One Lord, Four Questions, and Three Stories
The morning worship service is well under way. God's greeting and his people's praise have already been sounded. Sins have been confessed and forgiven. The order of worship calls for "Profession of Faith and Holy Baptism." We listen and watch expectantly.
Minister: Brothers and sisters in Christ, today we are privileged to welcome into the communicant membership of the church four persons who have come to profess their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. As I call their names, they will come forward to testify to their faith and commitment before God and his people. Will Patrick Dumas please come forward?
Patrick arises from his seat near the back, walks down the aisle, and meets the minister at the baptismal font.
Minister: Patrick, you were baptized at St. Andrews Catholic Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on July 13,1953. On that day, God pictured and sealed his promises to you in Christ to cleanse you from sin and adopt you as his child into his family. Do you believe those promises?
Patrick Yes, I do.
Minister: Jane Foster.
Everyone watches as Jane joins the minister and Patrik at the font.
Minister: Jane, you were baptized from this font in this church on January 22, 1973. On that day, God pictured and sealed his promises to you in Christ to cleanse you from sin and adopt you as his child into his family. Do you believe those promises?
Jane: Yes, I do, and I thank my family and all the people in this church who helped me through hard times and showed me how to live for Christ.
Minister: Mike Hansen.
Mike negotiates his way down the aisle in his wheelchair and parks before the barrier-free baptismal font.
Minister: Mike, God in Christ has promised to cleanse you from sin and adopt you as his child into his family. In your baptism today, those promises will be pictured and sealed to you. Do you believe those promises?
Mike: I do, with all my heart.
Karen Jackson, who was baptized at New Hope Baptist Church on September 20,1981, responds to her name, comes forward, answers the question, and completes the circle around the font.
The minister asks the confessors to respond individually to three questions. (If the church is Christian Reformed, four questions are typically asked. However, in the service as it is taking place here, the question about faith in the promises of God wich are pictured and sealed in baptism has already been answered. Clearly, the professions of faith which are taking place now are closely related to baptism, whether the baptism have already occurred or will take place during this service.)
First, do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God sent to redeem the world, do you love and trust him as the one who saves you from your sin, and do you with repentance and joy embrace him as Lord of your life?
Second, do you believe that the Bible is the Word of God revealing Christ and his redemption, and that the confessions of this church faithfully reflect this revelation?
Third, Do you promise to do all you can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to strengthen your love and commitment to Christ by sharing faithfully in the life of the church, honoring and submitting to its authority; and do you join with the people of God in doing the work of the Lord everywhere?
After the confessors have responded to the questions, Mike Hansen bows to receive the sign of holy baptism. Following the baptism, the congregation arises to speak words of welcome which are printed in the bulletin, to proclaim with the confessors the faith of the church in the words of the Apostles' Creed, and to sing a triumphant hymn.
The prayer of thanksgiving that concludes the service of profession of faith also prepares the church to hear the Word of God read and preached.
"One Lord, one faith, one baptism." The most important statistic in the service of public confession of faith is ONE. All aspects of the worship should direct us to the grace and glory of the one Lord.
In Christian Reformed Church worship, the worship leader addresses four questions to the confessors— though careful listening will reveal that the framers of the questions were able to smuggle twelve questions in under the rubric of "four." The questions have to do with our commitment to the church and with our faith in Christ, in the Bible, and in the promises of baptism.
And when faith in Jesus Christ is publicly confessed, three stories converge: the story of Jesus Christ, the story of the church, and the story of the individual confessors. When these stories are obscured, the worship is impoverished; when they are portrayed, the worship is enriched. Meaningful worship around professions of faith depends upon appropriate celebration of these three stories.
The Story of Jesus Christ
The primary story which calls for telling and celebrating in a profession of faith service is the story of Jesus Christ. The first of the three questions addressed to the confessors in the service calls attention to the good news of God in Jesus Christ. Trust in the identity and mission of Jesus is clearly the focus of the question.
When such faith in Jesus Christ is publicly professed, the entire liturgy should reinforce and celebrate the story. The music, the confession and forgiveness, the prayers, and the preaching should be explicitly evangelical. The gospel story should be told and heard. Whether the confessors were nurtured from infancy in the good news or wrested as adults from wastrel lives, they profess their faith in the identity and mission of the Lord Jesus Christ. Without the Story, the other stories have no meaning.
The Story of the Church
The second story that calls for celebration is the story of the church. When faith in Jesus Christ is professed, the church is present—all the way from Peter, James, John, Mary, Martha, Thomas, and Paul to the congregation gathered today. The story of the church to which the confessors are joined calls for a hearing.
The church story is present— though disguised—in the second question addressed to the confessors: "Do you believe that the Bible is the Word of God revealing Christ and his redemption, and that the confessions of this church faithfully reflect this revelation?" That question indicates that profession of faith happens in a particular church with its own confessions and values. The story of the ecumenical church, the confessional church, and the particular congregation deserve celebration when faith in Christ is professed.
More pointedly, profession of faith occurs during a certain season of the church year in a particular congregation of believers. Professing faith in Christ as Lord and Savior is not a seasonal event, but the church season in which it occurs can provide nuances of meaning that enrich the celebration. From Advent through Pentecost, the church seasons can supply emphases for the liturgy and sermon which relate the faith of the confessors to the life of the church. Surely a profession of faith heard in the Christmas season, for example, will evoke a response in liturgy and sermon which is different from the victorious joy of Easter.
Professions of faith also happen in the context of particular events in the life of the congregation. On one Sunday morning in our congregation, five professions of faith were expected. But on the previous Friday, two tragic, unrelated deaths happened to two members of our congregation—a forty-year-old and a seven-year-old.
The sermon that morning began:
Last Friday evening I considered cancelling the professions of faith we heard this morning. Who can profess faith in Christ on a Sunday that follows last Friday? On Friday our faith was eclipsed; who can profess faith in Jesus Christ just two days later?
But on further reflection, I decided that perhaps this is the best day of all to hear professions of faith...
When the liturgy and sermon relate the professions to events that elevate or oppress the heart of the congregation, the service is enriched with meaning.
gives meaning to public professions of faith is the story of the confessors. In the service described above the minister meets the confessors at the baptismal font and asks each of them if they have faith in the promises made to them at their baptism. Those baptisms, which took place at particular times and places (or are about to take place), are essential ingredients of the story.
The Story of the Confessors
The third story(or stories) that gives meaning to public professions of faith is the story of the confessors. In the service described above the minister meets the confessors at the baptismal font and asks each of them if they have faith in the promises made to them at their baptism. Those baptisms, which took place at particular times and places (or are about to take place), are essential ingredients of the story.
Profession of faith occurs in relationship to the promises of baptism. Baptism signifies and seals the promises of the gospel to which the confessors now respond publicly and trustingly. Highlighting the time and place of the baptisms gives visibility to the confessors' story, which, in turn, gives fresh meaning to worship.
The third of the three questions addressed to the confessors also calls attention to their stories by inquiring about commitment: "Do you promise to do all you can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to strengthen your love and commitment to Christ by sharing faithfully in the life of the church, honoring and submitting to its authority; and do you join with the people of God in doing the work of the Lord everywhere?" The question looks ahead and anticipates the investment of these confessors in the life and mission of the church.
The confessors' stories can be tastefully and appropriately included in the sermon—especially when they illustrate the message of the text. The stories can also be briefly told in published paragraphs in the printed church news and notes for the day. Descriptions of the confessors' life journeys, of how they came to faith in Christ, of why the church is important to them, and of what they want their fellow members to know about what they believe can be artfully edited for the appreciation and edification of the church.
On the Sunday before I wrote this article, the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, we baptized two infants and heard one profession of faith in our worship. Miriam professed her faith at the baptismal font where she had been baptized eleven years earlier.
As part of our service that morning Miriam was asked to read the second lesson for the morning, Philemon 1-20. She was also asked to prepare a brief letter of response from Philemon to Paul and to read it before the congregational prayer as an act of testimony and service. Furthermore, because the gospel lesson from the Common Lectionary for the day was from Luke 14:25-33—the passage about disciples of Jesus hating their mothers and fathers—the sermon title was "Should Miriam Hate Her Parents?"
The life stories—past and present—of the confessors can enrich worship.
Profession of Faith and Baptism
In describing the role of the confessors' stories in worship, I have stressed the importance of their baptism. It is also important to join public profession of faith to the service of baptism whenever possible.
Baptism, whether administered to adults, children, or infants, gives meaning to profession of faith. When parents bring an infant for baptism while the confessors watch as witnesses, the confessors' baptism is mirrored and the infants' profession of faith anticipated. The more profession of faith is associated with baptism, the more the church can experience both the grace of God by which we are saved and the faith which that grace enables and requires. The fullness of our salvation in Christ is more clearly seen and more freely celebrated when baptism and profession are joined.
Merely inserting the "form" for public profession of faith in worship impoverishes the experience for the church. When the stories of Christ, the church, and the confessors are allowed to shape the liturgy and the sermon, public profession of faith deepens, broadens, and heightens the worship experience.