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?

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So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up,and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.”

“I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.”

We know these passages well, and others like them, about “running the race.” That in many ways the journey of discipleship in which we follow Jesus the Christ is a race that stretches us, grows us, challenges us, shows our weaknesses or proneness to fatigue, but ultimately perfects us (in love) as we persevere in the race.

I’ve added the daily spiritual discipline suggested by the folks at Rethink Church this Advent in the photo-a-day challenge. Today’s word, “steadfast/steady” kept running (no pun intended) through my mind as I went for a walk/jog this morning in the gym at nearby Camden First UMC.

When I go for a walk/jog/run and listen to music, I often get caught up in the flow of the lyrics or the beat of the music. At the onset of a particularly upbeat song, I have found myself all of a sudden picking up the pace, beating drums in the air (yeah, I’m sure I’m the laughing stock of the other walkers who use the facilities at Camden First UMC), kind of losing myself in the flow of things only to find several laps later that I’m winded and the unsteadiness of the changed pace takes its toll. This is particularly challenging to a person with asthma. Going through some change of rhythm is necessary in preparing for longer distance runs/jogs, but it takes training, and the body has to adapt to the change in physical tolerance. It can’t be done (well) through random erratic or spasmodic bursts. Again, it takes training.
…………

I began reflecting on the pace to Bethlehem in Advent and my mind went to pictures like this one:

steady advent

In our typical lives where we find ourselves rushed and hurried in so many ways, we often forget that Jesus saved the world at a pace of 3 miles an hour. In several emergency situations, Jesus is depicted as deliberative, yes, and perhaps urgent but not rushed. For instance, consider the episode(s) of Jairus’ 12-year-old daughter who was on the brink of death and the woman with an issue of blood for 12 years. At the pleading of Jairus, Jesus followed behind him to help Jairus’ daughter but allowed himself to be interrupted by the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak that she might be healed. In his healing mission, Jesus was steadily deliberative.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall bring justice for the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. – Isaiah 35:1-4

“The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him…” Steady. Dependable. Faithful. Ongoing. I like what John Goldingay said about this notion of the steadiness of Jesus’ pace:

The supernatural presence of God’s gifting might not have to be tumultuous and spasmodic. It could be steady and continuous. It is such a gifting that the community needs from its Davidic branch, as it does of any king.

If Jesus in his mission went at a pace of 3 mph, the preparation for his arrival came even slower on the back of a lowly donkey, as legend has it. The road of Mary & Joseph to Bethlehem was a long journey that required steady pacing.
…………

And Advent is about that. On one level it’s about “slowing down” and not getting caught up in the “hustle and bustle” of the commercialism that often sweeps us away this time of year. But casting out the demon of rampant consumerism is not Christian discipleship in itself. Advent also, it seems to me, ought to be about inviting the abiding Spirit of God to steady us in the world, seeking God’s “wisdom and understanding,” “counsel and might,” and the “knowledge and worship” of the Lord. To join in Christ’s mission of bringing good news and “justice to the poor.” Advent is about steady preparation and pacing in growing as Jesus’ disciples and continuing this mission as we celebrate his first arrival and await Christ’s return.

Some would advise that what the world and the various communities within it need in the meantime is a sudden burst of energy or enthusiasm in what has been experienced beforehand as revivalism. And while in some ways that may be what is needed in part, if it is not accompanied with the steady, abiding dependence on the presence of God’s Spirit in the mundane, ongoing day-to-day living and work of the Church, then we will have invested our energies on something fleeting and we’ll find ourselves too winded to carry on. Because the length of the race we’re set to run requires steadiness. Let us pace ourselves that we might finish the race.

Come, thou long expected Jesus!

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’:)

Resting. Eating. Drinking. Enjoyment. These are blessings of the created life. They existed before the curse. Hence they are not inherently ‘sinful’ even though we preachers are sometimes keen on pointing out the vanity that often coincides with excessive idleness or consumption. The sin of the ‘rich fool’ who stored up treasures was not that he should “relax, eat, drink, and be merry,” but that his action(s) in this came at the neglect of and detriment to his neighbors and hence to his own soul as he did not regard the God who brought the harvest.

Have you ever understood the first sin as one of unhealthy consumerism? Adam and Eve were given a whole garden of fruit from which to enjoy, except for just one. Yet a commercial aired that created within their hearts a perceived need of something they must have in order to truly be fulfilled. The tempting words of the serpent went something like this (my paraphrase):

“You will not surely die if you eat that fruit. But God doesn’t want you to eat of that one tree because he knows if you do, you will be like him…mature, powerful, able to know what is good and what is evil. So go ahead; take, eat that fruit, for that is how you become like God!”

Contrast this with the words that Jesus shared at the meal on the night before his death. For the meal before him, Jesus regarded and gave thanks (Eucharist) to God. He gave the bread and the cup to his disciples and said something like this (my paraphrase):

Take, eat this bread which is my body; drink from this cup which is my blood; this is how God has become like you! Given to the point of death.”

Photo Credit: Rev. Sara Tate took this photo at Carrie's and my vow renewal in July 2013.

Photo Credit: Rev. Sara Tate took this photo at Carrie’s and my vow renewal in July 2013.

Rest. Eat. Drink. Enjoy. For the re-created life still involve these blessings, but they will always compel us to give thanks to God and break bread with our neighbors.

Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us.
Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit, to give ourselves for others.
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

“Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”

Ascension of Christ - GBOD

The Ascension of Christ. Late 6th century illuminated manuscript (c. 586). Public Domain. via GBOD of the UMC

Talk about a cliffhanger! “This Jesus…will come…” Some TV shows do a good job of leaving you on the edge of your seat at the ending of a season finale. One of mine & Carrie’s favorites is ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ in which the character Barney is notorious for saying, “It’s gonna be LEGEN… wait for it… DARY!” In fact, they ended one season just as Barney said, “…wait for it…” The purpose of the “…wait for it…” or the “…to be continued…” is, of course, to hopefully increase ratings, but in terms of the story, it’s to pique your interest and heighten your sense of expectation of what is still to come.

Today is the Feast Day of the Ascension (for we who are in the Western Roman Catholic/Protestant traditions of the Church), in which we remember that, as the Creed says, “…he [Jesus] ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead…” In terms of the holy days remembered throughout the Church year, Ascension Day is for many Protestants among the lowest on the totem pole, if it’s even present at all. But Christ’s ascension is a vital part of the story of God’s redeeming us and the world. Christ’s bodily departure prepares the way for the Holy Spirit to fill Jesus’ followers, empowering them to be the heralds of this new king whose heavenly reign is breaking in on earth.

And in this, for those of us who wish to be aligned with Jesus the Christ, we are beckoned to bear witness to God’s coming kingdom, that we are still waiting for in its ultimate fulfillment. For now, the remnants of darkness and death still plague the creation, but the rays of light and new life have shown through and we have a confident hope that the good work that has begun will be brought to completion.

So as we herald this news of greater things still to come, we face the (often) gut-wrenching task to “…wait for it…”; to, in patience, work for the kingdom until Jesus comes in final victory. Happy Ascension Day!

“Everliving God, your eternal Christ once dwelt on earth, confined by time and space. Give us faith to discern in every time and place the presence among us of the One who is head over all things and fills all, even Jesus Christ our ascended Lord. Amen.” (from UM Hymnal, #323)

To channel my thoughts, I found this a helpful guide to my prayer for those who are suffering in the midst and wake of the tragedy in Boston…taken from the United Methodist Book of Worship, 546. The words can be appropriate utterances for many going through seasons of varying degrees and types of suffering. May you find words of resonance.

(Photo credit: CNN)

(Photo credit: CNN)

O Healer of Galilee,
You are afflicted in the sufferings of your people
and are full of compassion and tender mercy.
Hear us as we pray for those who suffer:

For all who suffer trauma in body or mind…

For those whose livelihood is insecure,
the overworked, the hungry, the homeless, and the destitute,
for those who have been downtrodden, ruined,
and driven to despair…

For little children,
whose surroundings hide them from your love and beauty,
for all the fatherless and motherless…

For those who have to bear their burdens alone,
and for all who have lost those whom they love…

For those who are in doubt and anguish of soul,
for those who are oversensitive and afraid…

For those who suffer through their own wrongdoing…

For those whose suffering is unrelieved
by the knowledge of your love…

Set free, Helper of the weak,
the souls of your servants from all restlessness and anxiety.

Give us the peace and power that flow from you.
Keep us in all perplexities and distresses,
in all griefs and grievances, from any fear or faithlessness;
that, being upheld by your strength
and stayed on the rock of your faithfulness,
through storm and stress we may abide in you. Amen.