Friday, October 2, 2009

Baptism: Coming and Going

John Calvin defines baptism as "the sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted in Christ, we may be reckoned among God's children"(Inst.4, 15, 1).

Far be it from me to argue with that emphasis. Baptism is indeed a welcoming act by which certain of God’s children are numbered among the people of the church of Jesus Christ. Words like “initiation,” “received,” “engrafted,” and “reckoned among,” reinforce such an idea.

The problem, as I see it, is that we have too often and too easily left it at that. More than a “welcoming” act, however, baptism is also a “sending” act.

As a welcoming act, the baptized is brought into the koinonia of God’s people to be nurtured and instructed and brought to the maturity of faith. This is true for any adult baptized as well as for children. At the same time, the baptized dies and is raised to new life in Christ, called to live that life now with Christ in the world. Here the person is called to diakonia, the serving ministry of the church. And this should begin for children at baptism as well as for adults.

Baptism starts the pulse beat of the church: koinonia and diakonia, coming and going, welcomed and sent. Baptism is not just a pleasant diversion. It is not sweet and pastel. It’s a matter of life and death, the life and death of the church and all of us in it. It’s all about taking risks, living dangerously, following Christ. Baptism is a cross-grabbing, fearful undertaking, and no one, no one should be allowed to take it lightly. We forget our baptisms to our peril.

When our task group on Daily Prayer and the Psalter met at St. Meinrad’s Seminary many years ago, we prayed with the monks morning and evening. Just inside each door to the massive church was a water-holder, each one a stone replica of the wooden baptismal font in the church I served, a font where infants had been brought and adults came to stand with heads bowed to be bathed in Christ’s presence. The connection was obvious.

As the monks entered, each one reached to the water-holder and dipped their fingers to moisten their foreheads as they began the sign of the cross. At the end of the prayer time, on their way out, they did exactly the same thing.

Being in a Roman Catholic monastery, some of us Protestant types decided to do as the Romans were doing. Coming in each time, morning and night, I dipped my hand in the font’s water and, with the sign of the cross, reminded myself of my baptism, how I was welcomed into the Body of Christ called the church. Going out each time I remembered my baptism, how I died and was born again to become the Body of Christ in the world. Maybe, just maybe, the monks were on to something.

The cumulative effect was—and is—that I became much more conscious of the power of baptism, the powerful place of baptism in my own life. I also realized how we need to do much more to make our congregations more aware of both aspects of baptism in the course of Lord’s Day worship.

How does baptism show in the Lord’s Day worship of your congregation as koinonia and diakonia? What more could you do?


  1. Several years ago I made the same connection between the Baptismal font and the "holy water font" at the front of an RC church. Coming from that tradition ( and 5 years in the seminary) I question whether any catholics ever had it explained that way. I know I didn't.

  2. I appreciate the comments about Calvin's view of baptism. It sparks an idea about our service on Reformation Sunday. Perhaps we could pass a bowl and ask people to reconfirm their own baptisms that way. It reminds us that we lost some catholic practices as a result of reforming.

  3. I think clearly we lost the substantative meaning of our baptisms as we have moved through the last thirty or more years of the previous century because of the placement of the font in many churches. In the churches I have served I moved the font to the front of the sanctuary in plain view and each Sunday as part of the welcome stood by it and poured water into it reminding the congregation of their baptism and what it means. In addition, during the assurance of pardon I stood next to it and frequently dipped my hands in the water splashing it as the reminder once again of our dying and rising to new life with Christ, sometimes using the words of Paul. Now, I might use it as a way of sending and coupling it with the charge and benediction.
    Making the font part of the continuing worship of the church and remembering our baptism part of the continuing worship of the church I think creates the strong bond between ritual and meaning for the life of the disciple that you have written about. It is one way to keep baptism out of the sentimental and pastel, spiritual innoculation realm that it has too often fallen prey to in many congregations.


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