To speak about the baptism is not unlike engaging in a chicken and egg conundrum. Who is doing what to whom? When? How? Why? These are the questions that have blessed and disturbed the church for nearly two millennia that have passed since John and Jesus first met at the Jordan River. Even as I write this paper, with its requisite focus on baptism as trust and faith and submission to Christ’s leading, lordship and love, I am painfully aware that I stand with a great cloud of witnesses who for ages and ages have wrestled with and testified to the meaning of baptism. Theologians of every stripe have strived to describe what is happening in this sacrament. Systematicians have called us to pay attention to the details that define God’s work in this sacrament, liturgical theologians have focused on what is communicated in the performance of the ritual; from the field of practical theology come efforts to understand the pastoral and formational gifts offered in the act of baptism as a sacrament that should inform the daily walk of faith.
This makes me wonder: When so many others with significantly more experience and far superior interpretive skills have provided us with their wisdom, what can I possibly offer to this theological conversation? What more can any of us possibly say that hasn’t already been said? What new thing can we possibly offer to a world of people whose primary modus operandi seems to demonstrate lack of trust, a dearth of faith and little desire to submit to any authority other than that which will help them earn the most money, power or status? As I read and prayed in the days leading up to the actually production of this paper, what became clear is this: We have given up on baptism as the beginning of a new way of life. Yes, congregations across the country are still baptizing people of all ages. Yes, pastors and teachers are still explaining the meaning of baptism in sermons, confirmation classes and Sunday School. Yes, there are liturgies and rituals for baptismal reaffirmation established and practiced from time to time. But the reality of baptism as an initiation into a faithful life oriented toward submission to Christ’s leading? Observation of churchly people out and about in the world suggests that there are other ways which are more central to our lifestyles now.
Nearly 10 years ago, people in this country experienced a terrible shock when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 shattered our sense of shalom. In the years since, we have suffered further systemic stress with the devastation and loss from two simultaneous wars, hurricanes, flooding, and an economic decline that left no community untouched. In the midst of these struggles, we have seen the ever widening gap between the well-resourced and those who struggle to put food on the table. At a time when we might expect our better selves to rise up, we find that the opposite is true. Cynicism trumps hope at every turn. Skepticism has replaced faith. Suspicion about personal motivation easily overwhelms the most basic level of trust. Even in the church we love, the common bonds of our connection to the One Body are stressed to the breaking point by lack of time, talent, treasure and most of all, lack of vision all of which contribute to the ongoing factionalism that has us choosing sides and engaging in the same cynical, fearful, power-grabbing behaviors as everyone else. This is the reality in which we find ourselves – the ethos into which we, God’s broken children are called to bring the good news to a broken world. It is into this world that we are called to “remember our baptism and be grateful.”
As I consider the great need in myself and in the world I inhabit, I am thankful for the history we share with our Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox brothers and sisters who continue place a great deal of emphasis on what Irenaeus and our early church ancestors taught: lex orandi, lex credendi – the rule of prayer leads to the rule of faith. This is followed closely by lex vivendi – the rule of living. These three provide us with a very practical way to consider baptism as an essential gift that while initiated as an act of worship, has the potential to significantly influence the way we live. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, provides us with an excellent framework for remembering, renewing and living out our baptismal calling in these complicated times.
Lex orandi invites us to look at baptism liturgically. What words do we speak? What symbols do we use? What messages are we communicating when we perform this act? Our own Book of Order calls us to attend to the words spoken by those desiring the sacrament for themselves or for their children. It is necessary to make a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, renounce evil, affirm their reliance on God’s grace, declare their intention to participate in the life of the church, declare their intention to provide for the Christian nurture of their child. In that same holy moment, the congregation must also profess its faith, give voice to its support of those being baptized and state its willingness to take responsibility for the nurture of those baptized. (W-3.3603) However, it is not enough for us to stop with an evaluation of the prayers, the responses, the songs or the vows spoken in worship. To simply consider the meaning of the words in the context of worship is to miss the potential for baptism to have meaning and power in the world of the one baptized.
Yet however much as we might say that we believe the act of baptism has meaning and power beyond the worship service in which it was enacted, our experience tells us that is not always the case. In order for lex orandi to carry into the law of life, in order for our baptism to become a lively, visible sign of everyday faith, we need to remember that it is not merely a symbolic ritual. It is not just a traditional family activity. It is not just another rite of passage. Baptism is not a task to be checked off from the “honey-do” list of life. If we pay attention to the lex orandi and begin to live out the words spoken and sung, we are engaging in a fundamental act of faith and trust that says something about who we are and to whom we belong.
By seeking and participating in the sacrament of baptism, the baptized person, together with the congregation, demonstrates in a highly symbolic way that we belong to Christ. When we submit to the waters of baptism, when we speak the vows aloud, we are making obvious to those in that room what it means to submit to Christ. From the moment the candidate is presented, there is a surrender of self, an assent to the truth that there is a greater Lord with a vision that far surpasses that of the lords of chaos, stress and pain that demand our attention and command us to follow. Authentic submission to Christ’s lordship means that we take our baptismal vows as seriously outside the walls of the church as we did when gathered in the sanctuary. Although they are spoken in the context of worship, these promises are not meant to be left in the sanctuary after everyone has gone out for a piece of baptism cake and a cup of punch. Imagine what would happen if that yielding spirit were carried out into the greater community. Imagine the effects on a neighborhood, a workplace, a school if the baptismal vows were carried and lived out as powerfully as they were demonstrated in the worshipful moment before the font. The liturgy we share has this kind of power – a Spirit-given, transcendent power to break through the walls of the sanctuary as each one present, each one baptized, responds to the call to acknowledge their own part of the brokenness of the world and to celebrate the unequaled love that welcomes, forgives, nurtures and challenges.