Baptism: Bold Discipleship and Humble Spirit

This Sunday, like many preachers, I will be taking up the reading from Luke 3, which describes Jesus' Baptism. With that in mind I'm republishing a blog posting from 2009. I was reading through and blogging the book Disciples: Reclaiming our Identity, Reforming our Practice, (Chalice Press, 2009).  The book was authored by two Disciples of Christ leaders, one of whom -- Michael Kinnamon -- has been at the forefront of Disciple ecumenical efforts.  I share this because it speaks to the importance of the sacrament, and our dilemma in recognizing it.


As I continue to blog through Disciples: Reclaiming our Identity, Reforming our Practice, by Michael Kinnamon and Jan Linn, I come to their chapter on Baptism. As with the Lord's Table, Baptism has been a point of contention and division within the Christian community. That being said, our authors suggest that ecumenically there is a growing consensus -- despite the fact that the practice remains differentiated.

Practitioners of Believers Baptism, traditions that place great emphasis on personal confession of faith, have not, generally been at the forefront of the ecumenical movement. The Disciples are somewhat unique in this sense. This is especially true as we embraced the idea of open membership, the principle by which we continue to practice believers baptism but receive as true baptism forms and practices from other traditions, different from our own. Rarely in Disciples Churches will you hear the words "pious unimmersed" anymore.

The drawback to this, as the authors see it, is that Disciples may have "lost a sense that baptism is crucial to who we are -- as if only that which is controversial can be important" (p. 54). In other words, having crossed the Rubicon, we've lost interest in this element of our tradition.

Baptism became part of our conversation, not at the very beginning, but when Alexander Campbell faced the decision as to whether to baptize his infant daughter. He chose to postpone that action -- allowing his daughter the freedom to choose. But, while Campbell didn't take a "sacramental" view of baptism he believed it was crucial to faith. It was through baptism that God acted graciously to forgive sins (baptism for the remission of sins). Believers baptism allows for one's ownership of this fact. Believers baptism recognizes the freedom we have to affirm Jesus' call on our lives for ourselves. It's not a decision placed on us by family, by culture, or by nation.

The church shouldn't be a community of the lukewarm, of those who are Christian because their parents are or because it is socially expected. The church is a "peculiar people" who respond to God's grace by living as disciples of Christ, not of Caesar.(Disciples, p. 57)

The authors contrast the Disciple position with that of the Anabaptists, in that this sense of called outness did not mean withdrawal from society. That is, it was assumed that we were not sectarian (though sectarian movements emerged).

For Disciples Baptism is not simply a ritual of entrance into the church -- a membership requirement. At its best, Disciples have assumed that baptism is the means of incorporation into the whole body of Christ.

So, what about the implications for Disciples today? What meaning does baptism have for us in this day and age?

One of the things that authors do is remind us that believers baptism is not an automatic guarantee of discipleship. Recipients can be "just as indifferent to God, just as allergic to mission, just as 'immersed' in the surrounding culture as any other Christians." And, people who were sprinkled as infants can be just committed or more committed than any immersed person. That said, baptism has important "missional implications" that we as Disciples can reclaim. The missional implications include:

1. "God's grace compels us to oppose discrimination based on such things as race, gender, and economic status" -- Consider Galatians 3:28. Galatians 3 sets our relationships in context of baptism -- how then does this text call us to live? (p. 59).

2. "God's grace binds us in solidarity with Christians who suffer or celebrate anywhere in the world." The text here is 1 Corinthians 12, which reminds us that we are part of the body of Christ, a body into which we have been baptized. Therefore, we share in both the joys and the sufferings of the rest of the body. (p. 60).

3. "God's grace calls and enables us to reject the idolatry -- the love of money, the veneration of power -- that is so much part of our life in twenty-first century North America." Romans 6 reminds us that in baptism we have identified with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and thus have been transformed. (p. 61).

So, how do we reclaim these missional implications? The authors suggest that we engage in rigorous pre-baptismal instruction. I will admit that I've not engaged in the kind of rigorous instruction that they propose. But I see the value. They also suggest that we use "strong missional language" in our baptismal services -- calling on the baptized to accept and affirm his or her call to service in and through baptism. They also suggest ecumenical participation -- to give witness to our broader connections. And finally they encourage services of renewal of baptismal vows.

What is unique about our understanding of baptism is that while practitioners of believers baptism we are committed to the ecumenical vision. Most of the communions involved actively in such work tend to be paedobaptists (baptize infants). We are the only believers baptism practitioners that have joined united churches overseas, and we're the only one that is part of Churches Uniting in Christ.

They close with this word:

We think a phrase that captures who we are is "bold humility" -- bold in our proclamation and service, humble in our hospitality to those who are different. Baptism is a visible embodiment of this tension. Through baptism, God lays claim to us and tuns us from other gods; but also through baptism, God unites us with the whole Christian family and opens us to persons unlike our own. Discipleship and openness. Bold mission and ecumenical humility. We believe that this is who we are as Disciples, and that it's an identity worth celebrating! (Disciples, p. 64).

I would agree, especially since I am one whose own journey with baptism has been long and arduous. I was baptized as an infant in the Episcopal Church, re-baptized as a teen at a Foursquare camp, and then as I became a Disciple struggled to hold these two together. I invite your thoughts about baptism, it's importance and its implications -- not just for Disciples, but for all of us!


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