Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Baptism is a Life

Remember your baptism and be thankful.

I was baptized as an infant.  My parents were United Methodists, and our "tribe" baptizes infants, so that's what happened—not that I remember it.  Not so much as a photo survives that I am aware of.

When I was a senior in college I got involved in a church that required new members to be baptized.  Do I remember that moment?  Well, certainly more than I remember about the first time.  It was a March 28, 1993—a chilly early spring day as I recall, and this group did baptism by full immersion. But honestly, other facts about the day that you would think I might remember—like exactly who was present that day—I do not recall.  For example, while I could tell you some people's names whom I'm pretty sure were there, I honestly don't have too many vivid memories of the event.  What I remember most was being "dunked" in icy cold water.  I also remember calling my parents the night I was baptized to tell them I was "getting baptized".  The specific conversation happened nearly 24 years ago but I recall the gist of it was as follows:

"Mom, dad. I've decided to get baptized."
"Really, son.  Why?", my dad responded, clearly sounding worried.
"I've gotten involved in a new church now and I really want to do it." (My parents probably thought: Oh no, what cult has he joined?)
"But son, you are already baptized." (My dad was a good United Methodist!)
"Yeah.  But I don't remember it at all, and I don't know how much impact it had on me.  When I was a baby it was your decision, but this time it's mine." 

For a while, I think I would've told you that the baptism that "really counted" was the one I experienced in college.  That was the point in my life when the faith (i.e., the UM faith I sort of inherited from my parents) began to become my faith.  I became more active in practicing my faith; I ventured out of the familiar boundaries of the church I grew up in and experienced new expressions of faith that, while strange to me at first, I grew to appreciate and embrace.  My faith moved further and further away from that of my family of origin. 

But God has a sense of humor.  I didn't stay with the church that baptized me for very long. Suffice to say it just wasn't a good situation for me at the time...  Eventually I found my way into another non-denominational church that I really liked.  (No, I did not do a third baptism!)  I was happily worshipping there when I met this woman online—who just happened to be a UM pastor. In time, she ended up becoming my wife and my spiritual journey came "full circle" as I returned to worship in the UM church when we got married.

When I told my wife about my experience in college, it set off some interesting theological debates between us.  Why did I feel the need to be "baptized again"?  Because I don't remember my baptism.  But just because you don't remember it, does that mean it wasn't real?  Well, maybe not.  Was I so sinful I needed two events before "salvation would stick to me?  No... of course not. As a good UM Elder, Laurie has reminded me frequently over the years of the theological position of the UM church: "We don't rebaptize; we remember frequently—but we never redo"   .  

My wife can't remember the moment of her infant baptism either, nevertheless she will emphatically tell you that she feels baptized and, to her, that is what matters most .

So when was I baptized?  The time I can't consciously remember when I was an infant or the time I do remember (at least somewhat) when I was older?  Or should I go around calling myself, Alan, the twice-baptized—a.k.a., the United Methodist rebel?

Now I can't honestly say I lost lots of sleep over this over the years.  My wife spent her whole life as a UM, even going so far as to be ordained a UM pastor, but my spiritual journey has taken me to other types of churches, and I have incorporated aspects of various "streams" of Christianity into my faith practice.  And there are some whose theological position would be that my decision to be "rebaptized" as an adult, i.e., despite being baptized previously, was completely appropriate. 

What I ultimately think I've realized is that baptism is less about remembering a moment and more about making a lifetime commitment to follow Jesus.

In the UM church, every year in early January there is a Sunday set aside for Baptismal Renewal.  On that day, we remember Jesus' baptism and our baptisms, and we are thankful.  This year, the Gospel text for the day was Matthew's account of the story—which also appears in Mark and Luke. The Gospel of Matthew's author and target audience were likely part of an early community of Jewish followers of Jesus.   The writer emphasizes the fact Jesus is the King of the Jews—the "heir" to David in the Messianic line, so he presents the baptism of Jesus as a symbolic anointing of the "new king"—see Matthew 3:13-17.  Jesus comes to John in the wilderness where he has been baptizing and submits himself to the same ritual of purification that every disciple of John the Baptist went through.  But it soon becomes clear this is no ordinary baptism.  As Jesus comes up out of the water the Spirit descends "in bodily form like a dove" upon him and a voice is heard speaking: "This is my Son the beloved."

In this passage we have both the moment of baptism portrayed and the symbolism of a lifelong commitment.  We also witness the ongoing three-way interplay between the members of the Trinity: the Son is in the water "being baptized", the Spirit is descends like a dove, and the voice of the Father speaks. 

We see that community is absolutely critical context for both the moment of baptism and for living out a baptized life. The Trinity has always existed as a form of three-in-one Divine community—and they are all "present" to witness the baptism of Jesus. Perhaps this is why, during his earthly life, Jesus chose to assemble a community of followers around him to help one another live out their baptisms.  Jesus was used to being in community with the Trinity.  

So if Jesus needed community to live out his vows it stands to reason so do we.  Baptism is not  meant to be "one-time" event we do and then we go on living our lives independently—although I am afraid too many people think of it more as a "ticket to heaven when they die" than as a "commitment to a journey of discipleship".  But we are actually making serious vows to the community either ourselves or on behalf of our child; vows God expects us to honor.  Baptism is one of two sacraments in the UM tradition (and is a sacrament in most traditions); it is often called an outward sign of an inward grace, i.e., it shows on the outside what God is doing on the inside of us. We could think of it as a "coming out" party for a follower of Christ, when we "go public" and acknowledge to our community the work that God has been doing within us and ask for their help to continue to live out our baptized life.  Such a commitment is not something we should take lightly.

If the moment of baptism is early in life, parents typically make vows on behalf of their child.  They ask the community to help them nurture the child in faith until he/she is ready to take responsibility for his/her own spiritual journey—we UMs call that moment in time, confirmation.  (Other traditions will dedicate an infant to God, but the moment of baptism is reserved until the person is older and can make the choice themselves).  Even if we're older when the moment of baptism happens, though, the vows we make still require the context of a community to help us live them out.  It's as if we need the friction of real life to move the promises we make from abstract theological ideas to lived reality.

While purification (justifying grace) may happen in a moment, sanctification (sanctifying grace) is a lifelong journey.

Often there is a moment in time that we can remember "being baptized"—like my icy immersion in college—but my story also shows we aren't always able to pinpoint the "exact moment" when purification happened and that the memory of the moment can fade with the passage of time.  UMs believe that God's prevenient grace is at work in us even before we are consciously aware of it.   The moment of baptism might be compared to a wedding ceremony.  The typical couple coming to the altar to be married has begun building a life together before the wedding day; likewise, after the wedding ceremony ends, the real work begins as the lifetime commitment of building a marriage begins.   Similarly, the baptized life often begins within someone prior to the moment of public acknowledgment (being baptized), and often ends long after the memory of the moment has faded.

So, again I ask: When was I baptized?  Looking back, I think my moment was probably as an infant—and I reaffirmed my commitment in college.  My wife can be persuasive. :) The second time was more about what I wanted to do (and what others wanted me to do or said I had to do) to mark the occasion. God didn't "require" what I chose to do that night no matter how memorable it was.  It wasn't wrong; it just wasn't strictly necessary.  God had already claimed me long ago—and had been working in me for years.  God at bought me to that icy baptistry somewhere near the University of Maryland campus nearly 24 years ago, and God has been with me on my journey ever since.

I've come to realize that more important than knowing the exact moment in time when I was baptized is knowing without a doubt that I am baptized—and living life like it's true.

Pastor and author Nadia Bolz–Weber says that when the darkness threatens to consume her, she cries out: "I am baptized!"   She does this to remind herself who she is and whose she is—that God has named her and claimed her.   Paul likewise reminded the believers in Galatia who they were and whose they were when he said: "I've been crucified with Christ but I'm alive for Christ is raised and now he lives in me. The life I live I live by faith in the risen son of God, who loves me and gave himself for me"Galatians 2:19-20.

Baptism is a life. 
I was baptized—I am baptized—I will always be baptized.
am who I am through "I Am" who lives in me.

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