Thursday, April 28, 2011

Eastertide: Remember Your Baptism


It is a beautiful day today. The sun is shining and the weather forecast is calling for temperatures in the sixties. After a long winter and a cold, wet spring, this day is long overdue. Things are coming to life. Birds are making nests. My daffodils are finally blooming. The grass seems greener each day. It feels like Easter.

Easter, of course, is the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I don’t know how Christians in the southern hemisphere perceive it, but I am very grateful that the renewal of life we experience in spring coincides with Eastertide.
“Eastertide” is one of those stuffy liturgical sounding words. I don’t use it much because some folks in my tradition have an aversion to most things that look, sound, or smell like traditional liturgy. But the resurrection is the hinge-point of our faith. “And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless, and you are still under condemnation for your sins” (I Cor. 15:17). It demands more than just one day to celebrate it. Indeed, each Sunday is a “little Easter.”

But the liturgical church, drawing from ancient traditions, celebrates the entire season from Easter to Pentecost as “Eastertide” or “the Great Fifty Days.” I like that concept and hope to incorporate some of those ideas into our services at FirstB this year. The Easter banners will remain until Pentecost. We’ll sing resurrection-themed hymns and songs in both services. I’d like to have people receive Communion standing up to symbolize our union with Christ in his resurrection– but that’s probably pushing things too far.

Without question, the most profound symbol of the resurrection is Christian baptism. Historically, Easter was the primary day in which people were baptized in the ancient church. There was no missing the point as people identified with the death and resurrection of Christ through the rite. “For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives” (Romans 6:4). We were blessed to have three people baptized in our services on Easter Sunday. Each baptism was a powerful moment as the people told their stories of changed lives and their intention to follow Jesus.

I am convinced that adult baptism is the biblical norm. My Baptist credentials on that point are solid. But I’ve also come to understand through my interaction with those from other traditions that our practical theology (that is, what we actually do with it) is impoverished. The emphasis, it seems to me, in many churches that practice adult baptism is on the individual’s profession of faith. We ask them to share their conversion experience and when we are certain that they’ve understood what it means to trust Christ for their salvation we baptize them. It is sort of a “coming-out” party for the new convert. I’ve not only observed this in my Baptist experience, but it was the overwhelmingly prevalent understanding of undergraduate students in the evangelical Christian university where I taught. Certainly, such a perspective is biblical. John’s baptism was a public declaration of repentance. The mass baptism in Acts 2 was a public declaration of faith in Christ. Most baptisms in the New Testament were a public declaration in some sense. Baptism was, literally and figuratively, a watershed moment in a person’s life when they turned from death to life.

What is missing in our approach to baptism is God’s action in the rite. It seems that it is all about us – what we do. This is my choice. This is my declaration of faith. But the New Testament alludes to much more. God is somehow mystically active in baptism. Without adopting the position of baptismal regeneration (we are saved through the action – that would be a salvation of works) we must make room for God’s work in us through baptism. You cannot honestly read Romans 6:1-11, Colossians 2:12, and I Peter 3:21 without seeing God at the center of baptismal action. And we also know God is active intuitively. Why is baptism such a moving experience? Surely, God is there!

Why is this so important? Because baptism has the power to transform us. I think this is what Peter was saying when he wrote, “baptism now saves you – not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” He agrees with Paul in our identification with Christ in his death and resurrection through baptism.

OK, you probably already knew the connection between baptism and the resurrection. It is not that the connection isn’t made in Baptist teaching and preparation for baptism. It is. The problem is that the emphasis doesn’t go much further than the baptismal tank. This is where those who practice infant baptism can help us – if we’re willing to learn from them. Because no one who was baptized as an infant can recall the event, those who practice the tradition periodically include an element of “baptismal remembrance” into their worship services. It is a short liturgy when the meaning of baptism is recalled and the people participate in the renewal of vows. Typically, the vows follow an ancient question and response pattern:

Question: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Answer: I renounce them.

Question: Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

Answer: I renounce them.

(In some ancient traditions, at this point, the baptismal candidate would spit in the face of Satan. A powerful way to end a relationship!)

Question: Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

Answer: I renounce them.
Question: Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?

Answer: I do.

Question: Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?

Answer: I do.

Question: Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?

Answer: I do.

Powerful, don’t you think? By renewing their vows, baptism isn’t just a one-time event but a reality which they intentionally live into. It is the practice of living out those vows – dead to sin and alive to Christ – that is transformative. It is precisely what Paul is saying when he urges us, “Since then you have been raised up with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven…so put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you” (Colossians 3:1-5).

For the next several months, weddings will be scheduled on each weekend. When I do attend weddings I often find that my own marriage is enriched with deeper meaning and commitment. There is, in my own heart, a renewing of my marriage vows to Diane. This is as it should be. Public baptisms should have the same effect on us. And it probably wouldn’t hurt if we considered how to incorporate some sort of baptismal vows into our services for our own renewal.

Right now, in my own personal struggle, I’m confronted by the cross. Frankly, I’m afraid of the pain and the loss. The tomb looks awfully dark to me. But Christ beckons me to follow him to the cross, into the tomb, and finally to new life and wholeness through resurrection with him. I’m called to remember and live out my baptism. This is real discipleship. This is the path to transformation.

Back to Eastertide. OK. So I won’t use the word. But I think we should celebrate the resurrection for a season. One day is not enough. And while we’re enjoying the convergence of seasonal change and the truth of Easter, I challenge you to remember your baptism. Come and die so that you might live!

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