Friday, December 08, 2006

Don't forget who you are!

At the men's lunch-time study group this week, our conversation turned from the book, "The Jesus I Never Knew" by Philip Yancey, to an interesting theological question. What's the meaning of baptism? Do Christians really need baptism for their faith and salvation?, was how one member in our group phrased it.

This lively theological question got kicked into high gear in the thick of a busy restaurant, with one of our group asking me, "What would you do Hart, if someone wanted their grandchild baptized, without the parents' involvement or practice of faith?" That's no longer a theoretical question in today's world. In fact, more than once I've been asked to baptize children without the active participation of
parents in the life of the church. The most challenging request for baptism comes when at least one of the parents has no interest in their child's baptism, or even actively opposes it.

What's the role of baptism? I'm convinced that one reason we have so much confusion about the meaning of baptism lies in the "thinness" of baptismal practice and imagery in our worship services. Ask yourself this question. Do you know where your church's baptismal font is located? More than once I've ventured into churches where you would be hard pressed to know where the baptismal font can be found. It just might be pushed over into some corner of the sanctuary gathering dust. The absence of the baptismal font or its lack of prominent visual placement in the worship space actually speaks volumes about the lack of a baptismal theology and practice in the life of the worshiping body. When that happens, we shouldn't be surprised that the sacrament of baptism is held in such low esteem.

For several years now, my new church development experience has taught me the crucial value of the sacraments, both baptism and Lord's Supper. Usually, our worship experience has begun with a sacramental focus for the people of God. Briefly stated, this has meant we call attention to the centrality of baptism by placing the baptismal font or a large earthen bowl in the center of the gathering. Then someone comes forward with a large earthen pitcher to pour water into the bowl or font with these words: "This is the font of your identity" while the water is lavishly and visibly poured. If you sit close enough, you might even get wet!

There are many prayers that can be used for this as well, such as:
"Eternal God, at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan
you proclaimed him your beloved Son,
and anointed him with the Holy Spirit.
Grant that all who are baptized into his name
may keep the covenant they have made,
and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior..." (Book of Common Worship, PCUSA)

We are "baptized into his name". What powerful words! Baptism means we take our identity from Jesus.

William Willimon, noted United Methodist preacher and prolific author and former Chaplain at Duke University, told this story in a book he once wrote about baptism.
Willimon tells about being a young teenager going out on a date one night and hearing these words from his mother as he headed out the door. "Don't forget who you are!" Those were a mother's words of wisdom to remember what kind of son she was raising. Likewise, Willimon remarked, in baptism God claims us for purposes grander than our own.

One of my favorite books on the sacraments is by James F. White, titled "Sacraments as God's Self Giving" (Abingdon Press, 1988) White remarks that "God's self giving is the basis of the Christian sacraments...The Incarnation is the story of God's self giving through becoming one of us. (And) God's self giving, just like that of human beings, has to take visible or audible form so others may recognize it."

White then offers a challenging thought about the state of our celebration of the sacraments in worship: "When we underplay a sacrament, it is the same as mumbling a sermon. In either case, the people are not fed,"

Sacraments not only signify God's love for us, they also cause grace, White goes on to say.

I think back on a time in our new church development ministry, where a young couple requested baptism. For many years they had been on the margins of faith and church until they were drawn to our new church community. Through relationships with our young church, this couple discovered a greater depth of God's love for them. And so we happily baptized them, generously pouring water over each of them in turn. Not long afterward, another adult woman requested baptism. I'm convinced that our regular and lavish use of sacramental practice and imagery in worship contributed to these exeriences. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that the sacraments are a "converting grace". He believed that people are drawn to God through the joyous celebration of Baptism and the Lords' Supper.

I share that belief. What is the practice of baptism and lord's supper like in your worship experience? Are they underplayed? Do you sense a deep celebration of these sacraments in your worship life? I believe James White's comment calls us to a deeper celebration: "When we speak of sacraments, we are speaking of actions through which God relates to us here and now in establishing or renewing personal relationships. God once acted definitively in the underlying sacrament, Christ, who came into the world to make the Father known." God still practices self-giving in the sacraments we share with each other and the world.


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