament.  In fact, some of the arguments that did occur went like this: "why wait 8 days [after the child's birth] to administer baptism?")

When Peter preached the first sermon in Acts 2, claiming that to be saved we must "repent and be baptized for the remission of our sins," he added a tag line that echoed all the way from the covenant God once made with Abraham: "the promise is for you and your children."  Jesus repeatedly says in the New Testament, "let the children come."

Yet, Baptists (and a few other Christian denominations) withhold the saving waters of baptism from little children.  Baptists would tell you that Jesus's response to your humble, persistent prayer of faith to save your child will always remain "no," no matter how willing he was to act to the contrary during his earthly ministry.  (At the same time, I acknowledge that, somehow, Pastor Carlo likely believes that "all babies go to heaven," though I've never heard him preach on how this could be so.  However Pastor believes this to work, one way it does not seem to work is for Jesus to save a baby in response to the faithful request of the child's Christian parents...and this, of course, is the point of this blog post.)

And that is why I felt sad for Pastor Carlo during his sermon.

Lord, by the power of your Holy Spirit, draw your divided mystical Bride into greater and greater unity by helping those partially separated from her to look more deeply into your Holy Word that is found in Sacred Scripture.  Help them to read Sacred Scripture in light of the family traditions--those Sacred Traditions that have been passed down from the early church.  Help my brothers and sisters--united as we are in faith yet divided as we are in beliefs and worship--to look deep into history and discover the genius of the early church, a genius that was lit aflame by the raging power of the Holy Spirit, and a genius that continues to remain active in this same One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of today.  Lord, through my own sins and faults, I at times draw away from the communion you desire for me to have with yourself.  And so I pray for myself as well, that you would strengthen  me by your passion, hide me from the evil one, and bid me to heaven when I die so that I can praise you forever and ever.  Lord, make your Church one so that the world may know that you were sent by the Father.

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