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! 🙂

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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…

Although it often invites moments of being teased, one of my favorite things to do with family around Christmas is looking through old family photo albums to recall the precious, though sometimes embarrassing, memories from my childhood. When examining afresh the pictures from yesteryear, as a family we get to relive, in a sense, our past and remember and be thankful for God’s faithfulness in bringing us to this moment of our shared lives, even as we anticipate greater days to come. This is what I mean in this post’s title as ‘the art of remembrance.’ That remembrance is more than just recalling stories and ‘memories’ of old, but is an affirmation that when we tell these stories, we are being mysteriously transported into the past and experience it anew. It is our way of living into the story that began before we could grasp it all or before we were even aware there was a story.

Practicing the art of remembrance is more than this...

Practicing the art of remembrance is more than this…

On two different occasions, God’s family was given what we now call the Ten Commandments, and they are recorded in Exodus 20 & Deuteronomy 5. The commandment that should strike a chord as we think about ‘remembrance’ is the 4th one: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” But did you know that in the two renderings of the commandment, there is a difference in the reason given as to why to remember the sabbath? Read them anew…

Exodus 20:8-11 – “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…For in six days the Lord created heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 – “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Did you catch the difference? In Exodus they were called to remember the sabbath for its connection to the story of creation. In Deuteronomy they were called to remember the sabbath for its connection to the story of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Think about that: in Egypt they slaved seven days a week; God commanded them to remember they’re not enslaved anymore and to do so by taking a day off. (If there were ever a day when that message is needed, it would be now.) Remembering the sabbath was their (and our) way of living into the stories of God’s creation and redemption. Even as generations would come and go, remembrance was their way of looking back in gratitude because of God’s loving faithfulness in freely creating the heavens and the earth and in freely rescuing them from bondage.

Remembering is at the heart of who we are as Christians too: when we welcome new members into God’s family and renew our own covenant made in the past to God and the church; when we sit at meals and tell stories of the recent or distant past, recalling how God has got us through times of light and darkness; when we gather to grieve the loss of one of our own, yet remaining hopeful in the resurrection as we recall God’s faithfulness in the lives of those who have gone before us; and of course, when we break bread together and share the cup at the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” I believe he meant more than just “retell this story and recall to mind my sacrifice for you.” It’s more than that, for again, remembrance is more than recollection. Remembrance, in the sacramental sense, is a mysterious act in which we commune with the saints, and Christ is mysteriously but really present in our meal.

When we eat the bread and drink from the cup, our act of remembrance is our way of living into the story of Christ’s redeeming the world through his becoming human in being conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, remaining faithful to his Father, being betrayed, suffering, dying, and being resurrected. Each time we partake of the meal and we remember Christ, we relive our redemption and give thanks (Eucharist = give thanks) for God’s loving faithfulness in rescuing us from bondage to sin and death. I’ve seen it put this way before: “The Christian is one who remembers!” And as St. Paul reminds us, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

I’m now a few weeks removed from having preached the series at Liberty’s revival on the Prodigals & Prophets. One of the details of the parable continues to stick out in my mind and blow me away. With all the love and forgiveness that the father lavishes on his lost son who has returned, the one that stands out to me as the most puzzling, at least at such an early stage is the command given by the father to the servants that they put “sandals on his feet.” I find myself asking, “Really, Jesus? A father who puts sandals back on the son’s feet? Don’t you realize that opens up the door for being hurt again, perhaps even worse than the first time? After all, he’s been in a few rough parts of the world that we wouldn’t dare dream of here in the safety of this farm. Sure, let’s put a robe on him, give him a ring, and have a nice barbecue, but you really want to trust him enough to give him a way back out again?”

In preparation for the sermon on the centrality of the father in the parable, my mind raced back to the class I took in college on the 8th century prophets (Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, & Micah were the prophets whose ministries were during the 8th century BC). With all the things that I forgot from that 8:00 am class, two things I remember: 1. the time the professor started to ramble in his prayer one day and began praying for aliens; and 2. the gut-wrenching, tear-jerking analysis of Hosea 11. Now, Hosea’s story certainly has some interesting twists and turns, many of which are not analogous to a parent-child relationship but to a spousal relationship. Nonetheless, chapter 11 portrays the compassion of a heartbroken parent whose children have lost their way, were “bent on turning away from” God, and yet though showing tremendous disappointment, admits an unwillingness to give up on these children. “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” What moves a parent to have such compassion?

Hosea 11 showcases the “covenant faithfulness” of God: that God remembers his faithfulness. This isn’t meant to imply that God had “forgotten” it, but that the ultimate character of God is remaining true in faithful love to God’s people. God remembers, among other things that, “Yet it was I who taught them to walk.” Examine what happens in the message of Hosea, the parable of the returning son, and a modern rendition…

God’s children had used their pedagogy to walk away. The younger son received the inheritance and walked away with it. A rebellious teenage daughter is taught how to drive and is given the keys to her parents’ car and decides to leave town with it.

God’s children had lost their way and were scattered without a home and without hope. The younger son wasted half the family fortune and found himself desiring to eat pig slop. The daughter runs out of gas, finds some ways to remedy that and get by for a while,  but eventually runs out of options and gives up the car to keep the collateral from being herself.

God doesn’t give up…

They return. He comes home. She hitches a ride back.

View of the feet from Rembrandt’s painting of ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’. (Photo credit: snailskin.blogspot.com)

“They will walk after the LORD…” (Hosea 11:10); “put sandals on his feet” (Luke 15:22); “Here’s a key to our new car”

Really, God? You’re willing to trust them? him? her?

“We are accustomed to finding a catch in every promise, but Jesus’ stories of extravagant grace include no catch, no loophole disqualifying us from God’s love…I imagined God as a distant thundering figure who prefers fear and respect to love. Jesus tells instead of a father publicly humiliating himself by rushing out to embrace a son who has squandered half the family fortune.” – Philip Yancey

“Behold with wonder and pleasure the gracious reception they find from Divine, injured goodness!” – John Wesley

“Yep. Sandals. They’re my children. My children, like me, are free.”

As I officially embark upon pastoral ministry in the next couple of weeks, I decided to launch this site as a means to promote and share with you what has been and will continue to be shared with me (see tagline at the top referring to 1 Corinthians 11.23).

I am in awestruck wonder at the grace that God has given through Christ to me in my life. But because God’s grace is a gift, then I am not the proprietor of it. I am beckoned and charged to share that grace generously with those with whom I come in contact throughout my life. That’s what the theme centered upon at the Memphis Annual Conference this year, which concluded yesterday in Jackson, TN: “Extravagant Generosity” (see image below).

Image

At the conclusion of the conference, Bishop Chamness declared the fixing of appointments for the 2012-13 year, which means that my charge to pastor Liberty & Post Oak United Methodist Churches in Camden, Tennessee for at least the next year (and hopefully longer) is finalized. Immediately before the sending forth, those of us who have been appointed to pastor throughout the Conference covenanted together in declaring our vow to fulfill the call laid upon us. In this covenant we recited the Wesley Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but thine.

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,

exalted for thee or brought low for thee.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

thou art mine, and I am thine.

So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.Amen.

I’ve said this covenant prayer in multiple services before this Annual Conference, but yesterday it took on a profound new meaning and I had a six hour drive home from Jackson to Nicholasville (where I’ll be residing for 12 more days before we move to Camden on June 19) to reflect upon the significance of this covenant and (God knows) where it will lead me. The first line sums it all up and brings our hearts and minds to the realization that we are not the proprietors or rightful owners of anything, including and especially the ministry to which we have been called. I am no longer my own, but thine.

We are, at most and at best, stewards, even of the grace that God gave in rescuing us from sin & death. Whatever we receive from the hand of our loving and almighty God, it is in order to give or pass on, not to hold up for ourselves. If you read the entire context around 1 Corinthians 11.23 (go back to verse 17 and read through verse 34, or read it here), you’ll see that stewardship and sharing is at the heart of the community meal we know as the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion. St. Paul was aware of the lack of stewardship in the Corinthian church such that folks were hoarding up, consuming all the bread and drinking all the wine, leaving some without. Paul encouraged them (and the Spirit through Paul’s words encourages us) to follow his own lead by passing on what was passed to him. I am no longer my own, but thine.

It is true that I cannot share what I have not received. But if I do not share what I have received, then I will only bring judgment upon myself and others will starve. God, be merciful unto me where I have failed in this and enable me to give generously the gifts and grace you have entrusted to me! I am no longer my own, but thine.