40 Days of Baptism: 37

Here comes a reflection on baptism in the Syriac Christian tradition from Eugene Rogers and his book on the Holy Spirit, After the Spirit. The Syriac tradition looks at the meaning of baptism in a different light.

The Syriac tradition does not portray baptism as a grim moment in which sinners grit their teeth and try to wrest their redemption from the cold and unforgiving water. The tone is entirely different: one of praise, thanksgiving, and wonder, as befits a glimpse into the trinitarian relations and a share in the feasting at the wedding of the Lamb:

How fearful and full of awe is this moment when the supernal beings stand in silence upon this baptismal water - thousands upon thousands of angels, ten thousands of Seraphim hover over this new mother, holy baptism, the spiritual mother who gives birth to spiritual sons who enter into the bridal chamber of life that is full of joys … They stand by the river Jordan to receive the Son of God who has come to perfect baptism. The Holy Spirit descends upon him from the uppermost heights, not to sanctify him, but to bear witness to him.

The Syriac tradition can see the entire history of salvation and the entire Christian life in terms of the wedding parable of Matthew 22, in which putting on the wedding garment is putting on the Spirit. In both cases the wedding feast is the eschatological banquet at the end of time for which God has been preparing the human race since the beginning. Baptism washes human beings not primarily because of sin, but for the feast. Baptism is the great washing before meals. Bathing is already part of the joy of preparation even for the clean; so much the more so for those who are dirty. Consummation is logically prior to redemption, as the goal specifies the species of an act.

Furthermore, the wedding feast is the consummation for which all human beings were created. The Spirit who hovered over the waters at creation is bringing up her creation over time, when she hovers also over the waters of the font. The wedding garments are prepared already. The guest who was cast into the outer darkness for the lack of a wedding agreement was not one who had never had one, but one who had been given one and lost it.

Christ came to baptism, he went down and placed in the baptismal water the robe of glory, to be there for Adam, who had lost it.

That applies to all children of Adam:

You [Christ] who were without need were baptised in the river Jordan and left into the garment of divinity for those who were naked that they might be clothed with it.

The children of Adam become children of the Father by being clothed again in the Spirit:

You have clothed us in the robe of glory of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and you have granted that we should become spiritual children to the Father in the second birth of baptism.

Eugene F. Rogers, Jr., After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology form Resources Outside the Modern West (SCM, 2006), pp.137-139. (The use of italics represents where Rogers is quoting).


40 Days of Baptism: 36

If it is not too indulgent, today I post a sermon I preached on baptism in March 2014.

What has happened here today? What have we witnessed and experienced? Some might say that what has happened here this morning is an ancient initiation rite, it’s the means that the church requires for people to join the club, to become an insider. And this is not untrue. Aimee through her baptism has become part of the body of Christ, a member of God’s people. Some might say that what has happened here this morning is the declaration of what somebody believes, they have announced in public their faith in God. And this is also not untrue. Aimee has made a confession of faith, she was asked four questions and shared her story of why she believes and felt it was right to come to baptism.

But I want to suggest something else has happened here this morning which does not begin with the church or with Aimee, but with God. I want to talk about what baptism does to you and more specifically what God in baptism does to you. So this is a sermon for Aimee, to say something of what has happened to her in the water. This is a sermon for all those here, who are baptised, to say something of what happened to you, when you went into the water. And this is a sermon for those who are here as the curious, to say something of what, as a church, we pray, will be your baptism.

I’ve got six things baptism does to us.

Number one, baptism makes you odd. Now some of you may be thinking Aimee’s always been odd, which I find hard to believe, but if true, baptism makes her odder. Baptism is not a normal part of life, especially believers’ baptism. To be baptised is to be made different, the Bible says we a ‘strangers and aliens’ (1 Pet 2.11) we are different because the baptised person now lives by a different story, with a different purpose and a different Lord. In baptism we identify with the story of Jesus and that story becomes the story of our life it is a story that tells of invitation and challenge, friendship and betrayal, suffering and death, resurrection and hope. The purpose of our life, odd as it may well appear is to tell that story as faithfully as we can because we have declared that Jesus is Lord that as odd as it may sound, Jesus is the key, the point, the centre, the reason, the beginning, the end of everything. Baptism makes you odd.

Number two, baptism means you’ve died. We’ve just witnessed a funeral. We’ve just heard it read. It’s in the Bible: to be baptised is to die – but it is a certain kind of death: it is to die with Christ. And it is a certain kind of funeral: it is to be buried with Christ (Rom 6.4). If that is so, death is no longer something to be feared or something to be denied or something that hangs over over us. Baptism says we have died, death is behind us, life is ahead of us, life in Christ.* Aimee has died, but she has also been raised; she was lifted out of the water, and so she has been lifted out of death to a new life, a life in Christ. Baptism means you’re a “dead person walking.”

Number three, baptism makes you royalty. Now as far as I know Aimee is not a member of the royal family and isn’t married into the royal family. But baptism takes us from being nobodies to being somebodies (1 Pet. 2.10) from being plebs – those in the ancient world who had no status or standing, no name or fame to royalty – those who are children of God, those who are member’s of God’s household, those who are given the royal name of Jesus. Baptism is a coronation we are crowned, we are set apart,                  we are anointed. Where the world can conspire to make us believe we are worthless, that we are no good, baptism reminds us we are made in God’s image. No ifs or buts, just this is who you are.

Number four, baptism means you’re found. It’s not that we find God, but that he has found us (Luke 19.10). It’s not that we choose God, but that he has chosen us (John 15.16). It’s not that we love God, but that he has first loved us (1 John 4.19). It’s not that Aimee said ‘I want to be baptised’, but that God said ‘Be baptised!’ Baptism gives us a new name ‘I am not.’ I am not the answer to every problem the author of my life, the centre of everything, God is.

The gospel says we’re sick and baptism says I am not the doctor.  Jesus is. The gospel says we’re lost and baptism says I am not the detective. Jesus is. The gospel says we’re stuck and baptism says I am not the one who can set free. Jesus is. The gospel says we’re broken and baptism says I am not the one who can mend. Jesus is. Baptism give us a new name ‘I am not, but I know I am’** I am not God, but God knows me: God the creator, the saviour, the finisher, God the author, the rescuer, the healer. Baptism means we’re found.

Number five, baptism marks the beginning of an adventure you’re not in control of. God said to Abraham and Sarah ‘Go.’ Jesus says ‘Follow me.’ After baptism, the question we ask is not what am I going to do with life, but what is God going to do with my life? One pastor said this to one person he had baptised:        

“By this act of baptism, we welcome you to a journey that will take your whole life.This isn’t the end. It’s the beginning of God’s experiment with your life. What God will make of you, we know not. Where God will take you, surprise you, we cannot say. This we do know and this we say – God is with you.”*

By being baptised, you’ve made yourself open to God’s call, you’ve become an actor in a drama, that’s been performing for a quite a while and unless Christ returns, will continue after you, but in which, for the rest of your life, you are called to perform the script God is writing for you. This gospel adventure is not one we live alone. All of us who have baptised are in it together, we’re one body being led to offer our lives as a letter of Christ to the world.

Number six, baptism means you’ve got a new wardrobe. Now this isn’t to suggest that Aimee is without fashion sense I’m neither that brave, or, probably more importantly, in any place to be giving out fashion advice. But baptism, says the Bible, is where we get clothed with Christ (Gal 3.27). In the early church, you would have been baptised naked and then as you came out of the waters you would have been give a new robe as a sign and symbol of new life in Christ. The wardrobe in baptism is not a set of clothes – sorry Aimee we’ve got no T-shirt with Jesus on it for you – the wardrobe in baptism is not a set of clothes, but the practice of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience and most importantly, the practice of love (Col 3.12). In baptism we take off and leave behind anger, rage, malice, slander, abusive language, lying and put on the new wardrobe modelled by Christ.

So baptism makes you odd, means you’ve died, makes you royalty, means you’re found, marks the beginning of a life-long adventure you’re not in control and gives you a new wardrobe to wear. That is what’s happened today and at every baptism. That is what God is about: calling, naming, saving, creating a people who know what being human is really about and who exist to tell the world. Today, Jesus says, ‘Aimee, welcome to my world.’ Indeed God’s invitation is always open to everyone to enter this to strange new world of being Christian. May be one of you have heard the summons today. Amen.

 

* I owe this way of putting things to Kim Fabricus’ sermon ‘Welcome to my world’ http://www.faith-theology.com/2010/07/welcome-to-my-world-baptismal-sermon.html

** I owe this phrase to Louie Giglio, I Am Not, but I Know I Am (2006)

*** Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon, Resident Aliens (1989), pp.52-53.


40 Days of Baptism: 35

Today's post comes from Kim Fabricius and a sermon he posted on the Faith and Theology blog, to which he is a regular contributor. Fabricius is a URC minister in Wales and is very funny, as well as a great preacher. In the sermon below he reminds us of the oddness of baptism.

I’d like your opinion about a couple I know, about something they did, did to their child. Of course they loved their baby to bits and surrounded him with all the care in the world, cooing and cuddling, bathing and bonding, taking tender care about all his needs and his feeds and his smelly little deeds. They were good parents. But then one day they made a decision: they decided they didn’t want to keep their baby to themselves, or even to their own kin; they decided they wanted to share their child with other people, indeed to raise their child as part of another family, a genetically unrelated family, where their child would have not only other brothers and sisters, but also other mothers and fathers too. In fact, this new family would, in principle, supersede their own family as the child’s true and ultimate home. Tell me, what would you think of parents who would do such a thing with their child?

And another thing. To mark this transition from the biological family to this new family, this couple arranged for a special occasion – but what an odd occasion it was. For one thing, it took place on a Sunday morning, when most other folk were still in bed, and in a rather odd building. For another thing, there was no booze (fancy a special occasion without any booze!). And then there were the guests: many of the people at this occasion the parents didn’t even know, or didn’t know very well. In fact, it was precisely these people, many of them quite old, and a few even a bit doddery, who turned out to be their child’s new parents and siblings. Again, what would you think of such parents?

And a final thing, perhaps the most outrageous thing of all. At this occasion there was a man wearing a sombre black gown, as if he were taking a funeral. In fact, that is precisely what the man said was happening: that his parents were bringing their child to this occasion to mark his death, his death to the world from which he was brought, but which (so the man in the black gown declared) is a world that is itself passing away, yet a world that spends most of its time and energy pretending it will go on forever, thereby entangling itself all the more inescapably in the cords of its own extinction. For is that not the nature of the world we live in? Do we not live in fear and denial of death, compulsively seeking longevity, security, the ultimate risk-free environment, which, however, a moment’s clarity exposes as the sheerest fantasy? On this occasion, however, (so the man in the black gown declared) we get real and deny this denial of death, as the child, in the ritual of the occasion, dies and is buried, with everyone present acting as celebrants of his funeral.

Again, for the last time, what would you think of such parents? Let’s be honest: bringing their child to be handed over for shared parenting is outrageous enough, but bringing the child to his own funeral, what kind of parents would do such a macabre thing? You might think that, at best, they were being irresponsible, at worst, abusive, and that they should be reported to the police and social services. In fact, if you are not a Christian, you are bound to think this way. In fact, many Christians themselves think this way. Which just goes to show how domesticated and sentimentalised baptism – because, of course, that is what we are talking about here, baptism – it just goes to show how domesticated and sentimentalised baptism has become, and how the church itself has colluded in “watering-down” the meaning of its sacrament of initiation. Indeed it goes to show how close the church is coming to losing its identity, and in losing its identity, losing its very soul.

Hear again Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Rome, which go straight to the point: “Surely you know that when were baptised into union with Christ Jesus, we were baptised into union with his death. By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death …” (Rom 6:3-4a).

There it is in the Bible (I’m not making it up!): to be baptised is to die – but it is a certain kind of death: it is to die with Christ. And it is a certain kind of funeral: it is to be buried with Christ. But if that is so, it means that, appearances notwithstanding, in baptism our deaths are now behind us. Which, in turn, means, that we are released from our obsession with death, our fear of death, our denial of death, all of which speaks of our enslavement to death – from which baptism frees us. For not only is death now behind us, above all life is now ahead of us. But again, a very specific kind of life: it is life in Christ. For as Paul continues: “By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from death by the glorious power of the Father, so also we might live a new life” (6:4).

We are all gong to die. One day Adam is going to die too. But today we proclaim that, in fact, Adam’s death is now behind him and that life, the life of Christ – a new life of love, joy, and peace – is Adam’s future, and indeed is there now for the taking – or rather the receiving – through his union with Christ.

And that’s where we come to Adam’s “new family”. For in being baptised into union with Christ, Adam becomes a son and brother of everyone else who has been baptised into union with Christ. He has been born anew, of water and Spirit (John 3:5), born, that is, into a new family, with new siblings and new parents (including the doddery ones!). Fellow Christians are now, in fact, Adam’s closest relations. “Blood is thicker than water,” people say. Not so, Christians say: “Water is thicker than blood.”

I am under no illusions of just how mind-blowing all this is. And not only because baptism is, ultimately, supernatural, but also because (as I have tried to suggest) it is quite unnatural, and a quite unnatural way of life follows from it, a way of life that contradicts the way the world and his wife go about their business. For if we are introducing Adam to the new way of life of Jesus, we will try to teach him not to become an earning, shopping, and consuming machine, ever agitated and restless, or someone who wants to be “famous”, but a human being who is happy in his own skin and, above all, grateful just to be. We will also try to teach him not to become a cunning climber and schemer, ever out for Number One, but a human being whose Yes is Yes and No is No, who doesn’t deceive or discard other people but puts them first. And, finally, we will also try to teach him not to become an eye-for-an-eye kind of guy but a turn-the-cheek kind of geek, who is kind to everyone, who takes a punch rather than gives one, who prays for those who wish him ill, who lives at peace even with his enemies.

Yes, all this is so radically counter-cultural, for it clearly involves living an exposed and vulnerable life, a life at considerable risk, a life on which the “health and safety” bureaucrats might like to slap a restraining order, a life that might incur suffering in some contexts, even if only ridicule, for its eccentricity, in our own.

That’s why bringing your child for baptism – some may think it’s sweet; in fact, it is quite heroic. If you want a life of ease, pleasure, and success, a gated and protected life among your own, then the last thing you want to be is baptised. If, however, you want a life full of real meaning and lasting purpose, the kind of life God wants us to live, the kind of life, in Jesus, God shows us how to live; if you want a life that is not ephemeral but eternal, a life not just for now but forever, life as it is going to be when God completes his work in progress, life that begins even now, in the sacrament of baptism that proclaims the old world going and a new world coming, and calls us to live tomorrow’s life today – then you’ve come to just the right pace, you’re taking part in just the right occasion, you’re watching a sneak preview of the end of time as we know it, and the beginning of time as you couldn’t imagine it in your wildest dreams.

Today, the Lord says, “Adam, welcome to my world!” Indeed God’s invitation is always open to everyone to enter this strange new household of the church, and this strange new world of being a Christian.

Kim Fabricius, 'Welcome to My World: A Baptismal Sermon', July 2010 (originally posted here)


Reflections on the Council of the BUGB's New Statement on Same Sex Marriage

Preamble

Last week I posted that Council were to meet and part of their agenda was to reflect again on same sex marriage. Following their meeting they have issued a new statement, which appeared on Monday morning. (A copy was emailed to ministers on Friday afternoon).

I am part of a Baptist church that is not planning to register as a place where same sex marriages can be held.

As a minister I do not feel at the moment in a position where I could conduct a same sex marriage.

I do though have good friends who take a position of wanting to affirm same sex marriage in the church. I would happily be a member of any of their churches and would happily share in ministry with them. 

I continue to be open to engage theologically, biblically and pastorally around this issue. In my mind this is not a settled issue.

I am not troubled that other churches and other ministers might come to a place of affirming and celebrating same sex marriage. 

I recognise that as Christians we will come to different positions, and that every view on homosexuality - those that affirm and those that are against - have strengths and weaknesses. 

In the words of one friend, we always read the Bible 'in the fray and on the way', in fact, I suggest our relationship with God is always one in the fray and on the way. As American Baptists Curtis Freeman and Steven Harmon have argued recently, Baptists are a pilgrim people, both historically and theologically. 

Our engagement as a Union on the question of homosexuality I think has been a too narrow one. We have not even begun to engage with the conversation that is taking place biblically and theologically amongst theologians and biblical scholars. We have not adequately considered the biblical and theological arguments of those who have come to affirm LBGT relationships, which while they may not convince all, do demonstrate that this again is not a settled issue.

With this preamble in view, I am disappointed by the statement the Baptist Union Council agreed last week. On first reading I didn't think it was too bad, further readings worry me more. On the plus side it has not overturned the 2014 statement and there are some gaps in the new statement that give space for churches to continue to dissent from what is claimed is the Union's view. (For my reflections on 2014 statement see here).

In the accompanying letter to the statement, the Union's General Secretary Lynn Green mentions that 'we identified from the outset that our aim was to reach a settled place on this issue.' First of all I'm not sure who the 'we' refers to - the Council, the Steering Group, the Trustees? Second, I am unconvinced that we can reach a settled view on same sex relationships. Council making a statement does not mean we have reached a settled view. (While we have adopted the name Baptists Together, I am of the view that the changes to the Union, implemented in 2012, have made us more fragmentary.) I would prefer that we see this as an ongoing conversation and the most recent statement is where the Council discerns we are currently.

Churches and individuals have been invited to contribute to the Union's attempt to reach a settled place on this issue via an email address that is called 'talkingtogether' -  how can we be talking together, when those who might contribute a view by email are not part of the talking together - there is no opportunity to hear what others have said. The Council are talking together but that is not the same as the Union. While the Union held one (good) session at the 2013 Assembly, this has not be repeated. In the five years I have been part of my Association at no point have we 'talked together' about homosexuality.

I am troubled that we can have 'profound disagreement' over other issues - women in ministry, the use of violence, what constitutes Christian economics, etc - and yet we make no statement that seeks to ask churches to refrain from not allowing women to preach or lead. We live with the difference, even though I am more troubled and more angered by those that seek to deny women as ministers of the gospel. Why must the profound disagreement over the issue of same sex marriage require us to make a statement that 'humbly urges churches to refrain' from conducting marriages of this kind?

Lynn speaks of the 'way we discern' as being as important as 'what we discern.' I think the way we discern can be done better. The way we discern at the moment is churches or individuals are encouraged to make their views known and then Council discerns. I would like to see an improvement in the way we discern:

    1. Recover the practice of Listening Days. Twice during the 1990s the General and Deputy Secretary toured the Associations, holding listening days about the future of the Union.

    2. For Associations to take much more seriously gathering together for discernment. Again in many cases the view of an Association is not a view of the churches that belong to it, but the Trustees/Council.

   3. See Assembly as a place of discernment that complements the work of the Council. This of course is very difficult with the current one day Assembly format (which will continue until 2017).

Reflections on the Statement

'The Union's historic Biblical understanding of marriage' I guess is reflected in the ministerial rules, rather than any other kind of historic statement made by Council or Assembly. Has the Union ever reflected on a theology of marriage? I am equally troubled by the language of 'Biblical', because we use it as trump card. The use of 'biblical' reflects a conservative evangelical doctrine of Scripture that claims the text has one meaning and we can know that one meaning. (John Colwell's chapter on scripture in Promise and Presence is one example that challenges this view). Marriage in the Bible is not the same as we understand Christian marriage in 21st Century.

It is good to see that the Declaration of Principle comes first in the statement. The statements refers to 'the potential for some diversity in pastoral and missional practice'. Does this mean there is room for diversity also in theology, of which I am sure there is lots. The Declaration of Principle emerged out of the two Baptist streams - Calvinist and Arminian - joining together to form the Union without their convictions about the gospel being required to change. Theologically the Union has never been uniform, outside of a shared conviction of being trinitarian. 

The second part of the statement refers to mission and the need for churches to engage in mission with imagination and compassion. Does that give space for churches to engage with the LBGT community in different ways. I suggest there is so room here.

The final part of the statement is the more contentious bit. The first paragraph is helpful - it acknowledges genuine and deep disagreement and there is tension around the fact some churches are registering their buildings for same sex marriage. It then adds the need for God's grace to enable us to walk together. All good.

The final paragraph sets out how this should be outworked. The Council first asks that 'we humbly urge churches who are considering conducting same-sex marriages to refrain from doing so out of mutual respect.' I'm not sure that this follows from the previous paragraphs around freedom and mission. It seeks to stop churches exercising their freedom. The key words are 'mutual respect.' It secondly asks that 'we also humbly urge all churches to remain committed to our Union out of mutual respect.' This second sentence appears to give room for churches to dissent from the Council's view and asks other churches and/or Associations to remain committed to the Union, where this might take place. (Of course it might also be read that those who might affirm LBGT relationships are being asked not to leave the Union.) Again the basis is 'mutual respect.' The strength of the statement and its interpretation will be to hold these two sentences together. 

The statement does leave a lot of questions unanswered. If a church does decide to go forward and conduct same-sex marriages, what consequences will there be? The statement gives more power to those churches and associations that are seeking to discipline and remove said churches from relationship. (I don't think it is unfair to say that is what they were pushing for.) Here we will have to see whether they heed the call to remain committed to the Union out of 'mutual respect'.

To remove a church from an Association does not mean removal from the Union and so it may create the need for a new non-geographical association (although that would need Council and Assembly approval) or to see those churches joining another Association. None of this could happen with a real possibility of churches leaving the Union. There is also the question on what basis are churches members of associations, is it on the basis of the Declaration of Principle, which it is does not make it entirely straight forward for Associations to override the autonomy of a church meeting. We will have to wait and see how this plays out, but the issue is definitely not settled.


40 Days of Baptism: 34

I offer today 3 pictures of the baptism of Jesus. 

Baptism_of_christ_from_a_gospel_t_shirt-rd68af25931c04965b4ae3faf4c38d9d2_imtb4_1024This pictures comes from 1330, it is from an Armenian Cathedral in Iran. It also appears on the front cover of Curtis Freeman's Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists (Baylor, 2015).  Baptism-of-christ-1450(1) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is Piero Della Francesca's painting from 1450 and can be seen in the National Gallery, London.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 The River 2

This painting is called 'The River' and is by John August Swanson (1987). At the bottom is Jesus being baptised and then above are all these other persons using the river.


40 Days of Baptism: 33

Will Willimon tells a story of baptism.

Once upon a time I went out to a small rural church to baptize a twelve-year-old boy whom a pastor had been instructing in the faith. I was happy to oblige until the pastor said, “Jeremy very much wants to be immersed. Can you do that?”

“Er, uh, sure. I can do that,” I said, unwilling to admit that I had rarely baptized anyone by immersion.

I arrived at the church that Sunday morning, and sure enough, there was the pastor standing on the front steps of the little church with a small boy.

“Jeremy, this is the bishop,” the pastor said proudly. “It’s an honor for you to be baptized by the bishop.”

Young Jeremy looked me over and said only, “They tell me you don’t do many of these. I’d feel better if we had a run-through beforehand.”

“That was just what I was going to suggest,” I said.

We went into the church’s fellowship hall where the pastor showed me their newly purchased font, dressed up by a carpenter in the congregation, surrounded by pots of flowers. Jeremy said, “After you say the words, then you take my hand and lead me up these steps, and do you want me to take off my socks?”

“Er, uh, you can leave them on if you want,” I said.

Well, we had a wonderful service that Sunday. I preached on baptism, the choir sang a baptismal anthem then the whole congregation recessed into the fellowship hall and gathered around the font. I went through the baptismal ritual. Then I asked Jeremy if he had anything to say to the congregation before his baptism.

“Yes, I do. I just want to say to all of you that I’m here today because of you. When my parents got divorced, I thought my world was over. But you stood by me. You told me the stories about Jesus. And I just want to say to you today thanks for what you did for me. I intend to make you proud as I’m going to try to live my life the way Jesus wants.”

Though I’m now weeping profusely (Jeremy asked, as I led him up the steps into the pool, “Are you going to be OK?”), I baptized Jeremy and the church sang a great “Hallelujah!”

Baptism is God’s word in water that saves. Not that the church necessarily says that we are saved by this ritual, but rather baptism gathers up all the meanings of Christian salvation and demonstrates those in word and water. The dying-rising dynamic that is signified in baptism is at the heart of salvation in Christ. The church promises that this has happened to you, is happening, will happen to you in your salvation.

William H. Willimon, Who Will Be Saved? (Abingdon, 2008), pp.29-30


40 Days of Baptism: 32

Flannery O’Connor's short novel The River is a shocking story, in which a baptism lies at the centre. Below is the extract of Harry Ashfield's baptism in the river.

“Listen to what I got to say, you people!  There ain’t but one river and that’s the River of Life, made out of Jesus’s blood.  That’s the river you have to lay your pain in, in the River of Faith, in the River of Life, in the River of Love, in the rich red river of Jesus’ blood, you people! …. All the rivers come from that one River and go back to it like it was the ocean sea and if  you believe, you can lay your pain in that River and get rid of it because that’s the River that was made to carry sin.  It’s a River full of pain itself, pain itself, moving toward the Kingdom of Christ, to be washed away, slow, you people, slow as this here old red water river around my feet.”

“If I Baptize you,” the preacher said, “you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ.  You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life.  Do you want that?”

“Yes,” the child said, and thought I won’t go to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.

“You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said.  “You’ll count.”….

Suddenly the preacher said, “All right, I’m going to Baptize you now,” and without more warning, he tightened his hold and swung him upside down and plunged his head into the water.  He held him under while he said the words of Baptism and then he jerked him up again and looked sternly at the gasping child.

[The child’s] eyes were dark and dilated.  “You count now,” the preacher said.

“You didn’t even count before.”

Flannery O’Connor, The River in A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955)


40 Days of Baptism: 31

Another short reading of baptism, this time from the theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The book Nachfolge, from which today's quotation can be found, was published in German in 1937, in the years of Nazi government of Germany. 

Baptism thus implies a break. Christ invades the realm of Satan and lays hold of those who belong to him thereby creating his church-community. Past and present are torn asunder. The old has passed away, all things have become new. The break does not come about by our breaking our chains out of an unquenchable thirst to see our life and all things ordered in a new and free away. Long ago, Christ himself has already bought about that break. In baptism this break now also takes effect in our own lives.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (SCM, 2015 [1937, ET= 1948]), p.170.


40 Days of Baptism: 30

 Marilynne Robinson is regarded as one of the greatest living novelists, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for her novel Gilead. The novel should be required reading for everyone going into church ministry. Gilead has been followed by two sequels - Home and Lila, which explore the same events of Gilead, but from the perspective of a different character. Gilead tells the story of a congregationalist pastor called John Ames. In this section of the novel, Ames remember when, as a child, he once baptised a litter of cats! (There is another baptism scene in Lila as well.)

 Now, this might seem a trivial thing to mention, considering the gravity of the subject, but I truly don’t feel it is… Once we baptized a litter of cats. They were dusty little barn cats just steady on their legs, the kind of waifish creatures that live their anonymous lives keeping the mice down and have no interest in humans at all, except to avoid them. But the animals all seem to start out sociable, so we were all pleased to find new kittens prowling out of whatever cranny their mother had tried to hide them in, as ready to play as we were… I myself moistened their brows, repeating the full Trinitarian formula.

Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another. We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a great deal. So finally I asked my father in the most offhand way imaginable what exactly would happen to a cat if one were to, say, baptize it. He replied that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. That wasn’t really an answer to my question. We did respect the sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats. I got his meaning, though, and I did no more baptizing until was ordained.

Two or three of that litter were taken home by the girls and made into fairly respectable house cats. Louisa took a yellow one. She still had it when we were married. The others lived out their feral lives, indistinguishable from their kind, whether pagan or Christian no one could ever tell. She called her cat Sparkle, for the white patch on its forehead. It disappeared finally… One of the boys said she should have named it Sprinkle. He was a Baptist, a firm believer in total immersion, which those cats should have been grateful I was not. He told us no effect at all could be achieved by our methods, and we could not prove him wrong…

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time…

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (Virago Press, 2004), pp. 25-27.

 


40 Days of Baptism: 29

Today's story of baptism is from Robert Webber reflecting on what brought him to baptism. The son of a Baptist pastor, Webber wrote a lot about worship and especially how the worship practices of the past might be important for the church of the future.

At the age of twelve, I was sitting in the kitchen eating a snack when my father pulled up a chair, sat down beside me, and looking me in the eye said, 'Robert, don't you think it is time to be baptised?' I had not given a great deal of thought to being baptised. I was a Christian, to be sure. I grew up in a strict Christian home, and while my faith was the faith of the family, I had not doubt or disbelief. Still, I found my father's question to be haunting, even challenging. for the first time in my life I was asked to affirm the faith that was mine by family environment. The question raised doubt in my mind. Was this a faith I could personally embrace? I was only twelve, so the level of doubt and the quality of my questions were superficial. After a time of personal reflection I said to my father, "I want to be baptised."

I don't remember receiving any training before baptism. I think I saw baptism as my affirmation of my faith. Though baptism was taken seriously, that particular community seemed to have little understanding of how life-changing baptism could really be. So coming to baptism in the Montgomery Baptist Church in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania, was important, but it was not nearly as significant as the Scriptures teach and as ancient Christians practiced when they baptism reveals the daily pattern of the spiritual life.

I do not recall everything surrounding the event. I do remember one very powerful question my father, the pastor, asked me as we stood in the water. "Robert," he said, "do you reject the devil and all his works?" I was only twelve. I did not even know all the works of the devil! Even though my dad had not reviewed this question with me, I knew what my answer was supposed to be, so I said, "I do!" not really knowing what that meant in the full sense. I certainly did not realise that I was renouncing my connection with fallen Adam and the cultures of fallenness and embracing union with Jesus and a pattern of life revealed in his life.

Robert W. Webber, The Divine Embrace: Rediscovering the Passionate Spiritual Life (Baker, 2006), p.183.