Friday, January 16, 2015

Baptismal Faith, Baptismal Living

Some Protestant churches today are engaged in a lively conversation about who may be admitted to the communion meal. Does a person have to be baptized? What should a church say to welcome people to come forward for the bread and wine? How does a church welcome people and simultaneously insist on baptism? What is baptism’s role in faith?

Such questions challenge the church’s historic understanding of baptism as the sacrament of initiation. It is through baptism that people become a part of the body of Christ. 

In the issue of Liturgy devoted to “Trinity and Liturgy,” Ruth Meyers writes about the way in which the historic creedal focus on the Trinity––used at baptism––serves to shape the life of the faithful. 

At this time of much discussion about baptism, it is well to be reminded of our origins as Christians. Meyers summarizes the early church’s baptismal catechesis as found in documents like The Apostolic Tradition and Didache. Catechumens would spend weeks studying the creeds, preparing for baptism by readying themselves to renounce the forces of evil and proclaim faith in the triune God. 
The responses to these questions were not an abstract statement of Christian doctrine, but an expression of a living faith that provided the foundation for a life of discipleship. The trinitarian shape of Christian faith has practical consequences for a distinctive way of life.
 Meyers then discusses in turn each of the three parts of the creed, dealing with belief in God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Meyers’ references to the language of the baptismal rite come from the ecumenical Consultation on Common Texts (Trinity Press, 1999). 

Baptism, she writes, is transformative because it is centered in Jesus’ death and resurrection as Paul explained in Romans 6:4: “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”  
The font is not just a womb but also a watery grave where those who are baptized are transformed. In contemporary baptismal rites, the thanksgiving over the water recalls both the waters of creation and also Jesus's death and resurrection. 
Christian transformation through baptism is given particular expression in the renunciation of sin, such as, “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? … Do you renounce the evil powers of this world … ? Do you renounce all sinful desires … ?” In some early Christian communities, those to be baptized faced west while making these renunciations, then turned to face east, the place of the rising sun, associated with Christ, the sun of righteousness (Mal 4:2). Triple renunciation was followed by triple profession of faith in the triune God. The waters of baptism serve not only as a place of death to sin but also as a bath. A contemporary thanksgiving over the water entreats God, “Wash away the sins of all who are cleansed by it.” 
From the cleansing waters of baptism, Christians are raised to a new life in Christ. The apostle Paul reminds the Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:27). We do not know whether in Paul's time the newly baptized literally donned new clothes. But by the fourth century, when adult baptism was still the norm, candidates for baptism stripped off their old clothes and descend naked into the font. Coming up from the water, they were given new white garments. A contemporary baptismal rite includes this option, the garment presented with words echoing the apostle Paul, “In baptism you have put on Christ; you have become a new creation.” The outer garment reflects the inner transformation of baptism, through which we walk in new life, following the way of Jesus.  . . . 
The baptismal proclamation of faith thus has very practical consequences for Christian life. God who created all that is and who sends the Son and sends the Spirit also sends us to share in God's new creation and to seek the restoration of all creation to God. Baptized into Christ, we put on Christ, becoming part of the body of Christ, and so enter the communion of the triune God. 

Ruth A. Meyers is Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics and Dean of Academic Affairs at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, the Episcopal seminary in the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. 

Ruth A. Meyers, “Baptismal Faith, Baptismal Living,” Liturgy 30, no. 1 (2015): 18-23.

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