Identity 101: Baptized
In our tradition only a few elements are reserved to actions that only ordained clergy can conduct: officiating at the Lord’s Supper, baptizing, and marring couples. Each of these acts is mysterious and wonderful. Today I would like to focus on baptism.
Over the last five year’s of my ministry, performing baptisms has been a privilege. I have been able to baptize infants and teens, participate as my children were baptized, and participate as teens confirm their baptism vows. All of these different views of baptism have lead to deep personal and professional exploration. How do you explain to a two year old what is happening when their little brother is baptized? How do you explain baptism to a teen that is participating in confirmation? How do you help parents to see baptism as more than a ritual, but an induction into a way of life, a relationship, a covenant? These questions, and so many more, have led me to read the thoughts of others on this mysterious sacrament, to dialogue with colleagues and church members about their views of its significance, and wrestle on my own with how to articulate the mysterious and ineffable.
I was blessed in my searching to stumble upon a book titled Baptism: Christ’s Act in the Church by Professor Emeritus of Preaching and Worship at Wesley Theological Seminary, Dr. Laurence Hull Stookey.
In his book Dr. Stookey explores the history of baptism and how the ritual has evolved over the last two thousand years in the life of the church, for good and for bad. He suggests that there is a need to think critically about our practices and be intentional about our ritual. In his writing he speaks of baptism in a way that spoke straight to my soul, for that reason I would like to share some of his thoughts.
“Each of us suffers from spiritual amnesia. We forget what God has done for us and promised to us. We also conveniently forget what God wants from us as disciples. In short, we are oblivious to the identity we have been given by our Creator. God, aware of our malady and of our inability to effect a cure, acts to reveal our true identity to us. One means by which God counteracts this amnesia is baptism.” (Baptism: Christ's Act in the Church, page 13)
As we have ritualized baptism and perhaps habitualized it in the process, we have watered down the powerful and mysterious elements of who baptism claims we are — we as individuals and we as the church — and who baptism claims God to be in relationship with us.
As I said earlier this month in a sermon, baptism reminds us that over and again our faith ancestors and we ourselves have turned from God, and yet God’s faithfulness remains. As we present ourselves or our children for baptism we acknowledge that God is against sin and evil, and yet we make no claim that those who are baptized will be free from sin thereafter. What we claim is that God’s love is stronger than our sin, God’s faithfulness is more pure than our commitment. And in that truth we find our identity as individuals- individuals intimately connected to God, and intimately connected to each other.
And thus it is in that moment- in baptism — we also claim our identity as a community. We are the body of Christ.
That is the truth- in our denomination when anyone is baptized, it is not just a back and forth between that person and God, but the entire congregation has a vested interest. Whether child or adult, our practices require that the congregation pledge to be a part of this baptized person’s life, that we will encourage their faith, that we will support the person, and help them remember that our identity is found in God. God is essential to who we are.
That is not to say that our unique identity is no longer present — but that unique identity is shaped and transformed by our connection to God and our connection to each other as the body of Christ.
Stookey explains, “Baptism counters a strong individualism, which atomizes the church by viewing it as a voluntary collection of individuals with similar beliefs, rather than as the organic body of Christ set within the world as a harbinger of the wholeness and righteousness God wills for the world.” (Baptism: Christ's Act in the Church, page 134)
Baptism is indeed mysterious. Within this one sacrament our entire identity as individuals and as a community is witnessed to. We are a people called into being by God, called into being in order to work towards the mission of God. We do so in response to God’s amazing and powerful love, love that break the hold of sin in our life, love that overcomes our selfish tendencies and points us towards a new way of life, love that is able to unite us with each other and God even in the face of our diversity. That loves claims us as part of God’s beloved, seals us as partners in God’s covenant, and sends us into life immersed in God’s presence and work in the world.