Transformational Baptism

The climactic scene of Matthew’s gospel describes the risen Christ standing with his disciples in Galilee as he gives them final instructions. He tells them to go and “make disciples of all nations.” As Jesus invited each of them to follow him and to form a community with each other, Jesus now asks them to invite others to come into communities of discipleship. He institutionalizes his own method of community organizing: inviting people into relationship with a leader and then with each other.

Then the risen Christ adds a new component, one he did not use with his own disciples: “Baptize them.” After instructing them to invite people into a community of discipleship and sacramentally include them through baptism, only then does Christ tell his followers to teach new disciples to “obey everything that I have commanded you.”

For the risen Christ, for his disciples, and for the first generation of those who followed them, the primary purpose of evangelism and the sacrament of baptism was helping people form relationships with God (known in Christ through the Holy Spirit) and with other disciples.

By its very nature, baptism creates and transforms relationships. In Paul’s baptismal theology, we are joined to God’s family and we become new people because of who Christ is, not because of who we are or what we have done. As Paul writes,

In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3:26-29, NRSV).

In baptism, the primary relationship we have to each other in Christ, we are joined with one another, our identity is changed, and we see others with new eyes beyond the categories of our prevailing culture. Paul writes of baptism and its capacity to make us new creations more often than he writes of the Lord’s Supper. Clearly, for Paul and the early church, the transformational nature of baptism stood at the center of Christian community.

Today, however, we might wonder whether we are more concerned with the doctrinal knowledge of the parents or adult baptized rather than with the opportunity for a transformational relationship with the God who is at work in the sacrament. Certainly baptism requires both knowledge and a relationship, but is the balance off?

Relationships over Requirements

How can our churches recapture the energy, excitement, and transformational possibilities inherent in baptism? How can we make baptism more than a naming ceremony or an opportunity to celebrate a new baby? How can we make the web of relationships created in each baptism more tangible and transformational for teenage and adult Christians? Can baptism be the center of church renewal as it once was the center of church creation?

Perhaps the first issue to be considered is the reticence of many churches to freely offer the sacrament of baptism to those peripheral to their congregations. Many times clergy are approached to baptize the grandchild of a member, a child whose parents may or may not be involved in any church; or to baptize the child of strangers who simply call the church or appear at the office. In these cases clergy talk about “indiscriminate baptism” and struggle with wanting to say no.

Many of us erect barriers to baptism by requiring parents to participate in pre-membership or pre-baptismal classes (or both), often placing more emphasis on the acceptance of correct doctrine by parents or adult candidates than on the potential for relationship creation. If we look at the New Testament models, which are more concerned with relationships than with doctrine, it is time to reconsider these barriers.

If baptism is to mean anything, people need to be taught about the sacrament’s riches and depth and its lifelong implications.

This does not mean doing away with preparation at all, for if baptism is to mean anything, people need to be taught about the sacrament’s riches and depth and its lifelong implications. All of the preparatory work, however, needs to be seen as an invitation and not as a barrier promoting exclusivity. Preparation needs to focus more on relationships than requirements. Yes, it is possible that the congregation will never see this family again, but it is also possible that strands of a web have begun to form, strands we cannot yet see.

Opportunities for Anamnesis

Baptism can be the root of the lived theology of our congregations. In the midst of faith and life crises at any age, we can remember our baptisms and our deep link with one another and God in water and Spirit. As we struggle in family or work or community relationships, as we struggle through all human divisions, we are called to remember that through baptism we see others now in the light of Christ, as kin under God. As we consider our relationship with the earth, we remember that we were baptized not just with words, but in water—the very stuff that binds our bodies to all creation.

In order to remember all this, however, we need tangible prompts on a regular basis. Baptism needs to become anamnetic, as the Lord’s Supper is. Anamnesis is remembering a past action by ritually bringing it into the present. It means more than remembering intellectually, but experiencing in body and spirit what was and is now. Traditionally this concept has been applied to the Eucharist alone, with the anamnesis being the prayer following the words of institution in many liturgies—a prayer that calls us to expect the presence of Christ in the meal. For those of us who were baptized as small children, renewing our baptisms calls us to remember something of which many of us have no memory but is part of our very being.

In order for this to happen for those who have already been baptized, our worship needs to offer opportunities for bringing this spiritual and physical remembering into the present. A number of Christian traditions include renewal of baptism ceremonies at specific times of the church year: on Easter eve, during Epiphany, or on Baptism of Jesus Sunday in January. Hearing the words, feeling the water sprinkled on by hand or branches, and reaffirming the desire to be baptized disciples of Jesus can be anamnetic in effect. Renewal days are also an opportunity to invite adults who may not have been baptized to consider doing so.

The font itself can function as an anamnetic device. Many Protestant churches do not have their baptismal fonts in prominent places. If the font is mobile, consider placing it at the entrance to the sanctuary so that people are reminded weekly of baptism. If it is not, then at least have it open and filled with water and encourage people to notice it with a spoken or written invitation.

As clergy, worship committees, and liturgical planners begin to imagine the possibilities, ideas for recentering baptism in the life of a relational, missonal, inclusive church will abound. The Great Commission and the theology and practice of the early churches call renewal-seeking churches to enter the web of anamnetic remembering: I am because of who Christ is. I am because we are. I am baptized.

Rochelle A. Stackhouse serves as senior pastor of Church of the Redeemer (United Church of Christ) in New Haven, Connecticut and lecturer in preaching and supervised ministry at Yale Divinity School.

Reformed Worship 110 © December 2013, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.