In mid-January I went to a training event in Dickson, Tennessee with other young clergy in the Memphis & Tennessee Annual Conferences in the United Methodist Church. That weekend was special in that our bishop, Bill McAlilly, was present with us and led us as he began to reveal more about the missional theme of his vision for the Nashville Episcopal Area. In short, he led us in conversation that centered on two key passages that are often in view when we think of mission and evangelism: Matthew 25:31-46 and Matthew 28:16-20. It became clear as we shared with one another that it is a rare thing for a congregation to excel in both of these areas. If a local church is vital in the least, it will do well in one (the social justice ministries often associated with what is mentioned in Matthew 25, like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and so on) or the other (experiencing growth through evangelism and discipleship with an eye toward the Great Commission in Matthew 28), but typically not both.

The conversation then began to shift toward what would it look like if we didn’t divorce these two areas of mission (social justice & disciple-making) but integrated them and saw missions & evangelism as two sides of the same coin, so to speak. While we were having these conversations, at some point my mind began to wonder about those two passages and the fact that they both come toward the end of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. Beyond the missional connection between the two passages, it wasn’t long before I began to wonder what is the literary connection between the two in Matthew? Maybe it was the long time I have spent studying the doctrine of the atonement that drew my attention to the cross and resurrection as that narrative is found between the two passages. So internally I began asking: What is the relationship between Matthew 25 & 28 and the narrative in between them? What does mission and evangelism have to do with Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection?

Let’s let that narrative sink in…what is found in between? The plotting of the chief priests to capture Jesus, the worshiping of Jesus by the woman with perfume, the disciples scandalized by Jesus’ allowance of this, Judas’ agreement to betray Jesus, preparation for and celebration of the Passover, confusion, more worship in the sharing of the bread and the cup and singing, hollow promises of faithfulness, agonizing prayer for another way, betrayal with a kiss, a battle abated, disciples scatter, a sham arraignment, ridicule, adamant denial, deep regret and a failed attempt to undo betrayal, sham trial, speechless lamb, the guilty goes free and the innocent one is condemned to die, washed hands, swayed crowds, more ridicule, beating, more ridicule, more beating, more ridicule, more ridicule, more ridicule, darkness, a cry for rescue, pause, death, a curtain torn in divine grief, earth shook, rocks split, (are those zombies?), identification of God’s Son from an unlikely source (a Roman centurion), women watching and waiting, burial, an attempt to be sure he stays buried…

cross in office

…the attempt fails – Resurrection…

Those 72+ hours between Matthew 25:31-46 & Matthew 28:16-20 are, for the community who follows the crucified and risen Lord, the most intense hours in human history. In those moments are the darkest of hours of despair that bring out the worst in humanity’s capacity to do harm. But in these moments we also find in the Human One’s actions the very best of humanity (Jesus was and is fully human, after all) and the very source of our hope. These hours proclaim that even in the midst of betrayal, sin an darkness there is Eucharist, and that on the other side of suffering and death is their defeat at the hands of Life.

So what sort of relationship or weight do those days of suffering, death and resurrection bear on the missional passages before and after the Passion narrative? Maybe in telling us that when we give food, drink or clothing to those in need or visiting the sick and imprisoned we are doing these acts of mercy to Christ himself, he was dropping a hint that it would not be long before he would be hungry, thirsty, naked, afflicted, and condemned. When disciples of Jesus do these acts of mercy, we’re ministering to the suffering & crucified Messiah who humbled and emptied himself to such a degree as to be counted among criminals. When we clothe the naked, we condemn the criminal actions of Jesus’ torturers who stripped him down and cast lots for his clothing. When we give water to the thirsty, we cease from stopping the one offering a sponge to the dying Jesus with an ounce of water to soothe his lips. When we visit the imprisoned and offer words of encouragement to them seeking to set them free from whatever holds them in bondage, we display our contempt of the fraudulent court system and trial that condemned the Innocent One to death.

And maybe in telling us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them, Jesus is pointing back to what was just before as the content of what it looks like to live like genuine disciples of his. That is, when we are baptized into Christ, we are united with Christ in his suffering, death and resurrection, and lay claim to hope that sin and death’s defeat has been guaranteed in our own lives and for the world. That is, the closer we draw near to Jesus, the more we are genuine disciples who do not betray, slumber, scatter, or deny, but who follow near and are willing to be counted among the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, condemned just as Jesus was. That is, that genuine disciples are not afraid to cry out to God when we feel most deserted by the world, by our friends, and even by the God Jesus called Father, too. And that this movement would be so radical that the world could not stamp it out, but that people of all nations would be drawn to the sacrificial love that is willing to forgive those who betray, scatter, deny, and even those who condemn. And in that, we’re given a most blessed promise…that God’s presence in Christ will be with us as we embark on that mission.

And to me, these are the sorts of things that distinguishes a community who follows a crucified and risen Lord from a mere charity organization who just wants to be kind to others or a country club who just wants to increase in size. The narrative in between centers our missional life in that we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection.

Yes, you read that right. I have been on the receiving end of the sacrament of baptism on two different occasions. It is true that by faith and practice United Methodists do not re-baptize. It is also (unfortunately) true that many United Methodists do not adhere to the teaching that affirms on solid biblical grounds there is “one baptism” (see Ephesians 4:5).

On March 17, 1991 (I was ten years old), I went to the altar during the hymn of invitation at the end of the worship service at Oscar United Methodist Church. Having already discussed with my parents earlier in the morning the importance and necessity of claiming and professing my own faith in Christ as Lord and Savior, I took the short walk from the 3rd pew from the front…a short walk that seemed ever so long…as those gathered sang the lyrics, “Come every soul by sin oppressed; there’s mercy with the Lord; and He will surely give you rest by trusting in His word; Only trust Him, only trust Him, only trust Him now; He will save you, He will save you, He will save you now…” I spoke to the pastor in a voice slightly above a whisper so he could hear me, “I have put my trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and want to make that public today.” I hung around by the altar as the remainder of the hymn was sung and afterward the pastor announced my desire to publicly profess my faith. I did so and immediately thereafter, as was custom, we began making plans for my baptism the next Sunday.

I don’t remember all the details of the worship service the following week, but I do recall in vivid detail the expressions on the faces of my family (tear-filled with joy), the scenery, and my emotions as I was called forward and as water was poured over my head by the cupped hands of the pastor, invoking the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This experience was very heart-warming for me as is the recollection of it. And were it not my later happening upon a document from an earlier time, there would be no confusion mixed with my joy when asked, “When were you baptized?” or when told to “Remember your baptism, and be thankful.”

But as fate would have it, years later as I was sorting through some pictures and memorabilia from my infancy and childhood, I came upon a “certificate of baptism” that had my name on it and was dated back to when I was an infant. Not being aware such an event had occurred, I began inquiring about this. My parents responded saying that I was not baptized as an infant but that I was Christened. Infant baptism, you see, really wasn’t done much in my neck of the woods. (I would like to go into more detail defending the practice of infant baptism, but I will need to save that for another post as more space than is reasonable for this post would be required.)

Back to the language of “Christening”…Well as I would soon find out, United Methodists do not practice Christening, even though many (lay & clergy) mistakenly confuse it with or substitute this title for infant baptism. Therefore, I must readily admit that for all I know, the pastor at the time of my infancy informed my parents that the ceremony when I was an infant was a Christening. At the very least, there was miscommunication somehow as a certificate of baptism was given to my parents to later be given to me.

Now at this point you may be thinking one of several things: if you’re from certain denominations or faith communities you may be thinking, “You weren’t really baptized either time, because you weren’t immersed”; or maybe you’re wondering, “What was the first pastor thinking not being clear on what was going on?” or “What was the second pastor thinking not investigating to find out more?”; or you may be asking, “Who cares? What’s wrong with it if you were re-baptized?” or something else still. I’m not attempting to be exhaustive.

But how I process and work through my feelings and thoughts on the matter contains, as I said earlier, an element of confusion in the midst the real joy of remembering that I am united by baptism with Christ in his death and resurrection. For the confusion, I’m not sure where to determine what or who is “to blame” or even if blame should be cast. In no way whatsoever do I fault my parents, because they understood my infant baptism not to be a baptism at all but a Christening. I understand their perception of my experience is not a problem and I respect that this whole question may seem totally foreign to them. Mom & Dad, if you’re reading this, I want to say I love you and am forever grateful for the manner in which you raised me to teach me the importance of the new birth, of owning my own faith in Christ and learning to become a better disciple of His. In fact, it was my mother who would one day be the voice of reason and assurance when I was in a period of doubt and confusion, even though I was not able to perceive her wisdom at the time. But that also is another story for another day.

Regarding the question of my baptism, part of me is frustrated with the lack of clarity and/or communication on the part of the pastors who played a role in both ceremonies. The pastor who baptized me as an infant did not do a good enough job of explaining the event as a baptism (i.e., NOT a Christening). Again, for all I know, he may have said it was a Christening, but I’ve been told water was applied. As for the later pastor who “re-baptized” me after I professed my faith in Christ, he did not do enough digging to discover whether or not I had been baptized as an infant. Even if he had asked and was told, “Jeffrey was Christened,” that should’ve raised flags that would’ve led to uncovering the truth and the muddled waters could have been cleared. As it stands, I am at a sort of loss for words when asked, “When were you baptized?” because I don’t have a clear answer.

Perhaps I’m just searching for a scapegoat, but as I am positive that I’m not alone in having had these sorts of experiences, I’m pretty sure that the answer to my conundrum won’t be found in isolating the problem in one or two pastors who in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t do enough to proclaim clearly or search diligently to see if there may be a repeat that would one day cause unnecessary confusion. Perhaps one or both of them didn’t want to stir the pot too much on infant baptism or re-baptism or were uninformed themselves about the issue of Christening vs. infant baptism. But the issue, in my way of thinking, at the heart of this is either not having a clear understanding of the sacrament (which needs to be and can be answered) or of not communicating it clearly enough where people can “get” it. I hope that at least for me (and maybe for you reading this) some headway can be made on both fronts, even though this lengthy post won’t answer anywhere near all the questions that are or will be raised.

Now I will say that I believe the Christian faith can and should allow room for ambiguity and mystery for it is not as though we’re able to fully comprehend life itself, much less the God behind it all. Nonetheless, the acts of (1) our initiation into the life of God in baptism, and (2) our constant participation in the life of God in Holy Communion, are acts that shouldn’t leave us confused, even if the way in which God conveys grace through these means remains beyond our comprehension.

Baptism, as I read it put one way this week, is the sacrament of identity (h/t to Jason W. Jones, current pastor of Bethel & Brooks Chapel UMCs in Calloway County, Kentucky). And as such, it is a sacrament that shouldn’t cause confusion or be a source of identity crisis. We get enough of that already…right, United Methodists? 😉 And if we want our identity and waters more clear then that demands excellence in communication among us who are leaders in various capacities within the United Methodist Church, especially when it comes to these holy mysteries in which God unites us with Christ and each other.

The sacrament of baptism is “something God does!” as the former Lexington district superintendent, Paige Williams, said during one of her visits to Nicholasville UMC. And that is what came to mind as I read and re-read from Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism (3:21-22) in preparation for last week’s sermon. Of course we know that it was John the Baptist who applied water or immersed Jesus, but if you read Luke’s version, it’s almost as if John wasn’t even there. Luke had already narrated his imprisonment and didn’t explicitly name him as the baptizer of Jesus. It is as if Luke was wanting us to see that God is the one doing the action in Jesus’ baptism…and God is the one doing the action in ours too. So it’s not about the pastor, though he or she is ordained or licensed for the function of representing God in baptizing those being initiated into God’s kingdom. It’s not even primarily about the one being baptized, for each of us when baptized are not baptized into our own “Christian walk” or our own individual identities but into union with Christ in the baptism of his death and resurrection, which, by the way, occurred only once.

That’s why United Methodists, at least, don’t re-baptize. Jesus died and was raised again only once. And as baptism is the work/grace of God in uniting us with Christ in his death and resurrection, and is not the work of mortals, it is effective. We have no need to question whether the “first” time was good enough or if “it took.” If we have gone astray and want to be restored, we need only to remember our baptism, and be thankful for our union with Christ. And there are very good ways to do that without causing confusion.

I suppose I should address the whole issue of Christening and infant baptism, but to keep from rambling (if I’m not already), I’ll save that for another day. Thanks for bearing with me!