A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to lead a workshop at the Paris District Training Event. My workshop was on “Leading Confirmation in Small Membership Churches.” In line with the title of the workshop, we had a “small” number of persons attending the session, but since the class I’ve heard several people asking more questions about how this important step in discipleship can work in places where it might be viewed with curiosity, suspicion or doubt. So I want to take a few posts and lay out what I shared in the workshop and invite your input, feedback, and further questions so that we can learn from one another.

Perhaps you’ve heard something like this before:

A Jewish Rabbi, a Baptist Preacher, and a Catholic Priest were having problems with a horrible influx of insects in their places of worship. The Rabbi said, “I’ve tried setting traps, but they are able to avoid them.”
The Baptist said, “I tried calling local pest control agencies, but that has no effect.”
The Priest said, “I’ve been able to get rid of them.”
The others asked, “How?”
The Priest replied, “Simple. I simply baptized and confirmed them, and haven’t seen them since.”

The perception of confirmation that many have is that after young persons are confirmed they leave the church or the Christian faith in general. And the unfortunate fact is that some churches have used confirmation as a mere ritual and go through a predetermined set of motions ignoring the very intent of confirmation, which is designed to be a period of formation of the youth, their parents and sponsors, and even of the church community as a whole.

But before we dig too much deeper, let’s first unveil a simple understanding of what confirmation is, because for many, especially some small membership churches, ‘confirmation’ may be a new concept or practice or perhaps is something that we tend to only associate with the Roman Catholic Church. But many traditions in the Christian faith, including our own (United Methodism), have incorporated confirmation into the life of the church for centuries.

What is confirmation? Simply stated, confirmation is the rite at which a baptized person, especially one baptized as an infant (though non-baptized people can go through confirmation and then be baptized if they were not prior), affirms Christian belief and is admitted as a professing member of the church. In The United Methodist Church, confirmation refers to the decision a person makes to respond to God’s grace with intentional commitment, publicly (re)affirming his or her baptismal vows before the congregation.

At confirmation, hands are laid upon the forehead upon the confirmand (Image credit: picstopin.com)

At confirmation, hands are laid upon the forehead upon the confirmand (Image credit: picstopin.com)

We’ll unpack the details of the how we do confirmation in a future post in this series, but I wanted us first to have the basic understanding down. So that’s the “What is it?”

The next thing I’d like us to consider is the answer that many of you or many of the folks in your congregation may be asking, “We’re not Catholic…” or “We’re just a country church…” “Why would we do confirmation?”

Let’s admit some realities about small membership churches in our context in west Tennesse/western Kentucky: the vast majority of small membership churches in this area belong to what traditions? Baptist, Church of Christ, Pentecostal of various sorts, and us (United Methodists). Of these, only United Methodism has a heritage that has any sort of substantial usage of confirmation as a practice. And the very real truth is that because of this, many of our rural, small membership United Methodists will seem to find more (though certainly not everything) in common with other churches of similar sizes in the surrounding area of different denominations than with a medium or large membership church of our same tradition. Sometimes this is true of medium and larger membership churches as well, but it is especially the case for us small churches.

And so it is that for many rural UM churches ‘round these parts of the world, including the one I grew up in, confirmation, just as is the case with infant baptism, is something that is not widely embraced. But if you can break down some of the barriers and misunderstandings then often (though not always) people will be very open to trying something new. (Or maybe I’m being too naive.)

And the primary way to talk about and encourage it is to couch the language of the confirmation process as it was and is intended to be: that is, confirmation is about discipleship.

What is the mission of The United Methodist Church? “…to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We’ve talked about making disciples in simple platitudes. Confirmation is one way of actually putting some legs to this mission statement. And that’s the “Why do confirmation?” Because when done well, it provides an opportunity to make disciples of Jesus who will transform the world.

It is true that many in times past have not really taken their vows seriously after confirmation because much of the modern world was and in parts continues to be about the consumer mentality and treat membership as something that doesn’t really mean anything except that it gives you some nice benefits. Or at times it is because the youth felt as though the decision was forced upon them…by their parents, grandparents, or perhaps their pastor or youth leader. But two things need to be noted here – one is about the way young people in today’s world seem to be geared, and the other is about our approach to welcoming youth in confirmation:

  1. Young people today want to make a difference in the world in real, systemic, transformative ways that past generations of youth honestly did not had to nearly the same degree. I was speaking with the lay leader at one of the churches I serve recently and he shared the nature of the conversation that he hears his 14-year-old daughter have at the lunch table with her friends at school. They’re talking about politics, faith, philosophy, corruption, power, difference-making. What did we talk about when I was in middle and high school? “Hey, did y’all see Saturday Night Live this weekend? Man, I love Chris Farley when he does that Matt Foley skit ‘LIVING IN A VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER!!!’.” But youth these days are tackling big, world-changing issues. I believe that many people in churches of all sizes recognize this, and we heard it from Gil Rendle last year at Annual Conference as we’re moving into this changed mission field. Many times it is through missional opportunities that people are introduced and incorporated into the process of becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. The question is no longer so much, “Do you want to come to my church?” but rather, “Do you want to help me make a difference?” Young people want to make a difference.
  2. Therefore, that has a significant bearing on the second thing to be noted at this point: our approach to young people makes all the difference in the world. It’s not, “Hey, we want you to go through this so you can be members just like us mature adults who know what’s what.” Rather it is, “We all have much to learn. We would like the opportunity to learn from you as you grow in faith and learn from God and maybe some from us too. Would you be open to that and explore the possibility of making a difference in the world for Christ?” It’s no longer, then, about mere ritual. We’re talking now about discipleship and mission.

We’ll get more into the “what” in posts to come, but what are your thoughts? What are other good reasons you can support and encourage confirmation in a church that might not have ever done it before? What are some helpful approaches you’ve seen or heard with how to approach young people (or adult seekers, for that matter) who might be appropriate candidates to go through confirmation?

Acts 2:14-39

We are a Pentecost people. Last week we were reminded in thinking about immersion that we are a people of the cross and the resurrection. This week in thinking about pouring, we affirm that we are people of Pentecost! Pentecost always falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter and is the time when we remember that the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples. This event is what is often called the birthday of the Church and is what we often refer to when speaking of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We are a Pentecost people, baptized in water and the Spirit, which took place on that occasion. This is why we can say to God, as hymn #605 in the UM Hymnal says: “We your people stand before you, water-washed and Spirit-born.”

Baptism through Affusion (or pouring) (Photo credit: Rick Hogaboam - totascriptura.com)

Baptism through affusion (or pouring) (Photo credit: Rick Hogaboam – totascriptura.com)

Last week, we talked about the Greek term βαπτίζω, and referred to its definition as “dipping, immersing, or submerging for the purpose of washing or cleansing.” But there is another meaning of βαπτίζω that we didn’t talk about last week. βαπτίζω can mean at times, simply, “to overwhelm.” This is not hard to see when we think about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The disciples gathered at Pentecost were “overwhelmed” to the point where some spectators thought they were intoxicated. If you’ve ever had a large amount of water poured over your head and face unexpectedly, you know what an overwhelming sensation is. This is why pouring, or what is also called affusion, is a beautiful symbol and usage of water in baptism.

Now before I continue, I want to take a step back and acknowledge something said last week about rebaptism. As I was posting the sermon manuscript and remembered the way I presented it, I think I might have been a little too harsh. Let me share with you that it’s not my intention in this series to talk about “rules” or to lay out an agenda saying “It’s this way or the highway.” Moreover, I’m not interested in shaming the institution nor individuals nor families for the ways that baptism may have been confused or misunderstood in the past. And I think the way I said it last week may have come out that way. So let me clear it up and speak from my heart and my experience, that I’ve been right here with you. I was re-baptized when I was 10 years old, having previously been baptized as an infant, though my parents and probably most of the folks in my home church called it a Christening, and viewed that more as a dedication service than a “real” baptism, which would be done whenever I made a profession of faith. This is played out in debates and discussions about “infant baptism” vs. “believer’s baptism.” But I have difficulty with these phrases because they’re grammatically using “infant” and “believer” as adjectives rather than a personal recipients of divine grace.

Baptism is baptism, whether it is given to an infant or to a youth or adult. And we do not insist that people have to do one or the other, nor do we insist that it has to be done in a particular mode. An infant baptism is no more or less valid than “believer’s” baptism. Immersion is no more valid than pouring or sprinkling. Really, we have more freedom in our church for parents and new Christians to follow their own conscience in these matters than most others. This is because we believe the emphasis is not in the obedience of the person or parents of the one baptized, but in the proclaimed identity of the baptized. That’s why the voice that says, “This is MY Son!” upon Jesus in baptism is more crucial than the fact that he got more or less wet than others perceive. When a person is baptized, we believe it is God saying over the infant or young person or adult “This is MY child!” That’s what I hope we can think of in terms of baptism being about identity rather than a feeling or experience that we think is necessary for someone to follow a certain way. When I was an infant the pastor applied water to my head and invoked the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in baptizing me; in that act I was proclaimed as God’s own child.

There’s more to that story, but in telling it in the context of thinking about pouring, since that’s the theme for this week, I am reminded of how I felt the water on the Sunday after I made my profession of faith at age 10. I got wet y’all! It wasn’t an immersion, but it was more than just a sprinkling. The pastor filled his hands with the water and dumped it on my head. I remember the feeling of water flowing over my head as if it had been poured from above.

And how this fits with baptism is that pouring is an action of water coming from above, it is the sign and seal of the Holy Spirit like what we see at Pentecost. In baptism, we recognize the gift and promise of the Holy Spirit. In the sermon at Pentecost, Peter says that promise is for “you, your children, and for all who are far away – as many as the Lord our God invites.” Hence, again, baptism and its accompanying promise are not about an individual’s decision, but about the action, invitation and gift of God to bring salvation and offer it to all. In baptism, we acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life, be it as an infant or at the time the person comes to believe in Christ as Lord and Savior. Baptism is that person being brought into this new identity as God’s child, a covenant community, being united with Christ. Baptism, then, is never a “private event,” because it involves commitments not only from the ones being baptized and/or their parents/sponsors, but also the entire community in covenant with one another, called the local church, who agrees to support the baptized with encouragement, prayers, and coming alongside them in the journey of discipleship.

Carrie and I sometimes get asked, “Why did you have Sam and Julianne baptized? Why not wait and let them decide that on their own?” One of the ways we have found helpful in responding to this question is to imagine it like a party…a Holy Spirit party, if you will. This party began at Pentecost and has been going ever since. That first crowd was the first generation of people who would be invited to the party, but then the invitation and promise was given to their children as well. There are some traditions where even children raised in the church are not completely welcome to the party or to participate in all its functions, and are told they aren’t really a part of the party until they’re old enough to decide they don’t want the life outside the party. In thinking through the parable of the prodigal son, this is like telling the child that they need to prodigal experience in a far off country before they can know the true joy of being welcomed home by the loving father. But where this fails, in our view, is that it misjudges the sin of the elder son who stayed home. His error was not that he didn’t go away, but that he never really claimed the party as his own. The grace was always there for him, too. He just never owned where the father had claimed him as his own as well: “…everything I have is yours…”

I hear it said all the time that babies shouldn’t be baptized because they don’t know what’s really going on. I think I understand that because I’ve thought that myself. But as I began to realize that baptism is about God’s gracious action prior to my response of faith, I asked myself, “Do we really ‘know’ what’s going on either? Do I really understand all of God’s grace?” Is it simply about the individual’s ability to “make a decision”? If so, then baptism would be about faith, rather than grace. But if baptism has to do with salvation, and I believe it does, then it is based not on me, but on God’s grace. Yes, I need to make the decision and own the faith, but that is my saying “Yes” to where God has already said, “Yes” to me. Baptism, in other words, is God’s “Yes” upon your life. And God said “Yes” to you long before you could even say “Yes” back, or even before you were able to utter the words, “Dada” or “Mama.” That’s why we say that baptizing an infant is as appropriate as baptizing a youth or adult. Because God has invited us all to receive grace. Thanks be to God.

Pouring is a beautiful image because it is significant language in the other sacrament in which we are about to participate. This day is World Communion Sunday, which falls on the first Sunday of October every year. An emphasis is made on this day that despite whatever differences we have in doctrines, practices, and so on, from all across the world on this day, Christians of multiple denominations unite together to celebrate this holy meal. It’s kind of an image of what took place at Pentecost, which was a festival where people from all across the known world came to Jerusalem to celebrate the giving of the Law; people from various sectors, or denominations, of Judaism came for this purpose and on that one occasion, the Holy Spirit was poured out so that the message of the good news of Jesus Christ spread to all the places that were there represented. That’s what this meal is about. We will pray that the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us and these elements that in this meal we will be filled, or baptized, with the Holy Spirit to go out to share the love of Christ with our neighbors as well.

We are a Pentecost people.

Romans 6:1-11

There was a man who wandered into a church one Sunday morning right as the closing hymn was being sung. The pastor was in his baptismal robe, standing in the baptistery ready to immerse anybody that came forward. This wanderer went forward. The pastor asked the wanderer, “Sir, are you ready to meet Jesus?” The man responded, “Yes, I am.” So the pastor grabbed the wanderer, put him under the water for a couple of seconds, brought him back up and said, “Do you believe?” The man said, “Hmm…No.” The pastor dunked him back down in the water again for about 10 seconds, brought him back up and asked again, “Now, do you believe?” The man said, “No.” The pastor put him back in the water, held him down for about 30 seconds this time, brought him back up and asked, “NOW, do you believe, son?” The man replied, “Yes, pastor I BELIEVE you’re trying to DROWN me.”

And people wonder why Methodists approve of sprinkling.

I reiterate the rule to guide us: “Here we enter a fellowship; sometimes we will agree to differ; always we will resolve to love and unite to serve.” – E. Stanley Jones.

As I have been preparing for this series, I had to ask myself a few questions. First, “Are you sure you want to do this?” When I decided that yes, this was something I thought was important enough to address at length, the question I then had to ask myself was, “If I’m going to spend a week on each of the primary modes of baptism, which one should I start with? What progression do I want to take, in terms of the quantity of water used in each: from the most water (immersion) to the least (sprinkling) or vice versa? Or should I start with the mode most frequently used in the baptism of y’all?” Well I decided to start with the mode that was most popular among those who rated them in the survey from a couple of weeks ago, and that result was immersion. To use a water analogy, I figured I would get my feet wet with immersion and work my way to the deep end of sprinkling. Maybe that sounds a bit backwards, but I’ve been a backwards kind of guy at times, anyway.

So let’s talk today about immersion. Very few Christians have difficulty with immersion as a valid mode of baptism. There is a whole tradition within the Church universal, known as Eastern Orthodoxy, which immerses even infants when performing baptisms. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters will sometimes immerse adult converts to Catholicism. And most Protestant denominations and non-denominations who consider themselves evangelical use immersion on believers as the ONLY appropriate mode of baptism. This is true of Baptists, Church(es) of Christ, Pentecostals of all sorts, and so on. And yes, even we United Methodists, despite the reputation that we are afraid of water, will use immersion as the mode of baptizing persons who have not been baptized before, if that is their choice.

There is obvious Scriptural support for immersion. Most admit that Jesus was immersed when baptized by John, although others have said, “Not necessarily.” Some have suggested that when Matthew 3:16 says that Jesus came “straightway out of the water” after he was baptized means that he was standing in the water the whole time and that John took water and generously sprinkled or poured it over Jesus head. My guess is that many of you don’t see that as a likely interpretation, but acknowledge that there are many who do and that’s why you’ll often see artwork depicting John with a shell pouring water over Jesus head in the midst of the river.

A stained glass window depicting Jesus' baptism as affusion (photo credit: stainedglasscanada.ca)

A stained glass window depicting Jesus’ baptism as affusion, or pouring (photo credit: stainedglasscanada.ca)

A more common approach from the strongest advocates of immersion has to do with the original language of the New Testament text, which was Koine Greek. In this common form of Greek in the ancient world, the word for baptism was ‘βαπτίζω’ (pronounced something like ‘bap-tee-zow’), and the most common definition of this word βαπτίζω means “to dip, to immerse, or to submerge.”

After an immersion (photo credit: Broadway UMC in Maryville, TN - broadwayumc.net)

After an immersion (photo credit: Broadway UMC in Maryville, TN – broadwayumc.net)

Therefore, what is often heard in some faith traditions is that the only appropriate mode of baptism is that which sticks as close to the literal meaning of the Greek term βαπτίζω as possible. And certainly most of us have access to enough water to be able to immerse a baptismal candidate. So it goes that for many Methodists who don’t immerse but could have done so, we will have been deemed unfaithful to the practice as laid out in Scripture, or at least for the language it was written in. But where this way of argumentation takes the wrong approach, in my view, is that it focuses more on the method of how the water is applied rather than on the purpose of the action. For even when the term βαπτίζω is used, there is a purpose behind it, and that purpose is “to cleanse…to wash…to bathe.” When we think about purpose and put it in these terms of “cleansing, washing, and bathing,” then we know that there are potentially a number of ways that this can be done faithfully. Stepping out of the realm of sacrament and baptism for just a moment, what comes to your mind when you hear those terms associated with “cleansing”? What method is most effective? Perhaps for some it is to take a bath; for others to take a shower; still for others using a wet cloth and scrubbing would get the job done most effectively. So, back to baptism, when we talk about being washed from sin and born of the Spirit (both inherent ideas in the theology of baptism), immersion is certainly a great way to convey this, but so are other methods. I’ll save those for the next couple of weeks.

By now, you might be beginning to think about me, “You sound like a Methodist who’s afraid of water. You’re not giving immersion its full due.” Perhaps you’re right, but what I’ve been trying to show up to this point is that the argument that immersion is the only valid mode of baptism is not as rock solid as some would have us believe. We as United Methodists believe other modes may convey the purpose and meaning of baptism as well as immersion. Ironically, United Methodists are not as concerned with the “method” of how the water is applied in baptism as we are with the purpose of the action.

And what is the purpose? The primary purpose of baptism is to proclaim an identity, rather than an experience. As baptism is the sacrament of identity, it is first about WHO we are; but even more so, WHOSE we are and with WHOM we are united (that is, Christ). When this is put together with the notion of “cleansing,” we can see why the appropriate response of the people of God to the grace given in baptism says:

We your people stand before you,
Water-washed and Spirit-born.
By your grace, our lives we offer.
Re-create us; God, transform! (UM Hymnal, 605)

The question of how (or what mode to use) is secondary, though it’s good to know the symbolism conveyed in each potential mode. Each portrays rich biblical imagery about the purpose of baptism.

And this passage from Romans (6:1-11) conveys the very richness of immersion. If I seem to have been taking down some of the arguments for immersion up to this point, now I want to raise up what is truly great about this mode of baptism. Immersion is beautiful, as going under the water and being brought back up portrays the bodily death and resurrection of Jesus. And since Paul says that we are baptized into Christ’s death, immersion portrays this union with Christ very well. That union with Christ means that what is true of the Messiah is true of us. This is our identity as being united with Christ. What is true of Christ is true of us. As verse 5 says, “If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his.”

In addition to portraying our union with Christ’s story, Paul is also subtly alluding to an earlier story, that of the Exodus. The gist of this passage with regard to the Christian community is that we should no longer being slaves to what? Sin! That’s right. We have tasted and known the grace of God through the waters of baptism, just as the Israelites had been delivered through the waters of the Red Sea. And what a marvelous grace and deliverance that was, for the Israelites in the Exodus, for Jesus in the resurrection, and for us in baptism. What Paul is saying is that grace, that deliverance, that claiming of God over our lives in baptism is so wonderful that we are to live the rest of our lives trusting in the grace of God that brought us out of the land of Egypt, away from slavery to sin, and into the land of promise, the relationship and union with Christ.

Now here’s where things get sticky and we begin to see things differently about this holy act. Many other denominations and traditions will refer to this act of baptism as an “ordinance,” whereas we Methodists and several other traditions refer to baptism as a “sacrament.” Of course, some make no real distinction between the two, but the main difference is in the approach. For many, the act as “ordinance” means that it is Christians obeying and doing what Christ commanded, or “ordered” us to do, by “baptizing” newly made disciples. And for those who see this as the work of humans, there’s no problem with doing it again and again and again. In many of those traditions, you can get baptized as many times as you want really. This shouldn’t the case for we who see this as a sacrament; that is, not the work of humans but the action of God in Christ. The purpose of baptism is not to acknowledge a decision, but to welcome God’s gracious action in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. To put it differently: you may have heard that baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward faith or decision. But if we approach baptism as God’s activity, then it is an outward and visible sign of an inward GRACE. That God gives grace to us before we even know it means that it is not about our choice, much less a desired feeling. The grace is of the variety that cleanses from sin and gives us our identity.

We believe that the One who does the baptizing is God. And again Paul says, when we are baptized, we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. That only occurred once. So to repeat a baptism or to “re-baptize,” from my perspective, is to proclaim one or both of these notions: 1. That God’s action was insufficient; and/or 2. that it’s possible to crucify Christ again. (That is not to say that when people have re-baptized, they have intended to communicate this as such; that just seems to be the implications IF we believe that baptism is indeed the action of God uniting us with Christ in his death and resurrection.) As Paul says, “He died to sin once and for all with his death.” And our baptism, whenever that was, is a union with Christ in his death and resurrection. If we have been united with Christ in baptism, we have been claimed by God’s grace and we know that God’s mighty acts of deliverance do not fail.

Trying to bring us now to the practical level of where this passage leads us: the question is often posed, “What about sin after I’ve been baptized? What if I’ve wasted the grace or have acted as though I’m back in Egypt?” To that, I’d say that at times we get cases of what I might call “spiritual amnesia,” where we forget our identity as the children of God, or we forget or lose track of God’s claiming us as God’s own. In coming back to our senses, we don’t redo the act, we don’t literally go back to Egypt, and so on. Rather, what is needed is a reminder, a remembrance of our identity. That’s what Israel did every year in telling the story of the Exodus at Passover. Celebrating the annual feast and retelling the story was the annual cure for the spiritual amnesia that they were so prone to develop, as are we. For us, that remembrance of baptism is that our “old self” was crucified with Christ when we first entered the waters of baptism. As N.T. Wright put it, “Once you are baptized, of course, you can try to shirk or shrug off your new responsibilities. You can pretend you don’t after all have a new status…But what you can’t do is get unbaptized again. Don’t even think of trying to go back to Egypt.”

So as the beloved of God, being immersed in God’s redeeming love, raised and delivered from slavery to sin, let us live for God in Christ, living out and remembering our baptism through the power of Christ’s resurrection. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Scriptural text: 2 Kings 10:15

Outside the chapel at Asbury College (now Asbury University), where Carrie and I went to school and met, is this plaque.

Photo credit: Mike Davis, fellow Asbury alumnus

Photo credit: Mike Davis, fellow Asbury alumnus

This is a quote that comes from 20th century Methodist missionary to India, E. Stanley Jones, who was a graduate of Asbury. Some have called him the “Billy Graham” of 20th century foreign missions. He had a friendship with Mahatma Gandhi before Gandhi was assassinated. Along with Gandhi, Jones was also a significant influence upon Martin Luther King, Jr. In Jones’ dialogues with peoples of other faith traditions, his desire was that this motto would guide the spirit of the conversation. (To read more about E. Stanley Jones, click here.)

This idea resembles the posture I wish to use in the conversation we’ll be having in the coming weeks. It is based in the posture of humility. It is a posture, I believe, of what John Wesley called a “catholic spirit,” which was the title of one of Wesley’s better known sermons. The Scriptural text of that sermon of Wesley’s is the one from 2 Kings I read this morning. You will notice that the ‘c’ in ‘catholic’ is not capitalized. This means that I’m not here to spell out the Roman Catholic understanding of baptism. The word catholic simply means universal, as is evidenced in the Apostles’ Creed we recite weekly. So to have a ‘catholic’ spirit in this sense means to have a spirit that recognizes that there are multiple voices and opinions that are brought to the table of theological discourse on issues like baptism.

So let me start off with a confession this morning, a confession that I hope you will say along with me. I come and acknowledge to you that it is possible that “I might be wrong.” Wesley said it this way in his sermon ‘Catholic Spirit’:

Although every man necessarily believes that every particular opinion which he holds is true (for to believe any opinion is not true is the same thing as not to hold it) yet can no man be assured that all his own opinions taken together are true…A man knows in the general that he is mistaken; although in what particulars he mistakes he does not, perhaps cannot, know. [Although he speaks of a hypothetical person in the masculine gender, the spirit of Wesley’s quote would be best understood as inclusive of both male and female.]

So, along with Wesley, I stand before you acknowledging that I am sure that there are some opinions, theological or otherwise, that I hold that are mistaken. I don’t know which ones they are, or else, I’d change my mind on those. But having a finite mind means I don’t have it all figured out and I think you’re right there with me on that. So, if you are willing to admit that, too, I invite you to now turn to your neighbor and say out loud, “I might be wrong.” [Fortunately, the people responded to this. The sounds of crickets would have been most unwelcome. 🙂 ]

“I might be wrong”…But I do think I’m right about baptism and am convinced to such a degree that I feel very confident and at home in the Wesleyan theology espoused by The United Methodist Church. Therefore, what I will be sharing in the weeks to come represent not only my own views, but the explanations of this doctrine and practice by our Church.

You may ask, “What? You mean Methodists actually have an opinion on something? I thought we were an ‘anything goes’ type of church.” So let me say, “Yes, we have an official stance on this.” We are not indifferent when it comes to baptism. One of the insights I gained from rereading Wesley’s ‘Catholic Spirit’ in preparation for this series is this: “A catholic spirit…is NOT an indifference to all opinions.” I said last week, and I repeat again this week that the rule that guided Wesley and that I seek to use in guiding us in this theological discussion is the rule: “to think and let think.” In his young adulthood, Wesley was really close friends with another Methodist named George Whitefield. Over time, Whitefield’s theology was influenced by others and his understanding of grace drifted from that of Wesley. In some not so kind letters written to one another and sermons delivered against each other, the rift between the two friends became quite vast. But when Whitefield died at a relatively early age, guess whom he had arranged to preach at his funeral. That’s right, his old friend, John Wesley. And in the funeral sermon Wesley said this:

Let us keep close to the grand scriptural doctrines which he everywhere delivered. There are many doctrines of a less essential nature, with regard to which even the sincere children of God…are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may “agree to disagree.”

“To think and let think.” Well, it is an unfortunate thing that, as I see it, Methodists for a long time have cast to the wind that first admonition “to think.” Why? Perhaps it was and is for fear of stepping on toes. Perhaps it is because we don’t want to be perceived as arrogant or argumentative. Perhaps we’ve been afraid of being perceived as imposing our views on those with whom we would like to welcome despite the potential areas of disagreement. And this has often led us as Methodists to be seen as a church where anything goes and we’re often considered as weak or “not as biblical” by other faith traditions on matters like baptism. We are fine to “let think,” to be okay with whatever people believe and think, which is great because we’ve opened our doors to folks with various sorts of backgrounds and that makes the United Methodist Church, in a lot of ways, a very hospitable place in which to worship and grow as disciples of Jesus, because of our welcoming spirit. And I know for many, possibly most or maybe even all of you, the phrase “United Methodist” on the sign out front is NOT the reason you are here. I understand that and respect it. But I also hope you all understand that if were not for those two words (United Methodist) on the sign, I wouldn’t and even couldn’t be here. So as someone committed to serve in churches in the Methodist connection, I am committed to helping our Church (both here in this congregation and in conversation with other pastors and leaders in the connection) get consistent in belief and practice on theological matters of identity like baptism.

To return to the rule “to think and let think”…By casting aside the admonition “to think” through our own approach to theology and life, we have failed to speak with clarity about these potentially divisive matters. This lack of clarity has led to all sorts of confusion and a lack of unity amongst our churches about central doctrines like baptism. This confusion and lack of unity has been manifested in the unfortunately oft-used term “Christening”; it has shown up in the malpractice of “rebaptism” and in the lack of the practice and understanding of the baptismal reaffirmation service (you can find that on page 50 in the UM Hymnal); it has played out in the confusion on which modes (that is, how the water is used/applied) of baptism are appropriate, and so on. Facing the reality of this lack of clarity and unity, in 1996 the UMC adopted an official statement about our understanding of baptism that is recorded in a document called, “By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism.” That contains our official stance on baptism. But let’s be honest, it’s not like this study became widely known. I even wasn’t aware of it until a couple of years ago…and I’m a Methodist preacher!?!?!

Now, some of you know either through hearing me tell part of my stories of baptism or by reading it on a series of blog posts where I stand on the issues and questions relating to the sacrament of baptism. Some of you have not heard or read my thoughts to date, but even if you have, there will be things I share with you over the next few weeks that I have not shared elsewhere. So I encourage you to join me in this conversation. Here in this opening message of the series, I want us to begin by laying all our cards out on the table. I’m not here to put on a poker face or to use some sort of secret attack or ploy. I am here for an open and honest conversation.

So let’s lay our cards on the table. Here are your cards. (At this point, I go over some of the results from a survey of questions relating to baptism that the congregation filled out in the weeks prior. The survey I did is also online and can be found here.)

Now here are my responses to the survey. 1. What mode of baptism was used when I was baptized? Aspersion, or sprinkling; 2. How would I rank the primary modes (immersion, pouring/affusion, and sprinkling/aspersion) of baptism in terms of what I find most meaningful? I have no preference. When counseling with candidates for baptism and/or their parents or sponsors I will lay out the reasoning and support for each and allow them to decide. 3. Was I baptized as an infant? Yes, although many referred to the act as Christening. 4. What is my opinion of infant baptism? I am strongly in favor of the practice. And I say to you that my mind changed on that. I grew up and was opposed to the practice until I studied the reasons for why the majority of the Church for 2,000 years baptized infants. And my transition to be in support of it occurred when Carrie and I were engaged. And given her upbringing in a nondenominational church that did not believe in infant baptism, we had to have many conversations about it because it would affect how we would proceed if and when the time came for us to be parents. We ended up on the same page. Therefore, Sam and Julianne were baptized in their infancy…Let me rephrase that…Sam and Julianne ARE baptized. I’ll explain why I say it that way in a moment. 5. Other than the UMC, what other faith traditions have I been a participant or member of? I’ve always been a member of the UMC, but there was one year in college when I attended a nondenominational church along with Carrie. As we grew into support of infant baptism, though, we switched to the tradition of my upbringing.

So now you know where I’m coming from, and Carrie too. Now, let me show you where we’re heading over the next few weeks. I want to spend a week on each of the primary modes of baptism: immersion, affusion (or pouring), and aspersion (or sprinkling), laying the biblical reasoning and understanding of each. Along the way, it is my hope that we will clear up the muddied waters of our somewhat confused past. In this series you will hear me talk about the differences between our approach to baptism versus that of other faith traditions, some of which many of you have belonged prior to now.

This next thing I’m going to say is huge, maybe even the most important theme of this series is that I will talk about the idea that the sacrament of baptism is not so much an experience as much as it is an identity. Baptism is first about WHO we are and with WHOM we are united (i.e., Christ); the questions of what and how are secondary. As it is about identity, that is why I said earlier that Sam and Julianne ARE baptized. I AM baptized into Christ.

We will then conclude the series with a moment of a congregational celebration of reaffirming our baptismal covenant that I alluded to earlier on page 50 of the UM hymnal. There were some individuals among you who responded last week that you have not been baptized. If you would like to be baptized during this series or sometime in the near future, I want to invite you to speak with me either during the closing hymn this morning, after the service, or by yourself or your parent/guardian/grandparent calling, emailing, or sending me a message on facebook; whichever is most comfortable and easiest for you.

May our ‘catholic spirit’ here in this conversation make it a holy conversation based in the posture of humility. And may that be a model for our ‘catholic spirit’ for our friends and neighbors who may wear the colors or be enjoined as members of another denomination. The rule to guide us remains the same: “to think and let think.” At the root of this guiding rule is the royal commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself.” In his sermon ‘Catholic Spirit,’ Wesley rephrased the conversation between Jehu and Jehonadab:

Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt we may…[I only ask] that single question: ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? If so, then give me thy hand.’

“Here we enter a fellowship; sometimes we will agree to differ; always we will resolve to love and unite to serve.” Because our unity in love and service to Jesus and our offering of the Christ who heals to the world that hurts is how we live into our baptism, which is at the heart of our movement’s mission. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

(For a brief primer on the United Methodist approach to baptism, check out this video by ‘Chuck Knows Church’:)

I am picking up here where I left off in the “Infant Baptism and the Bible” series. For the first part, see this. Or for more, just click on the “baptism” tag on the right hand side of the page.

When Carrie and I lived in Wilmore, there was one Sunday morning that I turned on the TV and watched the first few minutes of a sermon given by a preacher in Lexington that was broadcast on a local channel. In a sermon on baptism, the preacher opined a great deal about how infants “don’t know what’s going on in a baptism like those who are able to make a conscious decision are” and how wrong infant baptism is. He even suggested that infant baptism had pagan roots and declared that it is a “heathen practice.” And as if his lack of doing serious homework about the history and tradition of infant baptism wasn’t enough, I suppose he hadn’t considered that what he was about to say next went directly against the logic that he was spewing. In the very next sentence he began to make a connection between the practices of circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New. He said, “just as circumcision was the outward sign of an inward change in the old covenant, so was baptism the sign of the same in the new covenant,” drawing on the connection Paul makes between the two practices in Colossians 2:11-12. (Ummmmm…Maybe he didn’t know about the practice of infant circumcision?)

Of course, opponents of infant baptism typically do not appeal to such a strong connection between these two practices, but the analogy between them is worth exploring and is part of the reasons why United Methodists baptize infants (see more in this official document of the UMC). The connecting point between them is that they are the distinguishing signs, or seals, of the covenant(s) God makes with God’s people. In making covenant, God initiates the relationship and agreement, through giving grace and making promises that would be unattainable through mere human effort or merit. Nonetheless, there are expectations of the covenant people to maintain their end of the covenant, which involves obedience to divine commands, living holy and loving lives in response to God’s gracious actions in claiming and redeeming the lost or enslaved people.

When God established covenant with Abram in Genesis 17 (and therein changes his name to Abraham), God says that circumcision will be the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham/his descendants. The commandment given to Abraham was that every male offspring from his line should be circumcised on the eighth day of his life. The covenant seal was to be given to males born in the lineage. Were the infants aware of the expectations they would be expected to meet when they were circumcised? Of course not. But they were taught from the beginning of their lives that they were an already graced and redeemed people in the midst of a dark and broken world. And that there were expectations of being the people of God for those who had been given this grace: expectations including continually turning to God and the ways of God, offering sacrifices for the ways in which they failed to live into their expectations of the covenant, as well as being a “light to the Gentiles.” For Abraham and Ishmael and for the uncircumcised Israelite men about to enter into Canaan (Joshua 5), the ritual signifying and sealing this was done (much to their pain) when they were adults or older youth, as they were about to embark upon the fulfilling of the promise. For every other male born into the lineage, the rite was to be done in infancy.

When God established the new covenant through the death and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus with those who identify as followers of the Christ, the sign and seal of the covenant is baptism. Baptism is the liturgical language used to describe Jesus’ death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-14, Mark 10:38-39 to name a couple). At the birth of the church (i.e., Pentecost), Peter urged the crowds to repent and be baptized that they might receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. His very next statement is that this promise is for the people who respond and for their children. By this, I see already the seeds of where the practice of infant baptism is congruent with this new covenant established by God in Christ. In baptism, we are washed in water and born of the Spirit and this, I read, is not just for adults but for children too. And much of what could be said above re: circumcision can be applied to this new covenant, sealed in baptism. That they (and we) are taught from the very beginning that we are an already graced and redeemed people in the midst of a dark and broken world. And there are expectations of being the people of God for us who have been given this grace in Christ: to live a life of continually turning to God and God’s ways through repentance and confirming or professing one’s faith to the community; receiving the grace of reconciliation and renewal offered through the body and blood of the Lord by partaking in the meal that celebrates the new covenant; and being the “light of the world” that stands in need of this grace.

There are a couple of differences worth mentioning, too. 1.) This sign of the covenant makes no distinction between ethnic distinction. When entering into the waters of baptism, there is no need to attempt to change your appearance, skin color, or ethnic identity. The good news is for all peoples. 2.) This sign of the covenant makes no distinction between genders. Whereas circumcision was a rite only done to males, baptism is for male and female, for in Christ there is no distinction (Galatians 3:28).

For the crowds gathered at Pentecost and for the world who was about to hear about the gospel of Jesus for the first time, the ritual signifying and sealing this was done (without the pain of circumcision) when they were adults as they were to receive the promised Spirit. For every other person born into a family of this faith, the rite could very well be done in infancy. “The promise is for you, and for your children…”

"All ages, nations, and races..." (photocredit: christiantheology.wordpress.com)

“…people of all ages, nations, and races…” (photocredit: christiantheology.wordpress.com)

Thanks for tuning in. More to come as we’ll look more at the book of Acts next time…but don’t let that stop you from commenting or or raising questions in the mean time! 🙂

Writing about baptism, my experience of it and its relationship with our understanding of time, has been very enjoyable and has been a subject of discussion not only in the comments on those posts but also in the churches where I am serving. I’ve promised to write more about the doctrine and practice of infant baptism, and in the previous posts I wanted to give just a few introductory thoughts and lay a little groundwork to prepare the way for a more substantive explanation and defense of the practice. In the next few posts I want to delve into what is probably the most common critique of infant baptism, namely, its supposed absence in Scripture. Folks who oppose the practice of baptizing infants are quick to point out that there is never an explicit example of an infant being baptized in the Bible.

The validity of that critique could be challenged (more on that later), but even if the statement is true, I could simply say, “Psh. There are a whole bunch of things that all churches do that aren’t explicitly done in Scripture.” Nonetheless, given the central importance of the rite of baptism in the life of the Church (it is, after all, a one-time only event for every Christian), it is worth giving a biblical explanation for why we United Methodists recommend to administer the sacrament to a person “as soon as possible and practical,” which means that infants are appropriate candidates for receiving the sacrament.

Examining the etymology of the term “sacrament” reveals that the term means a “sacred oath” and is meant to draw our attention to God’s action in making a covenant of grace with us. When we use covenant terminology and envisage the sacramental expression of the salvation of God’s people through water, our minds may go to several different parts of Scripture. The chief one, though, is the Exodus story and proclamation that God brought God’s people “out of Egypt,” words that we find throughout the Scriptures that identify and tell the story of the deliverance of God’s child(ren) from the bondage of slavery. Similar to what I said in a previous post about the “when” of one’s salvation, if you asked any Israelite or Jew in the post-Exodus era, “When were you saved?” the response would be something like, “When God led Moses and our predecessors out of Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea.” The stress, again, is on God’s action and intent to save a people prior to any decision, experience or response on our part as individuals. In this post I want to point out three occasions of the “out of Egypt” phrase, one from each the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospels.

First, let’s look at the opening line of the covenant established in the immediate aftermath of the Exodus. In treaties or agreements in the Ancient Near Eastern world between two people groups, if the more powerful party wanted to indicate their benevolent intent toward the other people group, it would be stressed in the opening line, or what we call the preamble. What are the introductory words to the Ten Commandments, which is at the very beginning of the covenant made at Sinai? “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” In this covenant and in the UMC baptismal covenant, one recognizes the action of God in the saving acts, not primarily the decision or response of the people (or person). In the Exodus story, the LORD acts as the people’s cries for help reach God’s ears (Exodus 3:7-8). And when we think of the initial cries that humans offer up in search of help or grace, these may come from any person, including infants. (We might also find some significance to Moses’ infancy narrative in that it was in and through water that he was named and drawn out, or rescued! See Exodus 2:1-10)

Credit: bible.ca

Credit: bible.ca

Next, let’s turn to the Prophets, where we see perhaps more than anywhere else the pathos, or emotive expression, of God’s compassion towards God’s people. Behind the sharp words offered from the fearless spokespersons we find God’s concern for justice and compassion as well as the Lord’s desire that the people turn from their faulty ways and recover their identity as God’s children and mission of being God’s light to the rest of the world. This is especially seen in Hosea chapter 11, which describes God at the point of weeping in compassion as God’s children drift further away from their identity and purpose. And that passage begins this way: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” In this warm expression of divine compassion, God calls attention to when God showered love and grace on the people from the earliest stages of their life:

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.

God’s children are beckoned to remember the covenant made in faithful, parental love by their sovereign deliverer. The image of the people in this is that of an infant being brought into covenant relationship which God wrought through the waters of the Red Sea and continued in growing the people in grace.

And it is precisely the Hosea 11 passage that Matthew quotes in 2:15 in saying that the flight to Egypt and back to Nazareth by Joseph, Mary and Jesus “was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’.” Matthew’s account of Jesus’ infancy is filled with details that are meant to remind the reader of the narrative of God’s people in Egypt: the prominence of a person named Joseph who has prophetic dreams, folks coming from far off to pay homage, and of course from Exodus, a paranoid tyrant who being afraid that his power may be in jeopardy orders a slaughter of all male infants. The point: it is in Jesus’ infancy when he embodies and fulfills the story of God’s people being called and delivered “out of Egypt,” which occurred through the waters and the covenant established by God with them.

More to come…

There was a humorous attempt by United Methodist Memes a few days ago to advocate for the practice of infant baptism. Here’s the meme:

According to some comments I have seen, the attempted humor appears to have come across as condescending to some people in traditions who oppose the practice of baptizing infants. Some of the comments I saw advocated for what’s called “believer’s only baptism” and appealed to the fact that Jesus was baptized as an adult. (My initial reaction: According to Luke, Jesus was about 30 years old when he was baptized. If we’re going to be so strict about it, wouldn’t we all wait until we’re 30 years old to be baptized? Also…if Jesus’ baptism was a believer’s baptism as I saw one person put it, does that mean Jesus didn’t believe in God before then, or what exactly does that mean? I digress.)

Those comments got me thinking about my post from a couple of months ago when I confessed to being unknowingly baptized on two occasions. I promised in that post, which you can read here, that I would elaborate in a later post defending the doctrine and practice of infant baptism. I’m not going to spell it all out here, but I want to start in this post by laying a little groundwork. One of the aspects of the doctrine of baptism has to do with the question of timing, which came to the surface in the comments on the above meme. The question to be asked: when is the right time in one’s life when one is a proper candidate for baptism?

Let’s talk about timing. A question that gets asked from time to time, at least in the part of the world where I live, goes something like this: “When were you saved?” Or perhaps, less frequently, “When were you born again?” These are questions about the timing of something. In the past, I would typically respond to such a question by appealing to the moment in my life when I professed faith in Christ, which was when I was ten years old. But as I have learned more of the nature of salvation, I’ve come to think a little differently about the time I was saved. When Scottish theologian Tom Torrance was asked this question he said something like this: I was saved about 2000 years ago in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Maybe that wouldn’t satisfy the one asking the question, but I like that answer! It locates salvation not primarily in the experience of it, but in the work of God in Christ. So when we take this to the salvation moments/experiences within our lives, we’re transported to another time. When I was baptized, I was taken back to that divine moment when the kingdom of heaven was inaugurated and Jesus was raised from the dead. When I announced my trust in and alignment with Jesus, I was incorporated into Christ’s story, not vice versa. Strictly speaking, it’s not my inviting Christ into my life. It’s Christ inviting me into his life. As the sacraments are the graceful expressions of Christ’s uniting us to himself, the sacraments are not about us and our timing; they’re about God and God’s timing.

I’ll get around to talking more about age appropriateness in posts to follow, but first let’s get the story straight. Who is being brought into whose story?

When we settle on “it is we who are entering Christ’s story,” which I hope we can do, then perhaps we will begin to see things not primarily through a chronological lens of time (Greek: chronos), but through what the Greeks called kairos. Per the Liddel & Scott Greek-English lexicon, kairos conveys something like “due measure, right proportion, fitness (or) the right season, the right time for action, the critical moment…” In this sort of time, we’re not caught up on seconds, minutes, hours, or even years or millennia, but the focus is on the rightness or appropriateness of a certain action. The measures of time we are accustomed to using do not apply, at least not primarily.

Perhaps this idea sounds odd to some, but the point I wish to make is that salvation is a mystery of divine grace, which invokes and involves human faith and experience, but as it is the action of God, it is ultimately beyond our ability to fully comprehend, whether we are infants or adults. I hear some in other ecclesial traditions say that the sacraments (or “ordinances,” since some denominations avoid the term “sacraments”) are outward signs of inward faith or the decision to “receive Christ.” This notion appears to locate the validity of the actions in the consciousness of the one being brought into the waters of baptism or receiving the elements of Holy Communion. My community of faith (UMC) describes sacraments not as signs of faith, but as signs or means of grace. This means that the sacraments’ effectiveness is not dependent on human will or merit but instead on the will of God in Christ to convey grace through these sacred means.

And I would suggest the moment in one’s life when one is baptized, the Church is witness to the rightness of (kairos) God’s claiming of that one’s life in uniting the baptized with Christ in his death and resurrection. Said differently, in baptism, our chronos fades into God’s kairos, and we begin to be, as Charles Wesley penned, “lost in wonder, awe, and praise” as we join Christ’s story.

Stay tuned for more…