So here’s a popquiz — What makes for a good godparent? This question gets right at the meaning of the sacrament of baptism itself. More specifically, it highlights the question: into what exactly are we’re baptizing the new Christian? So here are four fictitious godparent candidates. Each are willing to sponsor a newborn child for the sacrament.
- Option A: Sarah, Mom’s sister; they were close as children and have grown even closer as adults; Sarah is the best link to Mom’s family, since Mom’s parents moved to another state when they retired.
- Option B: Ryan, Dad’s fraternity brother; they had some real adventures together and genuinely love each another. Ryan got one of the first phone calls when Mom and Dad learned they were expecting.
- Option C: Kevin, one of Dad’s oldest friends; he helped Dad tremendously when Dad was just starting out in the work world; Kevin is very responsible and can teach the kid how to be an accountable adult.
- Option D: John, a friend from church; neither parent has a long history with John but they met him a year ago, see him all the time at church, and have been in a Bible study group with him.
Each of these candidates has an important and meaningful relationship with the parents. And all four will be an influential part of the child’s life. As this is obviously a heuristic device, most readers will know I want you to pick Option D. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The first three candidates demonstrate relationships of great depth of time, experience, and sincere affection. These options as godparents are not to be taken lightly or glibly — these friendships are real and lasting. These three people might even walk into oncoming traffic for the parents and this child. So let’s not underestimate them or dismiss how important these relationships are.
The question, though, is what makes for a good godparent, a sponsor for baptism into the Body of Christ? Let’s think through each one of the options.
Option A (Sarah) would be a great choice if baptism were about joining a blood kinship network. But is baptism about blood family connections? Is baptism about knowing and celebrating family ties? Certainly many of us have family traditions surrounding baptism (e.g. christening gowns that get passed down). However, in baptism the candidates get a new family name: Christian. Consider, among many other passages, Matt. 12:49 and Matt. 19:29.
Option B (Ryan) would be a great choice if baptism were about joining a particular social set. But is baptism about joining Sigma Chi or Kappa Alpha? Is baptism about inheriting a certain social legacy from one’s parents? There is little doubt that the parents’ culture will be the childrens’ culture. But in baptism, the child is becoming part of an alternative culture, one with which hopefully the parents are themselves engaged. Consider, among many other passages, Col. 1:13 and 1 Cor. 12:27.
Option C (Kevin) would be a great choice if baptism were about being a responsible adult. But is baptism one more thing you check off on a list of things to get done? Is baptism step one in a course on life skills? Baptism surely does set us off on the road which leads to the full stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13), but the Christian life is not simply moral rehab. It’s that and much more. And it is helpful to remember that this is no work of our own, but rather the gift of grace, operative through the Holy Spirit. Put simply: a balanced checkbook ain’t a bad thing, but that’s not the Christian life. Consider, among many other passages, 1 Cor. 12, Acts 2:42-47, and (if only to beat back my own Pelagian tendencies) Rom. 5:8.
John (Option D) may actually be something of a trainwreck. The parents might not have known him for long. Maybe they’ve never been in his home. He may have a dumpster fire of a past.
Unlike Sarah, John might not be able to pick the grandparents out of line-up, much less be able to tell the kid about the family’s history. But John can tell the kid the story of redemption and how God won a family for himself in Christ.
Unlike Ryan, John might be completely ignorant of every social convention dear to the parents (and surely he won’t be able to get the kid a bid from Delta House eighteen years from now). But John can teach the kid how to live as a member of the called-out community that lifts high the Cross in this world.
Unlike Kevin, John might have two mortgages, and maybe he hasn’t been promoted in ten years. He can’t teach the kid the first thing about how to get ahead. But John can teach the kid about grace, mercy, and the peace that passes all understanding.
Barring further details about the first three candidates, John is the only good option for sponsorship for baptism into the Body of Christ — a sacrament which is not an entryway to a blood family, a social set, or even into getting your act together. These parents may not go way back with John, but they pray with John almost every Sunday. They hear words like grace, mercy, new creation, and kingdom with him. They grip his hand when the peace is passed. With John they hear the life-giving word in Scripture and then with John they kneel and receive the life-giving Word in the sacrament of the altar.
Now, of course it is completely possible that Options A, B, and C, are themselves active Christians. It’s not wrong-headed to have one’s sister, fraternity brother, or responsible friend stand as sponsor. But it is wrong-headed to have them stand as sponsor on the basis of those relationships (blood, cultural affinity, upright moral character). In the simplest of terms, when we stand at the font, our purpose is to baptize people (immerse them, graft them, welcome them) into the Body of Christ.
As a coda, I ask your prayers for the baptism of my daughter, Elizabeth Ann, which speedily approaches on All Saints Day!