Friday, January 11, 2008

One Priest on Baptism

It’s not so much that it’s been a slow week as I’ve been slow this week. Please God, this too shall pass…. Back to work:

As do many of us, I use a service to track how many people visit this blog, where they are, and what brought them there. That last is usually another web page. Often enough it’s a search page, and I often find the search questions quite interesting. Earlier this week there was one search string that seemed fortuitous. The search question was, in essense, “What do Episcopalians believe about baptism?” That was fortuitous because just that night I met with a group of parents to instruct them about baptism. Their children will be baptized this Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. In light of the question, and my own preparation, I thought I would share here what I shared with them

SO, what are we doing in Baptism? As I thought about it, I decided we were doing eight things.

1. Following the Lord’s command
Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Church that everyone agrees was commanded by Jesus: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

2. Participating in the Baptism of Jesus
Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. John’s baptism was a statement of repentance. To “repent” – metanoia in Greek – means literally “to turn around.” John was calling the people of God to literally turn toward God and to turn away from lives that distracted them from God. By participating in John’s baptism, Jesus endorsed John’s message. Of course, he then went on to transcend it.

3. Participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus
Paul speaks about our participation Christ’s death and resurrection: “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” (2 Timothy 2:10-11) The Church has long understood that being baptized, going through the water, is to symbolically die so as to be resurrected.

To catch some of this, we need to recognize where water fits into those “might acts of God.” Think about the stories we tell in the Easter Vigil. We recall the story of Noah, when God carried his family through the waters that killed all of life so as to virtually restart creation. We recall the story of Israel at the Red Sea, when they walked through the waters “that stood up like walls” – waters that would destroy the Egyptians. There are other stories – notably Joshua leading Israel through the Jordan into the land of promise, and Jonah being saved in the belly of the fish – in which God brings his chosen to life through waters that would otherwise mean death.

It can be a little easier if we understand how baptisms were done in the early Church. The earliest good information we have is from the late Third-early Fourth Centuries. It describes a powerful rite of passage held in a special baptistery, a separate structure adjacent to the church. The candidate, stripped naked and anointed for exorcism, was brought to the font by two attendants. The bishop stood on a dais above the candidate and asked, “Do you believe in God the Father?” The candidate would answer, “I believe!” and would immediately be immersed by the attendants. The bishop would ask again, “Do you believe in God the Son” The candidate would answer, “I believe,” and would once again be immersed. The bishop would ask finally, “Do you believe in God the Son?” The candidate would answer a third time, “I believe,” and a third time would be immersed, held in the strong hands of the attendants. When lifted from the water, the candidate would be anointed again for blessing, dressed in a new white robe, and escorted to the church to join the congregation.

Think about that experience of being submerged in that big font. You could get a very real sense that you could drown if this went wrong. So, the sense of risking death to rise to new life was quite palpable. We don’t put our children – or, for that matter, our adults – through that sort of experience these days; but we retain the understanding.

4. Cleansing from sin.
Now, sometimes we struggle with this. We baptize infants. What sin do we want to attribute to infants? Look at what the Catechism says:

Q. What is sin?
A. Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.

When are we as human beings more committed to seeking our own will than as infants? In one sense we’re prepared to excuse it: babies are so helpless, we’re not surprised that they’re needy. At the same time, they demonstrate quite clearly a characteristic of being human that just doesn’t go away. Left to our own devices, we little less inclined to seek our own way as adults as we were as infants. And left to our own devices, we certainly do distort all of our relationships. We speak of that tendency, overcome at best only temporarily and at significant effort, as “original sin.”

We believe that we are cleansed both from past sins and from “original sin.” That is, God’s forgiveness is made free to us – free for what we’ve already done, and free to prevent our ultimate destruction by those things we will almost certainly do in the future. We’re not freed from the tendency, the character flaw. That would be to take from us our humanity. However, we are freed from that tendency, those distortions, from being God’s last word.

5. Receiving the Holy Spirit
We believe God shares with us his Holy Spirit. While that’s God’s action, and not something we can force, we trust that if we do this in the right way and with the right intent, God will come through. God shares with his Holy Spirit, which offers us the opportunity to be aware always of God’s presence, and empowers us to live lives that resist sin and evil. Our natural inclination is to distort. Our capacity to resist that inclination is God’s Spirit working in us to support and strengthen us.

6. Being born again into the Body of Christ
We know that birth is in itself passage through water. The first public sign of the coming birth is when the water breaks. In this case, it is the Church’s water, and the person newborn is newborn into the Body of Christ, which is the Church. In this birth the Spirit we receive is the Holy Spirit, which we also know is the Spirit of Christ. So, we become “members” in Christ’s Body, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12.

The other image we use in the Church to describe this new relationship is agricultural: we speak of the person being grafted into Christ. This catches the image that Jesus gave us in John: “I am the vine and you are the branches.” (John 15:5) Paul picks up this image in Romans when he speaks of Gentiles being taken into the community of God in place of unbelieving Israel: “For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.” (Romans 11:24) Although it isn’t quite as powerful an image as birth, we do still remember this image as well.

7. Joining the Church as institution.
Of course, the public expression of being newborn in Christ is to be added to the Church roles. Now, note that baptism is full membership in the Church. You’re never more a member of the Church that at Baptism. We require certain maturity to participate in some of the activities of the Church – notably, being 16 years old to vote in parish meetings and serve on vestries – and we offer Confirmation as an opportunity to claim the faith as a choice; but those don’t make a person “more” of a member. Every baptized person is a full member of the Episcopal Church.

8. Committing to the new life of faith.
Finally, we commit ourselves, or we commit to raise our children, to a life that shows forth our faith publicly. That’s why we recite the Baptismal Covenant in full for every Baptism, for every Confirmation, and each year at the Easter Vigil. It’s why the Baptismal Covenant as we understand it in the Episcopal Church doesn’t end with the recitation of the Creed, but includes some pretty specific claims of what the Christian faith and life looks like:

Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People I will, with God’s help.

It’s not just a matter of what we believe. It’s also a matter of how we will live out that belief.

It’s also not just a matter of what we believe as individuals. First, parents and Godparents commit to see “that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life” – this Christian faith and life. We commit do this actively, and not passively, by our “prayers and witness.” And we commit to support one another, and to support one another’s children, in this when we say “We will” “do all in [our] power to support these persons in their life in Christ.”

So, this is one priest's response. The class seemed to appreciate it; at least they stayed attentive and interested, and that's all one can ask.

1 comment:

Liturgy said...

Here's a related reflection on this:

Happy to link blogs:
"Liturgy of the Hours"

Blessings on your venture