Sunday, June 24, 2007

Baptism

Today in church we had a baptism service. It was great. The sacraments of baptism and communion are the highlights of the church. Of course, in our evangelical tradition we don't call them sacraments. This label has come to take on some connotations that we do not wish to imply. The act of baptism doesn't save you. Communion is not the actual presence of Jesus Christ. So we call them ordinances; acts of obedience; symbols.

Which they are. But what have we lost by talking about them only this way? There may have been a time when this was a necessary corrective and a counter-balance to prevailing assumptions, but I would assume for most of us evangelicals that time has passed. Perhaps what we need is a corrective in the other direction.


Certainly these special events in the life of a church are more than mere symbols? The apple with a bite out of one side is a symbol. Songs have symbolic value and can be quite moving. And certainly they are more than mere obedience? Going to church is obedience. Again, singing worship songs is obedient, and much easier to get into. What else are the sacraments?

Join me on a thought-experiment. If the act of baptism or the act of communion doesn't save you, what does? If baptism is a symbol of salvation, what is the salvation moment then? The moment you decided for Jesus? The moment you made the step of faith? When exactly was that? When you prayed the prayer? What prayer? Did you get it right? Who witnessed it? Did you mean it? Could they tell? Could you? Was your faith pure enough? Was it real? Or were you just caught up in the moment?

I'm not trying to get you to question your faith. I'm just trying to point out the lunacy of us thinking that our assurance of salvation lies in some sort of sincere words we said one day or one moment of faith, importance as it might have been, which somehow effected our salvation.

How is it sillier to say that an act of baptism effects our salvation than to say that a moment of passionate and private faith did so?

The truth is that Jesus Christ effects our salvation by His Spirit according to the will of the Father, often at a moment we can't quite pinpoint. Many of us have a sense of exactly when that started, but how exact can we be on that? Baptism is a fairly wonderful gift of God because it is so exact; so physical; so public; so communal.

After all, you can't baptize yourself! A church must do it for you! And you can't be baptized without getting wet! It has to touch you! What a wonderful thing. It mystifies me how we can clamour for more visibility from God---and so we write songs and plan dramas and put together slide shows to move us in a visible tangible way---and then we drain the God-given rite of baptism of much of its power, calling it merely a symbol of something else; some intangible personal thing we call our moment of salvation.

Maybe baptism, in some crazy way, is our moment of salvation. Not in a way that invests the water or the ceremony with magical powers, but in a way where God's promise meets human acceptance and a sacred thing happens.

Although I have major problems with infant baptism as a regular practice, there are some things I like about it. Infant baptism is not just about me and my obedience. It is not just a declaration of my faith and a symbol of my salvation. Infant baptism reminds me that baptism is the gift of God to the person through the church and the family. It can be grown into and accepted or it can not. It requires confirmation and it puts the onus on the church to step up and share that journey with that person.

Though there are problems with infant baptism (for instance, in that it devalues the role of faith and personal experience in Christianity), on at least one level it is more significant than believer's baptism. Sure, many have been baptized as infants and it did not end up meaning squat to them or their families. But the same could be said for many believer's baptisms too.

I'm not saying I want to go out and start baptizing infants. I would hate to take the responsibility of faith from a person or rob them of that special moment of experiencing their own baptism and welcome into the church. It is a gift of God to them. But I do realize there is more to this sacrament than is often given it credit, and that goes for many traditions.

Having said that, even with all this ordinance talk in our church today, we got the sentiment right, and more importantly, God was there doing his thing. People were baptized, and lives were touched by the Spirit and the Christ in, and even by, the Church. It was a beautiful thing.

1 comment:

Freezer said...

Thanks for your thoughts John. You ask good questions, and hold this salvation thing in a healthy tension.