What’s in a Baptism?

Boundaries 

William Temple, perhaps the most influential  of the Archbishops of Canterbury in the 20th Century commented that the Church is the only society that exists for those who are not its members. Perhaps this helps explain the Anglican Tradition’s rather odd view of boundaries. For nothing seems easier than to become a member of the Episcopal Church. In fact, just showing up on a regular basis might easily result in your slipping seamlessly into membership.

Given the prevailing truth based, salvation, preoccupied culture of large swathes of American Christianity this might appear to be a very odd way to carry on. The open boundary practice of the Episcopal Church regarding everyone who shows up for worship expresses the point behind Archbishop Temple’s comment – the Church is the only society that exists for those who are not its members. Consequently, the Episcopal Church struggles to define the boundary between the Church and the World. Yet, that does not mean there is not a portal of entry into the Church. In worship all are welcome, yet the portal of entry into the practice of the Christian faith is still baptism.

Baptism

Our Gospel this morning is Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus. Luke’s account has some interesting departures from the original account recorded in Mark.  John the Baptist is absent. In Luke’s chronology, at the time of Jesus’ baptism John languishes in Herod’s prison.  Luke does not give us the mechanics of who is doing the baptizing and the implication is that the Holy Spirit is the chief actor. Luke makes it clear that the Spirit takes bodily, physical form. The Holy Dove descends upon Jesus for everyone to see. The heavenly voice publicly proclaims Jesus’ identity as Son of God for everyone to hear.

In Mark, Jesus’ baptism seems intensely personal. His identity seems to be a secret that only he and John the Baptist really know about. In Luke, Jesus’ baptism has become everyone’s baptism. This last week, while wondering about the difference in emphasis between Luke and Mark I noticed that the difference in emphasis reflects something of the continual dispute among Christians as to whether we are saved through baptism or whether baptism is the sign that we are already saved.

Evangelical Christians tend to believe that we become individually saved through baptism. Baptism first requires a personal sign of faith, and so Evangelicals emphasize baptism as the conscious decision of the individual believer, i.e. a believer’s baptism. Baptism is the individual believer’s purchase of a ticket to salvation.

Anglicans tend to believe that baptism is a sign that we are already saved by God. For us, baptism is not like purchasing a ticket to individual salvation. Baptism is entry into the faith of the community that is already saved. We are saved through our participation in the life of the Church. God has already saved the world through the birth, death and Resurrection of Christ.

Through entry into and participation in the life of the Church we actively witness to this truth.

Church

I began with noting Archbishop Temple’s statement – the Church is the only society that exists for those who are not its members. We are all painfully aware that the sad truth is that the Church often behaves as if it exists only for the sole benefit of its members.

Different Christian traditions all use the same word Church for the gathering of Christians. Yet, Protestants, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics have differing understandings of Church. Generally speaking, for Protestants the Church is simply the voluntary gathering of Christians who are all individually saved through their personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord. For Anglicans and Roman Catholics the Church has a collective identity greater than the sum total of its individual members. Salvation comes from our participation in the life of the saving community.

Current Roman Catholic emphasis tends not to agree with Archbishop Temple’s statement. For Roman Catholics, salvation is confined within the boundaries of the Church itself, which is why those boundaries have to be so rigorously policed. Using an analogy form baking bread for a moment, Roman Catholicism sees the Church as the loaf. Anglican Tradition understands the Church as the leaven in the loaf. For Episcopalians, the purpose of the Church as the saving community is to bear witness that God’s saving action extends to the whole world.

Implications

Does any of this matter? For me it does. In a society dominated by a  Calvinist reoccupation with whether each and every person is saved or dammed, I reject the notion that as an individual, through my choice of Jesus as Lord, I can be saved while the person next to me is dammed. My salvation has nothing to do with my self-assertion of belief. I am saved, and you are saved, because God loves us both without distinction. In a society where Christians easily become preoccupied by a notion of the Church as the Ark of Salvation, I accept that salvation comes to me through my participation in the saving community of the Church. Yet, the point of Temple’s statement is that God’s gift of salvation is not limited only to those within the Church.

The Baptismal Covenant of the Book of Common Prayer

Baptism is not a once upon a time event. It’s a daily process of living out our commitment to God’s world. We articulate our common purpose as the baptized in what’s known as the Baptismal Covenant. Every time a person is baptized we all participate in the Holy Spirit’s action by affirming five promises that commit us to action.

  1. We promise to be faithful in our participation in the life of the Church. In other words we not only show up on Sunday morning but we try to practice being Christians seven days a week.
  2. We promise to fight evil and when we fail, to return to the struggle through the path of repentance.
  3. We promise to share with everyone the good news that in Christ, God has already saved the whole world.
  4. We promise to serve Christ, by having a regard for our neighbor as much as we love ourselves.
  5. Finally, we promise to strive for justice and peace in the world and to respect the dignity of all human being. In every generation that last promise is a real challenge. For it requires us to go beyond our easy accommodation to the values of culture that glosses over patterns of privilege and discrimination.

As Episcopalians, our apparent fuzziness about the boundaries, is by design. We trust the truth behind Archbishop Temple’s statement that the Church is the only society that exists for those who are not its members. Our boundaries may be fuzzy, but our identity is clear!

Through baptism we participate in the life of the saving community. This community commonly called the Church is a witness to the fact that in Christ salvation is God’s freely offered gift to all, with no strings attached. Because of our baptism, our lives are lived in a tension. On the one hand we can be tempted to live with an uncritical accommodation to the values of our culture. Or we can view the events of our daily lives, and life of the communities around us, through the lens of those five promises in our Baptismal Covenant.

So to live, is to live as a Christian in the world.

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