Sometimes you just need to spell it out – or at least when you are going to dump water on somebody.
I’ve been thinking a lot about baptism lately. I know, something only preachers probably do, but at least I have an excuse. It all started with Jason’s Micheli’s wonderful piece on infant baptism over at Jesus Creed and then it continued when we remembered our baptisms to begin 2015 at my church a few weeks ago and continued this past Sunday when I had the privilege to participate in an adult baptism.
In my particular context for following Jesus, the United Methodist Church – whenever someone is baptized, whether that someone is a committed adult making a conscious decision or an infant who doesn’t know what church is much less how they are going to reject the forces of evil – we affirm that the sacrament is an act that involves more than God, the preacher and the person about to receive the water. No, instead baptism takes place in the context of a community of sacramental faith and discipleship; it involves the people in the pews, the chairs, the benches, or wherever they are gathered for worship. And so they have to answer some questions too, about whether they will commit to helping the newly baptized live out the earth-shaking promises they have just made.
It usually goes something like this:
“With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others.We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.” – United Methodist Book of Worship Service of the Baptismal Covenant I
And most of us can admit that at one point or another we have mumbled through this, skipped a word or two or even missed the whole thing while waiting to move on to the next part of worship. That’s a shame, though. Because I have become more and more convinced that this is one of the most important parts of the whole deal, more important than how many people surround the one being baptized or even how cute a baby looks during the obligatory pictures.
It’s why I’ve come to appreciate the leaders who not only showcase the newly baptized to the congregation, but in so doing remind us just what we are committing to. It’s at this moment that the church comes together to declare its purpose and how it will play a part in being a conveyor of God’s grace to the newly baptized. It’s at this moment that the church will come together and say you aren’t on your own, you aren’t in this by yourself, that when faith gets hard and you don’t know where to turn you can turn to us, and we’ll show you the way because we’ve been in your shoes and we’ve come out the other side. It’s at this point that we say boldly and in unison that we are willing to share our stories with you, to walk beside you and to let you know how we made it and how we have remained faithful in the good times and especially in the bad ones.
The truth is that we don’t experience God’s power and grace in general affirmations or overly spiritual language. No, we feel the power of grace in the specific, in the particular, in the times and places where we really need it, when in the middle of our calendars and schedules God breaks in and we experience something so divine that we know it can only come from a power beyond ourselves. And that’s why in our promise to walk with the newly baptized, we should get specific. We need, in this beautiful and powerful moment of God’s grace breaking in to another life, to get concrete and go into the real life stuff, the ways and the places where we really experience this grace. So, I wish we would say something like this:
– We will commit to actually being fully devoted disciples of Jesus and to live our faith in such a way that you know what a fully committed follower of Jesus looks like because they are all around you. You will worship with them, you will learn with them, you will serve with them at the soup kitchen and see them sharing life in your family.
– We will commit to seriously studying and learning and applying the Bible – the beautiful story of God’s ever expanding covenant that now includes you – in a way that will not bore you but inspire you and spark your imagination.
– We will commit to being with you and staying in covenant with you when you ask different questions than we do, when you struggle with the hard questions and when you provoke us to examine our accepted ways of life in light of the way, the truth and the life of Jesus. We can do this, even when its tough and painful, because we take seriously what Jesus said when he promised he would always be with us.
– We will commit to wrestling with and searching for who God is in such a way that we will help you face the biggest questions of life, because belief in the Incarnation means that the Gospel has something to say about every aspect of the human condition. Our faith isn’t scared of questions of war or politics or violence or inequality or health, human relationships or countless other life-shaking and life-shaping issues. We’ll promise to help you as you come to terms for yourself with how an ancient story intersects with the rapidly changing world of the 21st Century as we connect with people of different faiths, live in a global world brought into our homes and hands, and experience the struggle to find a way of hope between the division, polarity and cynicism of our shared life together.
– We commit to being with you in the good times and the bad, rejoicing when you rejoice and weeping with when you weep, praying for you and loving you – all while bringing you casseroles and coffee.
– We commit to living and helping you live a life of meaning and beauty and truth so you can see and know that following Jesus isn’t only about where you spend the hereafter but is the best way to thrive as you live your life in the here and now.
This of course would make the worship service a whole lot longer, and there are plenty of other things we could say, plenty of other truths we could promise to live out, plenty other situations in which we could make vows to be the hands and feet of Christ to the newly baptized.
But to get specific, to drill down into the grime and the grit of real life, reminds us that baptism isn’t the end but the beginning, it helps us remember the promises made at our own baptism, it helps us recall the ways that God has been faithful in our lives, it brings to mind the larger-than-our-life-purpose of the church that can get lost in our attempts to make the mission of God safe and comfortable, and it sends us out into the world more aware of the obstacles we face and the incredible opportunities we have to experience and share God’s grace in a hungry and hurting world.
I’ve grown up in this particular tribe of the Church, and like so many I left it only to be drawn back to it, and I have been identified as one of its leaders in one of the turns of God’s way I never saw coming. I was baptized before I was aware of it, without a choice in the matter, and certainly without any say in what I wore to the event.
And yet I have experienced over and over again, in ways typical and radical, the grace that comes from people taking seriously that promise they made, when they prayed for me when I was struggling, taught me in word and deed what following Jesus looked like, held onto me when I wasn’t sure I could hold onto the church anymore, showed me how to forgive someone even when that was the last thing I wanted to do, saw gifts in me that I never saw in myself and who reminded me again and again that no matter what, I belonged to God.
We do these things each and every day. We take seriously what it means to be a community who walk with the baptized.
So let’s start saying it – together.