Preached by Rev. Kim Blocher at Zion UCC, Arendtsville on January 9, 2011
In the very clearest terms possible, Jesus commands us to baptize. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” So it must mean something extremely important. Our second clue as to its importance is that Christ himself was baptized.
This coming June marks my 16th year as an ordained minister. I still struggle to comprehend the power and promise of this sacrament, and its role as the door through which we enter the Body of Christ. I certainly do not have full understanding yet, but I am much farther along than at the beginning of my pastoral journey.
Many times I have been asked to do private baptisms, even in my own family. Almost 16 years into my ministry I can now explain why that is not possible, but I didn’t always understand it myself
In 1996, following a year serving as chaplain at York Hospital, I received a call as supply pastor to a nearby church. It was a great church and an enjoyable 6 months. I came with a lot of experience in pastoral care, but much less so in church administration…especially as regards the sacraments. When I arrived, there was already a new member Sunday on the calendar. I dutifully visited the prospective members and felt satisfied they were ready to join the church.
The church came equipped with a very experienced and sharp secretary who did not brook much foolishness. I reported that I had visited, and we could go ahead and get the paperwork ready. She looked at me and said, “Have they been baptized?” I must have looked like the cartoon character Scooby Doo when he turns his head in puzzlement and goes, “RRRUUUHHH?”
It never occurred to me ask whether the prospective members were baptized. I think I mumbled something about, “let me get back to you on that.” Well, in fact the wife had not been baptized. She was a very shy person, and being baptized in front of a congregation sounded daunting to her. To compound the pastoral errors which were beginning to pile up…we arranged for a private baptism prior to the service. I’m not saying that the liturgy police were called out, or that it warranted an episode of “Baptism-CSI.” But it was a significant error born of two factors—pastoral inexperience, and most importantly, a faulty understanding of baptism.
There is no baptism apart from the church. Period. We are baptized into the Body of Christ, among the Body of Christ. As William Willimon would say, a private baptism makes as much sense as a birthday party with no guests. The only time a private baptism is warranted is in a medical emergency when someone is near death and the family requests the baptism. And, as the nurses and doctors among us know, any Christian can baptize another Christian. All hospitals have a protocol to guide staff in case there is a need for emergency baptism and no clergy are available.
However, in our tradition, ordained clergy are the only ones authorized to baptize in a church setting. That is because we are the gate keepers, who hopefully, are able to administer the sacrament properly. One of the vows that I took at my ordination was this: “Will you be faithful in preaching and teaching the gospel, in administering the sacraments and rites of the church, and in exercising pastoral care and leadership?” Baptism matters because it is the door to the Body of Christ.
The way that we do it now, is not the way it has always been done. Let’s go back 2000 years to the earliest days of the church. William Willimon, in his book Remember Who You Are, provides an interesting historical view. Imagine we are in Rome, in the second century when the earliest church met in private homes. People would spend three years in instruction and preparation for baptism. Candidates for baptism were called catechumens. The three year period culminated during the Easter vigil…the night before Easter. The catechumens would arrive at the house, and wait their turn to go into the room that contained a large baptismal font–in the shape of a tomb. When their turn came, they would be assisted in undressing by either a deacon or deaconness. Nothing of his or her old life could go into the water. After being immersed three times, they would come out of the water and be dressed in a brand new robe…the garment of salvation. They would then present themselves to the bishop for a blessing, and join the community in the Lord’s Supper.
Hear the words of the hymn they would sing: The Father, (who) has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his Beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
As the first rays of light on Easter morning streamed through the windows, they would depart, scattering into the streets of Rome so as to not draw attention to themselves. What they had just done was worth a death sentence in those days. But it was a risk they were willing to take, to be joined in the Body of Christ and transferred to the kingdom of God. It was worth the risk to die to sin and rise to new life. In a true sense it was a rehearsal for resurrection.
You can see that our sense of baptism struggles to engender the same sense of urgency and importance as it had in the early church. But not if we keep our focus on the gift of baptism, the incredible gift of God’s grace by which we die and rise to new life.
I tell our Confirmation Class that membership in the church is a gift. They may feel as though they earn it, but really it is a gracious gift that none of us could ever earn. Confirmation is the second of a two step process that begins with baptism. And yes, it’s a lot of work. But at our baptism God begins a work in us, and it takes the rest of our lives for that work to be complete.
The beautiful babies that partake of the waters here in our baptismal font don’t earn the right to be baptized. And even at age 10 or age 30 or age 60, there is nothing any of us could do to earn God’s grace. It is a gift. Like membership in the church.
We do not baptize to save someone from damnation. We baptize because we need to know to whom we belong. God says, “This is my beloved child. Welcome to the Body of Christ.”
Our historic Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, is the document that for centuries instructed catechumens preparing to join the church. It begins with the question, ‘What is your only comfort in life and death?” The answer: “That I am not my own but belong body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.”
I am indebted to William Willimon’s book Remember Who You Are for the trajectory of this sermon. Nashville: Upper Room, 1980.