Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Ministry of all Christians, IV: Baptism, where it all begins"

Genesis 1:1-5
Acts 2:36-42
John 1:1-5, 10-14, 16-18

“We believe Baptism signifies entrance into the household of faith, and is a symbol of repentance and inner cleansing from sin, a representation of the new birth in Christ Jesus and a mark of Christian discipleship.”  ¶104, Article VI: The Sacraments, pg 72, Book of Discipline 2012

The Word did not merely create a world we no longer know.  (Think, for instance, of how much money is spent trying to go “back to nature”!)  The Eternal Word began a whole process in which nature itself was set into motion.  The Word is thus dynamic.  It is not static; it does not just sit on the pages of a book.  The Word is transformative.  It not only created but is always creating and restoring and renewing!  The Word is moving forward and is constantly beckoning us to something which can be restored, the ideal of purity to be rediscovered.

The world of commerce cannot restore to us this world we can no longer envision.  No government can grant to us more power than we already possess by The Word.  It is the restorative power of The Word alone that can show us what was once known to humanity but was ultimately lost due to humanity’s distorted notions of usefulness.

The Church celebrates baptism in much the same way.  The entire congregation not only rejoices in the baptism of a baby, a youth, or an adult; the entire congregation also takes its own vow collectively to nurture these new members in the faith, to love them, to look after them, to care for them, to inspire them by examples of piety and mercy and justice, and if necessary, to call them to account for the vows they made – or the vows made in their behalf, notably parents who have their children baptized but do not raise them in the Church.

Baptism does not strictly signify membership in a local church.  In our tradition and according to the doctrine of the United Methodist Church, the newly baptized become full members of the worldwide Church universal – for it is not merely “a” church we enter into, but The Covenant of The Lord in the Body of Christ.

So baptism is a very big deal and is so emphasized because it matters in the life of the disciple and the Church.  Baptism is in no way “incidental” to human notions of salvation.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted as having said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (16:16).  The Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel contains the phrase, “baptize them”, each seeming to indicate baptism as necessary to discipleship and salvation. 

But was Jesus referring to an event of water baptism?  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus corrects the thinking of disciples who are requesting their own special place with Him in the Kingdom to come (Mark 10:35-40).  If they want that, Jesus said, they will have to be “baptized with the baptism I am baptized with”.  It would be a stretch to suggest Jesus was referring only to His own water baptism – on that one day – in that single moment. 

It must be said that baptism in the United Methodist Church is not merely a “thing we do”, such an ordinance or a rule.  As it has been held before, no doctrine is useful if it lacks outward expression.  So baptism is to be understood as “beginning to become”. 

We do not baptize because we think we’re already there (as some traditions seem to insist one must be “saved” first.  This does not mesh with Jesus’ words at the end of Mark’s Gospel: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved”.  So we baptize to signify we are on our way.  And we do it publicly so the whole congregation – which is itself renewed with every baptism! - can know they have a new charge, a new responsibility, a new opportunity to expand the Kingdom in their own renewal.

If we ask the question of whether personal salvation depends on being baptized, we’re probably asking the wrong question and consequently missing the whole point.  Recall that Jesus redirects the rich man’s very question of what is needed for eternal life (Luke 18:18).  Our Lord affirms our need to respect and obey the commandments, as the rich man said he was already doing.  But then Jesus raises the bar: rid yourself of this world’s encumbrances, then you can follow Me rather than to expect Me to follow you

There is no single momentary “event” that defines the life of a disciple.  Discipleship is a series of “events” in a life-long, disciplined commitment to The Living Word which is Christ Jesus.  It is not only acknowledging a relationship – it is diving headlong into that relationship with the Whole Body and not just the Head!

Our Lord’s claim is total.  He does not want only a piece or a single moment of our lives in the here-and-now while we spend the rest of our lives waiting for death; He wants the whole enchilada, every waking moment.  Not so He can “command and control” us, but so He can truly lead us and guide us into blessedness and into the only real Promise we can believe.

We should also bear in mind that Jesus taught such things knowing He would soon be delivered up to His own death.  Nowhere does our Lord suggest this holistic approach to discipleship will no longer be necessary once He is crucified and then raised up.  We can do some linguistic gymnastics with the epistles – and we do! – but we cannot overrule the principles of discipleship taught by Jesus Himself! 

The commandments still matter.  Discipleship still matters.  Accountability within the Body still matters.  Seeking treasure that “will not rust nor moth destroy nor thieves can steal” becomes a life-long quest – meaning we will not sufficiently “arrive” in this life that we stop “going on to perfection”.

We do know Jesus was baptized, but we do not know exactly how Jesus was baptized.  We should then not be distracted by human interpretations of what we think took place in that moment “down by the riverside” between Jesus and the Baptizer.  It is important that we know Jesus was baptized; it is apparently not so important to know what method was used.  What is most significant to us is to know that Jesus was baptized before He went into the wilderness to confront the evil one.  It began in that moment.

The doctrine of the United Methodist Church holds baptism as a sacrament of the Church, a necessary rite of passage for all Christians when Divine Grace is bestowed and one becomes a claimed member of the Covenant.  It is a Divine Act marked by a human act.  And because we believe it to be a Divine Act rather than a human one, we believe baptism is better done sooner rather than later. 

Why delay accepting the Covenant offered to Jews and Gentiles alike?  We maintain, however, that it is never too late to be baptized into The Lord’s Covenant.  And because “we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” (Apostles’ Creed), the doctrine of the United Methodist Church prohibits re-baptism – but - affirms our need to revisit our baptismal vows on a regular basis. 

“Baptism starts that process of breaking us away from sin’s power,” Director of worship resources with Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards clarifies, “but it is sanctifying grace throughout our lives that actually accomplishes it.”  Burton-Edwards explains, “Baptism is the ordinary means of rebirth and initiation into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  Baptism is not an act that imparts something only to [the individual],” Burton-Edwards clarifies. “It is an act that brings one into a spiritual relationship with the whole body of Christ, in which one is becoming one with the Body and the Body becoming one with the individual.”

There can never be enough said about the importance of baptism not only as a rite of the Church but as initiation into the Covenant.  It is not for us to decide whether it should be done at all, and it is certainly not for us to decide others are doing it “wrong”.  It is, however, important that we not overthink it to the point that we decide for ourselves it is not necessary.  That option is not on the table for those who will devote themselves to The Living Word of God in the United Methodist Church.

We become one with the Holy God in Christ Jesus not because we choose Him but because He loved us first.  This is what makes it sacramental – an act of God to restore that which was once deemed “good”.


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