Note: All names in this story have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals mentioned.
Mary is eighteen years old. After her first year in college, she spent the summer doing mission work in the Yucatan peninsula. Touched by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit both in her life and among the people with whom she served, Mary was transformed. She thought she was a Christian before, but now . . . well, now things were completely different. Mary approached the pastor of her hometown Reformed church with a request to mark her spiritual awakening with a ceremony of rebaptism.
After hitting rock bottom, forty-five-year-old Jim admitted his dependency and awakened from a drunken stupor of fifteen years. Though he had been part of the church all his life, he now sees with greater clarity what it means to live in a community of Christ-followers in honesty, humility, and accountability. He’s committing to trying every day to live a life worthy of God’s forgiving and transforming grace. Jim asked his pastor to mark his sobriety and recommitment to Christ with a ceremony of rebaptism.
Claudia, sixty-two, was wounded in a bitter divorce eight years ago. Her church responded to this painful situation with awkwardness and blame. She left. A friend in her apartment complex invited her to attend a small group. Now Claudia is ready to return to active membership in a different congregation. She wants the pastor to conduct a ceremony of blessing and incorporation.
Stories like these are familiar to many pastors. What they have in common is some sort of conversion; these Christians are on a threshold. Their lives have changed or are changing in significant ways, and they are eager for a public, communal ceremony in the church to mark and celebrate that change.
A natural response is for the church to look to its threshold sacrament: baptism. Alas, the Reformed tradition (along with Lutheran, Methodist, and many others), whose primary practice in our era is to baptize infants, has not done well with such requests or moments. Ordinarily we gently turn down such requests, giving reasons that are as pastoral as possible:
- “We don’t re-baptize,” we say, echoing theological disputes from the third and fourth centuries, as well as the Reformation. “It’s not as if nothing happened at your infant baptism.”
- “Baptism isn’t, in the end, about your individual experience,” we say. “It’s about the covenant community.”
- “What’s important isn’t the decision you make today or tomorrow,” we say. “What’s important is God’s grace; God loving, calling, and claiming us before we were able to respond. In fact, it is God’s work since baptism that makes us able to respond. Your moment of conversion and transformation is the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing activity.”
The Danger of Neglect
Of course, these comments are exactly right. At its most fundamental level, baptism isn’t about individual human action and experience; it’s about God’s covenant faithfulness, about new life in Christ, about the Spirit working in hearts and in communities. But it’s possible to reject rebaptism while embracing worship practices that mark moments of individual transition in ways that are public and tactile and memorable, theologically appropriate, and ritually meaningful.
When we neglect to regularly celebrate the fruit of God’s activity signified in baptism—conversion and transformation, recommitment and calling—we should not be surprised to discover that we are learning to make do with a distant, deist God. We celebrate our own efforts at redemption, practicing a boot-strap spirituality that in the end is exhausting rather than vivifying.
When we neglect to give people the opportunity to testify to the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work, not in the abstractions of homiletic platitudes but in specific individual detail, we should not be surprised when people have a hard time believing that God does anything at baptism, or in our lives, or in the world. When we neglect to point to the font as a sign and seal of the fruitful, Spirit-drenched lives God wants us to live in Jesus Christ, we should not wonder that we so often feel dry or empty.
Certainly many churches celebrate infant baptism regularly. But others, lacking young families, do not. And too often these ceremonies are characterized by bland sentimentality, flippant words, and anemic ritual action. They seem like glorified christenings, mere baby blessings.
What we need are fulsome celebrations of God’s gracious promises; invitations for the whole congregation to remember their baptisms and everything to which they point: identity in Christ, inclusion into the body, forgiveness by the Father, gifting by the Spirit, and calling to Christ’s service.
It’s an encouraging sign that in recent years some churches have reclaimed occasional practices of baptismal remembrance designed to help congregations know deep down all the rich meanings signified at the font. Many hymnals and supplements, including Faith Alive’s Sing! A New Creation, for instance, include a lovely rite for occasional baptismal remembrance (see p. 240). Our Methodist sisters and brothers have the tradition of a special covenant renewal worship service that uses baptismal language and imagery. Thoughtful ordination and installation services may feature the font as the place where God’s calling activity was first sealed and is now bearing fruit in lives dedicated to service in the church.
Of course, these aren’t weekly celebrations, only occasional ones. God has little chance to shape people through them in the way rituals usually work: through consistent repetition. Yet there are ways to celebrate baptism every week, such as pouring water into the font at the beginning of the service to note the unifying presence of Christ who gathers us together. Or pouring water at the assurance of pardon, indicating forgiveness of sin. Or sprinkling water on the congregation at the charge and benediction to remind people to “live wet,” as people called and gifted to be the body of Christ in the world.
Even so, none of these practices accommodates special requests like the ones mentioned at the beginning of this article—requests from individuals who wish to publicly celebrate what God has been doing in their lives.
Therefore, in addition to the practices already mentioned, I want to suggest one more: a regular (weekly) remembrance of baptism, brief and simple enough to be incorporated into weekly worship, but flexible enough to expand in significant ways when requests come for special acknowledgement of God’s ongoing work in a person’s life.
A Modest Proposal
Imagine a church where just before the prayers of the people, the pastor (or other congregational representative) steps to the font and asks whose baptismal anniversaries fall in the coming week. A few hands go up. The pastor warmly invites these people to step forward to the front of the sanctuary. As they do so, they put their hands in the water at the font, remembering their baptisms. The pastor touches them on the shoulder and begins the regular congregational prayers of thanksgiving and intercession by speaking their names and offering thanks to God for their particular gifts and for God’s outpouring of grace in their lives. Maybe the pastor mentions one person’s gift of compassion, another’s gift for teaching, another’s gifts for organization and administration. The prayer names their natural or spiritual gifts, mapping their source to the Holy Spirit, part of the baptismal gifting.
Now imagine Mary or Jim or Claudia approaching the pastor with their experiences of conversion and their requests to publicly and eagerly affirm their recommitment to Christ. Other special requests might be added to these: a nine-year-old eager to come for the first time to the Lord’s Supper, a fifteen-year-old making profession of faith, a thirty-three-year old going back to graduate school. The pastor who regularly remembers baptism during the prayers of the people now has a way to honor these special requests and to remind the entire congregation of the need for conversion at the font again and again.
On those special days, the regular prayers can be augmented in appropriate ways, providing more substantive celebrations fitting for more significant transitions. For instance, Jim might wish to come to the font and give the congregation a brief testimony of his bondage and the freedom he now knows in Christ. He can ask them for forgiveness and for blessing. He can indicate his intention to turn toward a new life and renounce the old life. Likewise, Claudia may wish to be prayed over by the elders, who could lay hands on her and make the mark of the cross on her forehead with fragrant oil.
These special requests become excellent opportunities for focused pastoral ministry by congregants eager to learn and open to teaching. Mary, for instance, comes to the pastor in June, but her baptismal anniversary is in November, allowing a four-month window for a mini-catechumenate (teaching session on what we believe). In those four months she and her pastor can process her summer mission experience, explore the implications of a recommitment to Christ, and add thicker logs of Christian discipline and community to the flame of renewal lit during her time in the Yucatan.
What about those who don’t know the dates of their baptism? Many will be able to identify (or estimate) their dates with sufficient precision with the help of personal or church records. Others may want to choose one of two options:
- Select a day eight days after one’s birthday—echoing the date on which Jewish males were circumcised—the date on which members of the Jewish covenant community came to be marked by God.
- Select as the baptismal anniversary the date of conception—just go backward nine months from the birthday. This has resonance in the church’s history, since celebrations for saints happened not on the dates of their birth (which folks often didn’t know and didn’t mark), but on the dates of their death (and hence rebirth to eternal life). It was thought that the day a saint died was the same date on which that person was conceived. What a wonderful symbolism for baptism!
(This is actually one theory for why we celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25. People calculate that in the year Jesus died, the day before Passover (Good Friday) was the 25th of March. A little bit of nine-month math, and we arrive at December 25 as Christ’s birthday.)
Baptism and Mission
One further benefit of a regular practice like this is its emphasis on the mission of the church. Many denominations are wrestling with the roles and purposes of ordained offices and newfangled extensions of them—“commissioned pastors,” “lay preachers,” and the like. How wonderful, then, to be persistently reminded of the common calling all Christians share, by virtue of their baptisms, to be more missional—that is, to look for God’s work in the world and to join in that redemptive and reconciling action.
Another benefit of featuring the font in worship is that it marks a clear distinction between the church and the world out of which the church has been called. To highlight the boundary between life in Christ and life outside is not to demean or diminish one group as outsiders but to invite them to jump into the pool where Christians have found life abundant.
Regular and varied celebration of this sort could go a long way toward helping us to experience and understand the richness of meaning embodied in the sacrament, to see God’s ongoing work more clearly, and to affirm our need for faith-filled return to the living water again and again.