Take Me to the Water: Ideas for keeping baptism front and center
An extensive list of hymns and psalms relating to baptism are available here.
The theology of baptism has undergone a striking reformation in the last fifty years. So has the practice of baptism, at least in some respects. Some churches have larger, more visible fonts now. Composers have written some wonderful new baptismal hymns. Congregations may introduce a newly baptized child by walking the child through the aisles during the singing of a hymn; some also give gifts to celebrate the baptism.
But the practice of the sacrament of baptism still tends to be quite individualistic or even sentimental. Too often we neglect baptism’s missional focus to go into all the world to make disciples, baptizing them (Matt. 28:19). Or we overlook the element of entering into the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:3-6). Even when we introduce something like the Paschal (Easter) Vigil, we sometimes downplay or miss altogether its integral relationship with baptism.
Luther urged Christians to practice the daily renewal of the baptismal covenant by placing a hand on the head each morning and saying, “I am a baptized person, and today I will live out my baptism.” And Calvin says that our propensity toward evil never ceases, but we take courage because what “begins in our baptism” must be pursued every day until it is perfected when we go to be with the Lord (Institutes, 4, 15, 11).
Baptismal renewal must also be reflected in our services of worship. This means baptism, in all its power, must again become visible in all our worship services—not only when the sacrament of baptism is administered, but every Sunday.
The Multiple Meanings of Baptism
Christian baptism carries a multitude of meanings:
- Participation in Christ’s death and resurrection and union with Jesus Christ in his work.
- Cleansing, new birth, forgiveness of sin, a deepening of commitment, and conversion to a more holy life.
- Incorporation into the body of Christ and a commitment to service in the church.
- The gift of the Holy Spirit and empowerment to reach out in mission.
- A sign of the kingdom and of eschatology.
Whenever any of these is emphasized in a service of worship, it is appropriate to have the worship leader preside from the baptismal font. What are the possibilities for the font as a “place” for liturgical leadership? believe there should be water in the font at every service of worship, and that the congregation should be able to see (and hear) that water. There are a myriad of ways to emphasize, both verbally and by symbolic action, the centrality of baptism and of living the baptized life. Let the people “feel” these relationships.
Ways to Remember Our Baptism
Here are several suggestions for reminding God’s people of the importance and centrality of baptism.
•Service of Confession. It seems most appropriate that the minister lead the Prayer of Confession from the font. The Assurance of Forgiveness might be as follows:
Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa. 1:18). [While saying these words, lift water from the font, letting it fall back visibly and audibly.] Brothers and sisters, believe the good news of the gospel: in Jesus Christ your sins are forgiven; they are washed away [again lifting the water].
Thanks be to God.
- Apostles’ Creed. Leading the Apostles’ Creed from the font would be an excellent opportunity to teach the congregation that this is the historic baptismal creed of the church, and that in saying it, we affirm our unity and our common commitment with all Christians of all time and all places.
- Lord’s Supper. Every celebration of the Lord’s Supper is an occasion of baptismal renewal. Paul’s Romans 6 discourse on baptism proclaims the Lord’s saving death until he comes. And in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5, Paul links the manna with the water of renewal, relating both to the Passover. Again in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8, the Passover and the feast are placed together. We can almost think of baptism (the bath by which we enter the family) and the Lord’s Supper (the meal by which we are sustained at the family table) as two expressions of one sacrament, which is the paschal saving act of God in Jesus Christ. In order to make this connection clear to the congregation, the minister can occasionally extend the invitation to the table from the font. Or the minister can lead the prayer after communion from the font as a reminder that we are to go forth nourished to live out our baptism.
- Call to Service. A call to commitment, to mission, to stewardship, or any kind of service can be more powerful and convincing if issued from the font, connecting the congregation to the baptismal imperative to “go into all the world.” This also emphasizes the real purpose of mission, which is to build up the body, not to accumulate numbers or reach financial goals.
- Celebrations of the renewal of baptism, including receiving new members from another congregation, installing new church officers or teachers, sending out mission groups, and professions of faith.
- Weddings. See page 23 for a brief service of baptismal renewal as part of the celebration of Christian marriage.
- Funerals. As Calvin stresses in the Institutes and Paul stresses in Romans 6, baptism has to do with death (see also Mark 10:38-40). So it is appropriate that some significant portion of the funeral liturgy for a baptized Christian be led from the font.
- Other occasions. Any celebration of heightened spiritual awareness—a recovery of health, the birth of a child or grandchild, a new job, a return from an inspirational event or conference, or an experience of the amazing grace of God—can include a renewal of the baptismal covenant and be led from the font.
Often a person’s request to “be rebaptized” comes from his or her desire to express deepening spiritual awareness. Such desires should be encouraged, though channeled to occasions of baptismal renewal rather than rebaptism.
Be creative and diligent in seeking and finding ways to make worshipers aware of the many-faceted meanings of baptism. Give the gift of water, a part of daily experience that can be charged with meaning, as a reminder of our Christian commitment. Daily washing and drinking can become reminders of faith and occasions of devotion and recommitment (1 Cor. 10:3). Just as our feasting at the Lord’s table becomes a lesson in how we should eat our daily meals, so repeated exposure to the water of our baptism in our weekly worship will redound to our awareness of baptismal meaning, and to the glory of God.
After all, baptism is the “root sacrament.” Help your congregation to see baptism and the font as basic to their worship and to their daily life. Have a working font in your church.
Renewal of Baptism in a Service of Christian Marriage
The service begins with the pastor and the wedding party gathering around the baptismal font, or after the processional, going to the font with the couple. After a short statement of the gift of Christian marriage and the reason for our gathering, with reference to our Lord’s blessing of marriage, the pastor pours water, visibly and audibly, into the font.
Declaration of Intent
Pastor: [Names], years ago, your parents brought you into a place like this and presented you for Christian baptism. At that time you received the sign and seal of God’s steadfast love and were welcomed into God’s kingdom. God put his hand on you and called you to be in union with Christ, his Son and his body, the church. Since that day, you have made your profession of faith in Jesus Christ and have sought to serve him as your Savior and Lord.
Today is a bright new day for you. But first we are called back to that long-ago day of your baptism that affects this one mightily. That day God welcomed you into the covenant community. That day you came under the sign of Christ’s death and resurrection, of dying daily to sin, and rising each day to live the covenant life of righteousness and thankful obedience. Today I ask you, Do you affirm your baptism, do you affirm your faith in Jesus Christ, and do you intend to honor your calling as a child of God and as a member of his body through the covenant of marriage you make today?
Couple: I do. I remember my baptism and I here make covenant to live my baptism daily.
[The couple may dip their fingers or hands in the water and touch their own or each others’ heads. This should be done without words. But use pastoral discretion; avoid the impression that this is a re-baptism.]
Affirmation of the Families
[The parents are asked to stand.]
Pastor: Today [Names] leave their families to begin a new home.
[Parents’ names], do you give your blessing to [Names], and do you promise to do everything in your power to uphold them in their covenant of marriage?
Parents: We give our blessing and promise our loving support.
[The parents of the bride and groom may be seated.]
Affirmation of the Congregation
Pastor: Will all of you witnessing these vows do everything in your power to uphold [Names] in their covenant of marriage?
Congregation: We will.
[The Affirmation of the Families and of the Congregation are placed immediately after the Declaration of Intent so as to affirm the body and the nature of the covenant.]
—John Schuurman, pastor, Wheaton (Ill.) Christian Reformed Church
Note: I have personally found the inclusion of this brief service of the renewal of baptism to be very meaningful, and it has been well received by our church. It reminds the people who understand Christian baptism that we are called back again and again to the essential first things before we press on with our exciting plans. Here our baptism (and its relationship to Christ’s death and resurrection—see Romans 6) is incorporated ritually into the marriage service. And it reminds us all that the relationship of which baptism is a sign and seal is at the threshold of all our new days (see 2 Cor. 5:17).
This service linking a believing couple with their baptism, and thus with the Lord Jesus, lets those who know little about the church and Christian baptism in on the narrative character of God’s people’s lives as they are lived before God. The congregation gets a sense that this rite still has claims on these bright new days.
Prayers for a Renewal of Baptism Service
Prayer for Renewal
Gracious God, through water and the Spirit you claimed us as your own servants and priests to bring the world to you.
Deliver us, O God from the way of sin and death. Cleanse us from sin and give us new life. Open our hearts to grace and truth and bind us to your service.
Renew us in the covenant you made with us in baptism. Keep us in the faith and communion of your church. Fill us with the power of your Holy Spirit. Send us into our daily tasks to be witnesses to your love.
Empower us to strive for peace and justice in all the earth. Enable us to serve you with joy, and bring us at last to your kingdom beyond the final river.
Grant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ the Son may live in the power of his resurrection, and look for him to come in glory, who lives and reigns, now and forever. Amen.
Prayer of Confession
Eternal God, our judge and redeemer, you delivered us through water, but we long to return to Egypt.
Your Word calms the storm, but we timidly cower in fear.
Your justice would flow down like rivers, but we obstruct its flow.
You bid us bathe and be healed, but we limp and struggle in pain.
Have mercy on us, and cleanse us, Lord God. Deliver us and grace us with joy, that we may die daily to sin and rise daily to new life in Jesus’ resurrection. Grant us the gift of your grace that we might always give glory to your name, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In the beginning, O God, your Spirit moved over the water, and you created all that is, seen and unseen.
We give you thanks for the gift of water that sustains all life.
In the time of Noah, you destroyed evil in the water of the flood; and by your saving ark, you gave a new beginning.
We give you thanks for new beginnings.
You led Israel through the sea, out of slavery into the freedom of the promised land.
We give you thanks for the gift of freedom and the gift of the land.
In the water of the Jordan our Lord was baptized by John and anointed by your Spirit; by the baptism of his death and resurrection, Christ set us free from sin and death and opened the way to eternal life.
We give you thanks for our own baptism and the gift of eternal life.
The Lamb has come to lead us to springs of living water.
We give you thanks for the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.
We pledge ourselves to be servants to others, to seek not our own good, but to care for the hungry and thirsty people of the world.
We renew our baptismal covenant with you, O God, praying for the strength to be faithful in all things, to your glory and for the service of your people. Amen.
A Unison Prayer
O God, we rejoice in your grace, given and received. We thank you that you have claimed us, that you wash us, strengthen us, and guide us, that you empower us to live a life worthy of our calling.
Make us as water in a dry and thirsty world. Make us places of refreshment. Root us and establish us in love, that with all your people, we may rightly and justly serve you.
Fill us with your fullness that our lives may overflow in service and love, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A Prayer of Commitment
As we were buried with Christ in our baptism, so we rise with him to new life by turning from sin and turning to righteousness. Therefore, let us renew our profession and affirm our commitment to Christ and his church.
Do you believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the church, in the resurrection, and in the life eternal?
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers?
Will you hear the word of God and proclaim it?
Will you seek to serve Christ in all people, striving for justice and peace?
Let us pray.
O Lord our God, in the death and resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ, you have bound us to your service. We know that you are faithful to the covenant you made with us in our baptism—that through water and the Spirit we may be empowered to perform the service set before us. So we reaffirm our covenant with you, to be your people, your servants, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.