Lesson 4: Presence in Baptism

Holy CommunionI’ve been suggesting that our primary two considerations about the divine presence among us are God’s promise and our accurate testimony. A sacrament by definition involves the promise of God’s presence. Baptism, like Communion, is a means of grace because Jesus promised that he would be there participating in the action. The Church witnesses to the divine presence by taking care that her practice proclaims the Gospel appropriately.

For starters, baptism, like the Gospel, opens up rather than shuts down. The Gospel proclaims God is active everywhere in the world welcoming people into the beloved community. In baptism an individual is assured that this includes her. The sacrament by design proclaims this Gospel when it embraces Gentiles as well as Jews, when it includes women as well as men (in contrast to circumcision), and when it recognizes a loving relationship beyond the biological family.

Sadly, the “for you” aspect of the sacrament is too often used to exclude rather than include. Baptism is defined as an entrance requirement leading people to think you need to be baptized in order to be saved. This kind of thinking assumes I can be sure God loves me, because I have done something others have not. And this, of course, is the exact opposite of the Gospel message that proclaims God’s grace when he includes me in his love for all people.

The Church’s testimony is also lacking in the persistent arguments about how God is present. In the Communion meal, the different church bodies chose to argue about the divine presence in the elements, whereas in Baptism, they argue about the action. The legitimate Church supposedly is the only one who knows the right way to baptize. Some insist authenticity depends on limiting the rite to adults rather than infants, some on immersing the candidates rather than pouring a little water over them, and others even on lowering the person being immersed forward rather than backward. In contrast to the Communion debate, no one seems concerned with what happens to the water. All are satisfied that water becomes life-giving by simply being used properly.

An outside observer would be justified thinking the church’s conflict over the sacraments has much more to do with human bickering than theological correctness. Once again, we have to emphasize that the pettiness of the community does not obstruct God’s presence in the means of grace. However, it certainly provides a mighty poor witness to the message we are called to proclaim.

Some guidelines for practices that witness to God’s presence in Baptism might include:

  • The rite should include clear expressions of God’s love for all people and the entire creation as well as the individual being baptized. The emphasis should be on God’s gift rather than our actions.
  • Baptism should obviously be a community event that welcomes a new member rather than some magic ceremony that guarantees an individual salvation in another life. It should include the community’s promise to care for the baptized.
  • It should also be evident that caring for the community is extended to working for peace and justice in all the earth.
  • The actions should involve washing just as the Communion should be a meal. Experiencing God’s presence in the sacrament should help us discern his presence in every washing.

The forgiveness of sins should always be proclaimed in the context of love. People should not leave thinking that they are excused from evil actions but understanding they have been invited to share the love that has been granted.

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