Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Church's Baptism

Follow to the water.

Ephesians 4:1-16

New International Version (NIV)

Unity and Maturity in the Body of Christ

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it[a] says:
“When he ascended on high,
    he took many captives
    and gave gifts to his people.”[b]
(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions[c]? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

On this 2nd Sunday in our "Church" series we take a moment to talk about baptism.
Today on the lectionary calendar is specified as the "Baptism of our Lord" Sunday.
So, let jump right into this matter of baptism.

There's two ways of looking at many things in life.
Two sets of eyeballs to see through. Two opposing viewpoints that seem to bash heads.

Liberal. Conservative.
Democrat. Republican.
Catholic. Protestant.
Denominational. Non-denominational. 
Contemporary. Traditional. 

Even in baptism, there are two views to consider - Believer's Right vs. God's Grace. 

I'm sure most people are familiar with the concept of the first, even if they haven't necessarily called it as such over the years. The practice of this first ritual would come from the belief that it is the believer's right to baptized. It is up to the believer to make that decision. The believer in Christ has made the decision for him or herself to follow Jesus. The next logical choice for them to intersect with is a matter of being baptized. 

In the teenage years of my Disciples of Christ experience, I was baptized. In retrospect, I don't know if I would classify it under a believer's baptism. I was still a kid. I was told I was supposed to go to church membership class. I was told I was going to be baptized. I was told what we were going to do and say. There didn't seem to be much choice on my part. I just did as I was told to do. The part that sticks with me was after the baptism. And, in considering past events, I wonder if this part shouldn't have come first. We got out of those wet, white gowns and back into our church clothes. We were brought out to stand on the steps going up to the platform and made to answer the big question. "Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God?" Our minister went down the row. One by one. Every boy and girl answered affirmatively. Then he got to me. I recall not feeling sure about my answer before he asked me. The question and my answer all happened so fast. I recall looking up into our balcony. I saw a picture of the angel at the empty tomb with two people standing there. They were scared. So was I. Then the sun came streaming through the window just after the minister asked his question. I felt I did believe in Jesus. And, I answered as such. It's a moment that will stick with me for all time. 

I was baptized a second time, early in my twenties.
That one would definitely go under the believer's baptism tag, because I chose to do it. I felt I needed it. I had chosen to follow Christ in 1992. Sure, I said I believed in Jesus back when I was 14. But, I hadn't chosen to follow him. Sure, I said I wanted to be a minister when I grew up. But, that's a different choice. You have to choose to follow Jesus to, not just believe in Him. I finally did when I was 20. It was summer, 1996, when I felt this urge to do it again. I was in a place where I felt this need to be cleansed. A purging of bad choices, bad memories and bad experiences needed to happen. I needed a fresh start. I was not acquainted with the song as of yet, but when I would discover it just a couple years later, it would always send me back to that warm Sunday afternoon north of Shelby.
The summer breeze, made ripples on the pond
Rattled through the reeds and the willow trees beyond
Daddy in his good hat, mama in her Sunday dress
Watched with pride, as I stood there in the water up to my chest
And the preacher spoke about the cleansing blood
I sank my toes into that East Tennessee mud

And it was down with the old man, up with the new
Raised to walk in the way of light and truth
I didn't see no angels, just a few saints on the shore
But I felt like a new born baby, cradled up in the arms of the Lord

Writer: Mickey Cates
Copyright: Sony/ATV Cross Keys Publishing
From the album "Everywhere We Go" - Kenny Chesney

I hung to the belief for a long time that baptism was all on me.
It was my choice. It was about me choosing to follow Christ. It was about me deciding to go into the water. That was the only viewpoint I had ever heard or experienced. Until I became a United Methodist. I'm at my very first church serving as a supply pastor and there are these two guys who wanted to get baptized. I knew enough to understand that I really couldn't perform the baptism ritual myself. So, I called up a senior pastor in town and asked him to come out and help me. We took the two guys across the road to this slippery, muddy mess. Barely got in and out of that little pond. Did the deed and sent them home. No sooner did I get in the door at home than the senior pastor called me up. There was a serious tone in his voice. He wanted to know if those men had already been baptized. I was completely clueless as to the need for such intrusion into the personal realm of these men's lives. Why did it matter if they were already baptized? If they wanted to get baptized again, they should do it. Oh no. The senior pastor warned me that United Methodists did not re-baptize people. We really should have found that out before they went into the water. Otherwise, we would have to refer to it as a moment of remembering one's baptism. I was completely mystified and more than a bit disturbed by all of it. This was the first I was hearing of some other explanation for baptism.

The next moment for confronting this issue came when my daughter was baptized. At six months old we prepared to take her into a church service where we would baptize her. That was an important note. We weren't dedicating her. We were baptizing her. Some churches do a dedication of a child. Because, the child cannot choose for him or herself as to whether they want to be baptized yet. The connection between baptism and choice is a difficult one to severe. There is stringent belief in the Protestant community about a person's need to choice to follow Christ. How can a child who isn't old enough to decide for themselves or even speak an intelligible sentence supposed to make that kind of decision? However, I struggled with the idea of baptizing a child and calling them a "child of God". We've all seen families who come and baptize their child and then disappear, never to be seen again. Theologically, there seems to be some loose connection to a "once saved, always saved" mentality. I baptized my kid. God made him/her his child. I've done all I need to do. My kid will go to heaven someday. No, I'm not comfortable with kind of thinking. And, I don't want my child baptized with those kinds of precepts. Of course, it's my choice to have my child baptized and my responsibility as a parent to raise my child to come to the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Whether or not we choose to call it a dedication or a baptism, much of the load is shouldered by the parents.

The following year as I approached Local Pastor's Licensing School, I felt a change was about to happen. In the Christian life we must learn to let go and let God lead the way. So it is as a minister. So it is as a parent. So it is as a Christian. We discussed the Sacraments and Rituals of the Christian faith that week. We, of course, covered baptism from a United Methodist perspective. And, something changed in my heart. I'm not sure why or how, but something about the language of grace surrounding baptism made sense that week. Something about God reaching down and wrapping His arms of love around us in that moment made sense. We don't re-baptize people because a person doesn't need to be made a child of God again. What God has done is enough. When we come to God and are sprinkled or poured or immersed, then God brings us into the family. And, family is for life. That is a moment and an event that does not change. Whether or not we stay with our family or choose to move away from that center, the results do not altar where God has brought us from and where he has placed us. There might be moments where we need to be reminded of our baptism. There are times where we need to be reminded of the new life we were supposed to live. And, so, we "remember our baptism". And, we are glad. Glad that God, in His grace, has made us his child. That he had mercy on us. And, gave us a place where we belong.

So, we come today. On this Baptism of our Lord Sunday, we come with a desire to follow. To do what he did. To live as He lived. To surrender ourselves. To give over our lives and follow as Jesus did follow the Father. We want to hear good words. "This is my Son, with him I am well pleased." If God loves his own Son in the moment of his baptism, won't he love us as well? Won't God be happy with a people who want to follow? Let us cast off our every care and the sin that so easily besets us and follow. And, in choosing to follow, we find grace that leads us to eternal life.

Maybe there's something in the water. That slippery slimy muddy water.
Maybe there's something to this following bit. A life that we can count on.
Maybe there's something about giving up ourselves. We find that our choice is not that important.
God's love and grace have been waiting.

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