Living Beyond Oneself

The two most important days for baptism in the Christian calendar are the Baptism of Christ, and at the Easter Vigil, on the eve of Easter Day. Today we celebrate the Baptism of Christ, and we have the privilege of performing several baptisms.  

What is Baptism?

On the 25th of December we began a period of celebration marking the birth of Jesus. The accounts in Matthew and Luke of the birth of Jesus offer us an enchanted[1] picture of the the Creator of the world entering into the experience of being part of the Creation. Christians know this event as the Incarnation or the birth of Jesus. The Incarnation divides history into a time before, and time after. Because through the birth of Jesus, God shows us that being human is to be most like God.

We live in the time after the Incarnation – the entry of God into creation through the birth and life of Jesus Christ. We are born into that changed relationship between God and humanity.  In coming to John The Baptist to be baptized Jesus is acknowledging the full implication of being God’s Son. As it was for Jesus, so it is for you and me. When we come to baptism we self-consciously accept that to be human is to be most like God. From that point-on our lives change because we live with a new intention. There is a difference between being human and becoming Christian. If being human is being most like God, to become Christian is to know we are most like God. This knowledge or self-awareness is what makes a difference to the way we live our lives in the world.

Much of popular American Christianity today tends to believe that we become individually saved through the washing away of our sins by baptism. This popular expression of Christianity emphasizes baptism as the conscious decision of the individual believer. Believer’s baptism implies that through baptism we individually purchase a ticket to salvation.

Episcopalians believe that in God’s mind we are already saved, for to be human is to be most like God. However, a gift must first be accepted to become real. The difference between popular and historic Christianity lies in the understanding of this acceptance.

As Christians of the historic tradition, while baptism is our individual response, baptism is not a ticket to individual salvation. Baptism is entry into the faith of the community that is already saved. Rather than being saved as individuals we are saved through our participation in the life of the Church, the Church as the saved and saving community of Christ in the world. 

What is the Church?

William Temple was Archbishop of Canterbury for a relatively short time during some of the darkest years of the Second World War. Although only Archbishop for a few years he was one of the towering Anglican thinkers of the 20th Century. He once 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.

Most Christian churches define membership through a shared sense of what they believe. In contrast the Episcopal Church uses common worship, rather than shared belief as the qualification for membership. If you can worship with us, allowing yourself to be quietly molded by the rhythms and cadences of the Book of Common Prayer, then you are welcomed as one of us.

Archbishop Temple’s comment – the Church is the only society that exists for those who are not its members makes for fuzzy boundaries between Church and the World. At one level it means that Episcopalians do not draw a sharp distinction between the Church and the world. The Church is in the world not as the ark of salvation as old fashioned Roman Catholics were taught to believe, but as the ark of witness to the presence of God’s saving activity in the world. This activity precedes our arrival and extends well beyond our boundaries.

Episcopalians are Christians of the historic Catholic and Apostolic tradition of Christianity, defined over a period of the first 600 years of the Church, give or take a century,. Although our boundaries are somewhat permeable, it does not follow that there is no formal entrance to belonging. We welcome everyone who wants to grow into the historic tradition of being Christian and in worship all are welcome, because worship rather than belief is what leads us to gateway of baptism. Through baptism we enter into the practice of the Christian life.

Our Common Purpose 

Baptism is an event that happens in a moment of time. Yet, it is also more than this momentary event. Baptism is a daily process of living our faith in the 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 through five promises that reaffirm our own baptism and recommit us to a particular way of living in the world.

  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 through participation in the church’s common prayer, seven days a week. These days we can have portable access to templates for morning and evening prayer along with daily lectionary through apps on our smart phones and tablets and wedsites on our desktops.
  2. We promise to fight evil and when we fail, to return to the struggle through the path of repentance. Accepting failure with a sense of sorrow that reinvigorates us to pick ourselves up and try again is crucial.
  3. We promise to share with everyone the good news that in Christ, God has already saved the whole world. Sharing Christ is not a matter of words shouted through a megaphone on a street corner. Christ is shared when the quality of our living makes others want what we seem to have.
  4. We promise to serve Christ, by having a regard for our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. We have to take ourselves seriously. Until we do we cannot know what it means to serve others.
  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 gloss-over patterns of privilege and discrimination that are the roots of oppression and inequality. 

As Christians of the historic tradition of Christianity, we understand baptism as entry into membership of the Church. As Episcopalians, 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. This can make for fuzzy boundaries, but maybe this is the price we gladly pay in order to advance the coming of the kingdom!

Through baptism we participate in the life of the saving community. This community commonly called the Church witnesses that in Christ, salvation is God’s freely offered gift to all, no strings attached. We are saved because first God has love us. Yet, gifts can only be offered. To become effective they need to be accepted. Baptism is our acceptance. To be human is to be most like God, yet, to be baptized is to recognize what it means to be most like God. That meaning is made clear as we struggle to live faithfully and courageously. What does living faithfully and courageously look like? It is each day to be mindfully aware of the promises of our Baptismal Covenant, made at our own baptism, and reaffirmed every time we stand in solidarity as a community with those to be baptized.

[1] Enchantment and disenchantment are concepts Charles Taylor in A Secular Age uses to describe the development of belief.

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