January 10, 2016

What's Happening Here? (On Baptism)

Like nearly all Christians throughout history, United Methodists receive baptism, and like most Christian communities throughout history, the United Methodist Church offers baptism to infants. However, given some of the particulars of our tradition and the times in which we live, 21st century United Methodists are in more rarified company when it comes to our understanding of this ancient act of worship. Specifically, we have a tendency to not clear about why we do what we do and what we expect to accomplish by doing it.

Now don’t’ get me wrong. We have all the tools we need to produce a robust, faithful, and beautiful baptismal theology. Twenty years ago, in 1996, the UMC published a useful document called “By Water and the Spirit” which presents just that. But still, those who seek baptism’s deepest waters continue to struggle against a rising tide of forces—a struggle, I think it’s fair to say, that we come about honestly.

On one hand, Methodism came into its own as an 18th century revival in which the project of preachers regularly involved inviting people who previously had been baptized to amend their lives and, by God’s grace, to pursue holiness. Since Wesley and his followers recognized baptism as a one-time event, the connections between historic Methodist preaching and baptism aren’t always obvious.

On the other hand, given the time of Methodism’s beginnings, the movement has always been influenced by the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and empiricism. In times like these the strength of mystical and theological claims are diminished and, since it’s difficult to say objectively what happens in baptism, many Methodists and other Christians, too, have come to see the sacrament as purely symbolic, or even worse, as a superstitious insurance policy against bad things happening to us and our children.

Given the influence of these forces, what are we to do on a day like this when we hear the Good News of Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River and devote our worship to reaffirming the baptismal covenant?

Bishop Will Willimon suggests that, on a day like this, asking the right question can make a great difference. He writes,

Our faulty thinking about baptism comes from forgetting what the church has always said: Baptism is essentially something which God does…From [our] point of view, the question asked of…baptism is, “What does this mean to me, and what am I doing when this happens?” [but the better question is,] “What does this mean to God, and what is God doing when this happens?” (p. 33)
Bishop Willimon was a professor at Duke when I was in school and I’d like to think that I’m still being shaped and stretched by his insights into worship and the Christian life. Even still, when I read this question last week, it stopped me in my tracks. I read it a second time, then I read it out loud.

What does baptism mean to God, and what is God doing when baptism happens?

For me, the difference between answering Willimon’s question and the question “What does this mean to me?” is like the difference between warming up a frozen dinner in the microwave and being treated to anything off the menu at your favorite restaurant.

I don’t believe thinking about what baptism means to us is bad. It probably won’t hurt us. Something is just lacking from the experience.

But shifting our question to God’s point of view, to God’s activity, the possibilities appear limitless. Instead of thinking about what our experience lacks, instead of cultivating thoughts of scarcity, we’re drawn deeper and deeper into the reality of God’s abundance—abundant love, abundant grace, abundant possibilities.

Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy church.

We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit.

All this is God’s gift offered to us without price.

We hear these words regularly in worship, but we need to be clear about what’s being said.

Initiates, incorporates, gives, offers—God does these things. We receive “all this” and more.

It’s true. This statement—it appears in your bulletin today as the Invitation to Reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant—is loaded with promise and meaning. But, far from being just a nifty little liturgical turn of phrase, it expresses the heart of the Gospel. In fact, when compared to what the New Testament says about baptism, we could be accused of saying too little.

Take the work of Saint Paul, for example. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul proclaims that God gives us in baptism a new identity that transcends the barriers once thought to determine so much about who people were and what they could accomplish in life.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Society’s roles, the privileges and obstacles of your birth, your upbringing, your experience; Paul says that the various roads we’ve traveled, the paths upon which we’ve stumbled and been denied access, have no power over our destiny because of the new identity God gives us in baptism.

Paul goes on to say that the basis for this new identity is nothing less than Jesus’ resurrection. In other words, Christian unity and our identity in Christ aren’t simply the product of a new point-of-view or perspective. Our identity is tied to history’s crucial event.

Paul elaborates on this in his letter to the Romans.

We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

“Incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation” is fine, but it just doesn’t have the same punch as what Paul said, does it?

The New Testament goes on.

Revelation speaks of those who “have the seal of the living God” who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

In Acts, baptism was the Ethiopian Eunuch’s response to the Good News that he wasn’t a second class citizen in God’s kingdom.

And Saint Peter boldly compared baptism to Noah’s ark.

Baptism, which [the Ark] prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
What does baptism mean to God, and what is God doing when baptism happens?

Willimon’s question helps us to recognize that, thanks be to God, the font before us is filled with Good News, overflowing with God’s goodness, and brimming with the promises that God would realize among us.

I told you that I had to read and read again the bishop’s question, but, in the same book, he told a story that made me do a double take, too. I immediately knew that I wanted to share that story with you this morning.

The chapel at Belmont Abbey College not far from Charlotte, North Carolina is home to a unique baptismal font. Belmont’s basin is carved into a large stone, but it’s not some elegant piece of marble that’s been worked over by the likes of Michelangelo. No, this stone is granite and before the Abbey’s monks repurposed it for worship, it served as a millstone on a plantation that occupied the land before the Civil War. But grinding grain wasn’t the stone’s only antebellum function. It was also used as an auction block.

People were once made to stand on this stone so that they could be inspected, purchased, and forced to participate in the scourge of chattel slavery.

After the Civil War, a priest bought the old plantation and gave it to a community of Benedictine monks who built a chapel and a college there.

And the monks turned the millstone into a baptismal font to which they affixed a plaque that reads,

Upon this rock, men were once sold into slavery. Now upon this rock, through the waters of baptism, men become free children of God.
Friends, Belmont Abbey’s chapel holds something unique, but the promises spoken round that roughhewn stone are proclaimed wherever God’s waters flow.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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