Thursday, January 28, 2010

Remembering Our Baptisms (Dialogue Column 1.26.10)

I wrote this originally for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, St. Joseph, MO.

I was proud of First Christian Church of St. Joseph this past Sunday morning. We tried something new in worship and to my knowledge no one freaked out, lightening did not strike from heaven nor did the building cave in. We remembered our baptisms by means of those present coming forward to have water poured on their hands and to hear the words of God: “You are my beloved son/daughter, with whom I am well pleased.” Although this wonderful idea for remembering or re-experiencing our baptisms came from our neighbor down the street, Rev. Krista Kiger at First Presbyterian Church, it seemed to me that we Disciples took to it rather easily. (I found it interesting that some of our oldest church members were the ones that made a point of telling me how meaningful the act was for them.)

I spoke briefly in the service about my own baptism and how my understanding of it developed over time, but for the sake of time, I only briefly covered how we Disciples understand baptism in practice and belief. Since we have so many new members coming from other traditions (and perhaps some long-time Disciples who have never considered it), I thought I would explain a bit more about what baptism means in our church.

As with pretty much everything with the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, there is freedom for a variety of understandings about baptism; this may be especially true considering how the powerful act of baptism can provide meaning on different levels. The Disciples of Christ grew out of a movement concerned with, among other issues, two concerns: modeling belief and practice after the early church depicted in the New Testament and eliminating barriers between Christians of various traditions. Our current practice of baptism still reflects these emphases.

On the one hand, in this church, as with most Disciples churches, baptism is offered to individuals old enough to profess faith in Christ (often called Believer’s Baptism”) and the mode of baptism is by immersion (being fully dunked in water). This practice seems to most closely mirror that of the early church described in the New Testament. It is important to note that persons being baptized are not required to adhere to a creed or list of doctrines; they are only asked to profess faith in Jesus Christ. Although candidates for baptism are provided instruction and education about the faith, their particular understandings of faith remain their own when they are baptized and throughout their lives.

On the other hand, Disciples recognize the work of God in the lives of all Christians and respect the baptisms of other traditions, no matter how old the person was when he or she was baptized or the method of baptism (immersion, sprinkling, etc.). So, if you were baptized as an infant in another denomination or if you were sprinkled when you were old enough to profess your faith, when you join our church your baptism is accepted as valid and we do not make people get baptized again. For instance, my wife and I were both baptized by immersion in Baptist churches, but our sons were baptized as infants in a United Church of Christ congregation. All four baptisms were accepted when we joined this church.

For children, this church and most Disciples churches have baby or child dedications, where the child’s family, the church and God enter into a covenant (a sacred agreement) to raise the child in the faith until he or she is old enough to make his or her own faith decisions. Usually around the 5th or 6th grade, a class is offered to help them make just such a decision and be baptized, if they have not been already. This step is similar to confirmation in other traditions except instead of “confirming” baptisms done in their infancy, young people are choosing to be baptized. In my opinion, the differences between infant baptism and dedication as well as believer’s baptism and confirmation have more to do with mechanics than with meaning.

Disciples, like many Protestants, understand baptism as symbolic rather than salvific, meaning it is a symbol of God’s work in a person’s life rather than a necessary step for salvation. The water is not considered magic or “holy water,” but the event of baptism surely is holy, because it externalizes in ritual an inward reality that already has taken place. Just as a wedding ceremony demonstrates a couple’s love in ritual, a baptism demonstrates the love between God and a believer. It embodies the death, burial and resurrection of Christ in the life of the believer, who has chosen to die to a self-centered life and live anew in a God-centered life. Perhaps, most of all, it is a visible reminder of God’s love for each of us, one we can remember as we celebrate each person’s place in the community of God’s children.

Grace and Peace,

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