Baptism and ‘Being who we really are’

July 19, 2009 — Leave a comment
early catacomb wall drawing

early catacomb wall drawing

I’m posting a brief introduction on Baptism from the Covenant Worship Book that describes some of the biblical and theological foundations underneath this sacrament.  In a recent teaching (July 12, ’09) I’m sure I left folks with more questions than answers!  Though that is not always bad, if is important that everyone knows that we’re eager to discuss those questions and have a clear understanding of how the church sees baptism as a vital part of our discipleship as Christ followers, not just as a beginning but as an on-going paradigm of “being who we really are” in Christ! So please contact me as we prepare for our next baptism.  Here’s the article

In Jesus Christ the Word of God was clothed as human flesh (John 1:14). Christians have proclaimed this act of God as a confirmation of God’s promise to send a deliverer and as a conveyance of God’s very own self to humans. Some theologians speak of Jesus as the sacrament of God.

The term sacrament has been used to render the Greek term mystery. As understood in ancient times, the term mystery did not refer to a problem in search of a solution. A mystery was something that had been hidden but then became a public disclosure. In Ephesians 3 St. Paul refers to the mystery that had been hidden—that is, the inclusion of the Gentiles among the people of God—that now had become a public fact. In a more technical sense, a sacrament was a sacred oath a soldier took to Caesar or a security deposit placed before a judge in the Roman court system.

More conventionally, the sacraments have been called outward signs of an inward and invisible grace. Precisely in the administration of the sacraments something goes public, a mystery is disclosed, something is being communicated and something pledged. After Cain had murdered Abel, God put a mark on his forehead confirming a promise that Cain’s life would not be destroyed. God’s promise never to destroy the earth again with a flood was confirmed to Noah by a rainbow. At the circumcision of Isaac at eight days of age, there was confirmed to Abraham and Sarah a promise that through the generations that succeeded them the entire world would be blessed. In that same act a new identity was conveyed and confirmed to Isaac: that he was the first of the generations that would serve God’s plan of universal salvation.

St. Augustine spoke of the sacraments as “visible words.” Naturally, when words become visible they become accessible to more than human ears. They are capable of being seen, touched, tasted, and smelled, as in the bread and cup of the Eucharist. This was not lost on the Covenant’s Committee on Ritual, which in 1900 published a document on Christian worship and practice. It speaks of humans as “physical-spiritual” beings who can be reached through the “eyegate” and “eargate,” citing John Bunyan.1 Unless the communication of God’s gifts and graces becomes audible and visible, these spiritual expressions merely evaporate.

In ordinary life crucial human communication is sacramental. When there has been an alienation between persons and one of them offers an apology and seeks reconciliation, the one who receives such extends grace to the other with appropriate words and gestures like a hug. Usually the word and gesture occur simultaneously. The exchange is audible, visible, and touchable. The mystery of reconciliation has been enacted. The outward signs—words and hug—confirm and convey an invisible grace. Yet the grace given and received is done so by acts that communicate something given and received. This is the pattern of the way God has confirmed and conveyed his word in the Old Testament and supremely in Jesus Christ, in whom word and sign are one.

Jesus Christ’s institution of baptismal practice is given in Matthew 28. He joins baptism with teaching in the process of making disciples. As this is carried out in the church, baptism is administered in the name of the Triune God, not in the name of the baptized. That one can be named in the name of God is an audacious act of obedience to Jesus’ command.

The practice of Christian baptism is directly linked to Jesus’ words in Matthew, namely, to go into all the world, making disciples of all the nations by baptizing them and teaching them all that Jesus had commanded (28:19). Word and sign are intimately connected, confirming and conveying a new identity to the baptized. Baptism in the triune name clearly implies some kind of new ownership: we claim to be Christians on the authority of another’s name (Acts 10:48; 1 Corinthians 1:13), in which the newly baptized are sealed (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13-14).

On a personal level, one can say that one has a new name, either because it is like being born anew (John 3:5; Titus 3:5), or because it is as if one has died and has been raised to new life in a new world (Romans 6:1-11; Colossians 2:12). Furthermore, one has been outfitted in garments appropriate to this new society, garments provided by the sovereign of this realm. This garment of salvation reinforces the equal worth of all persons and abolishes the destructive forces of slavery, ethnic discrimination, and gender devaluation (Galatians 3:28).

On the corporate level, baptism is invitation and incorporation into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13, 26-27). In the midst of this people, pledges are made by these parties: God, the baptismal candidate, and the people of God. God says, “You are mine and I am your God.” The candidate is pledged to respond, “You are mine and I am yours together with this people whom you have given to me.” The people pledge that they recognize the
candidate as one of God’s own and therefore as God’s gift to them as a people. One stands among these people as washed (Acts 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 5:26) and delivered from the ultimate threat of death (1 Peter 3:18-22). The church, then, is like the ark—a population of great diversity inhabiting a space and time together as a sign and promise that God’s work in bringing all things together under one head, even Christ, is fully operative.

Just how these biblical themes are expressed in the practice of baptism is not a matter of uniform understanding in Covenant churches. This church has striven to be an ecclesial home for both the practice of infant baptism and that of believer baptism. Its pastors are required to serve persons of either persuasion in one congregation. The Evangelical Covenant Church has found the biblical language of covenant-making formative in understanding the sacraments. The act of covenant-making, initiated and shaped totally by God, provides both the transcendent qualities of glory and grace and the more immanent qualities of promise and belonging. In word and sacrament God’s redemptive promises are confirmed and conveyed. Broadly speaking, the emphases of the two traditions of baptismal practice may be rendered in the following brief summaries.

For the practitioners of infant baptism the primary accent falls on the divine initiative, which uses both word and sign to call forth and confirm the faith required to be a disciple of Jesus. Word and sign are part of one act of communication, comparable to a word and hug referred to earlier. Clearly the accent falls on the transcendent work of the divine actor.

In the tradition of believer baptism, greater separation exists between word and sign. Persons hear the word of God, repent, believe it, and are baptized. The position of believer baptism does not deny the prevenient (prior) work of God in opening the human heart to the gospel; but this position does not see the sign as intrinsic to the communication of God’s grace. This position stresses the sequence of hearing, repenting, and believing as leading to baptism. The believer who is baptized makes public, often by immersion, the witness to this conversion and a pledge of his or her discipleship. The referent in this case is more immanent in the believer’s reception of grace.

Because infant baptism is tied in unique ways to the believing community, that position holds that this sequence is not required. Born and reared in the community of faith, practitioners of infant baptism say that hearing, repenting, and believing are concomitant events by virtue of constant exposure to the word and sacraments under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The elements of hearing, repenting, and believing are necessary, but the constant power of the word and signs in the community sometimes makes it difficult to pinpoint where one of the three is a distinct experience.

The community of believers is intrinsic to the onset and development of both faith in the saving grace provided in Jesus Christ and faithfulness in discipleship. Pastoral discernment is required in the administration of baptism. Baptism is not an act apart from community, but in and toward community. If persons request baptism for their children but are not part of the community, then sponsors from that community are intrinsic to the right administration of the sacrament. Neither faith nor faithfulness is possible apart from the word of God. Sponsors from the congregation, pledging spiritual care of the children with full parental consent, maintain contact with the word of God. Neither should confessing believers be baptized apart from some form of sponsorship. To do so amounts to spiritual abandonment.

Within this context, the Covenant has steadfastly worked to maintain the unity of the church in the bond of peace. It has done so by practicing the baptism or dedication of infants and/or the baptism of believers. By the word of the gospel the Covenant has called persons to be born anew to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1:3). This work of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is witnessed to, proclaimed, and signed in the act of baptism, all the while not compromising the call of persons to repent of sin and believe the gospel by which people are transformed by the same grace into the image and likeness of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

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