Washed in Water to Serve the World (January 19, 2018)
Last week, I wrote a column about Holy Communion being at the centre of our worship at Christ Church. It was part of my response to a woman who asked me what we did on Sunday mornings in church.
Another conversation this week reinforced for me that there is a whole generation, or perhaps even two, of people who have no memory at all of church. They are completely un–churched. They never went to church as children. They rarely go as adults. They might occasionally go for a special event: a wedding or funeral—but when they do set foot in the church, it feels as if they have stepped into a foreign land. That’s not a judgment; it’s a description of our world today.
Let me continue with this series about what we do in worship at Christ Church. Last week, I began with Holy Communion. This week, let me focus on Holy Baptism. Baptism is the ritual by which people become part of the church. In this rite, they make a commitment to living out God’s gospel values in the world.
Some churches practice baptism by immersion—a person is literally dunked under the water and then lifted up to new life. It is a deep and powerful symbol of dying to an old way of living and rising to a new way. Other churches, including most Anglican churches, practice baptism by sprinkling water over the head of a person. At Christ Church, we use a middle way—a person stands in a tub, and I pour the water over them.
Another difference between traditions is that some churches practice “believer’s baptism”. The understand that baptism is for an adult (or young adult) who has come to believe in Jesus Christ and chosen to walk in the way of Jesus.
Other churches, including Anglican churches, will baptize infants as well as adults. This is rooted in a different understanding of baptism. For us, baptism is not rooted in our individual choice. Rather, it is rooted in the concept of covenant. We are not isolated individuals, making individual choices for or against God. Instead of us choosing God, we believe God chooses us and incorporates us as members of a covenant community. We are all chosen by God as beloved and treasured sons and daughters.
When we baptize infants, we are saying that we trust a God who is calling a covenantal community into being. As you become part of the church in baptism, you are joined to a family. Like a human family, all you need to do is to be born. You are part of a community which promises to pray for you and celebrate with you and hold you in love as you grow.
When we baptize, we also promise to pray for each other, and to work together for the healing of the world. As infants grow up in a faithful community, they learn to live faithfully as God’s people by being part of such a community of faith.
When we think of baptism in this way, it is one of the most profoundly counter–cultural statements we make. I like to call this a “covenantal imagination”. It is the antithesis of the consumeristic and individualistic identity which is held by most North Americans, Christians included.
Baptism tells us that we are not isolated individuals, doing our own thing, and being accountable only to the way we happen to see things. Baptism tells us that we are bound together in community. We make promises to God and to each other. We gradually grow into the kind of community God desires, with indissoluble links to one another, to all who have come before us, and to all who will come after us.
We are baptized only once in our lives. The promises we make, and the community to which we are bound, is for life.
Therefore, we regularly renew our baptismal covenant. From time to time, we fire up our covenantal imagination. We need to remind ourselves of what we have promised. We need to remind ourselves that we are part of a community of people bound together by God’s love. And, like any family, we are accountable to each other under God for how we live. We support, encourage, and pray for one another so that we might all live and work together in partnership for the healing of the world.
We promise to honour God. We promise to resist evil. We promise to proclaim the good news of Christ in everything we do and say. We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons. We promise to strive for justice and peace. We promise to respect the dignity of every human being. We promise to care for the earth and its environment.
As you can see, these are huge promises. We will never keep the promises completely. As Luther once said, “This life is not righteousness, it is growth in righteousness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on.”
When we are baptized, we are engaged on that kind of journey in which we support and encourage each other as we live with covenantal imagination.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt