By Cynthia B. Astle
Baptism presents one of the most contentious issues in the history of Christianity. Armed conflicts have broken out over baptism’s proper application, i.e. whether water is to be applied by sprinkling, pouring or immersion as initiation into the Church of Jesus Christ. Christians have fought one another over the wording of baptismal vows, and whether one must be of the age of consent in order to respond appropriately to the ritual.
However, what happens after the baptismal vows are pronounced gets much less attention from United Methodists and their Christian kindred. More clergy and laity today have become aware of this gap, and are embracing a deeper understanding of baptism’s nature and its daily application.
Baptism typically runs a distant second to Holy Communion in United Methodist sacramental esteem, despite the availability of the gracefully crafted theological statement, By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism. Since United Methodists practice infant baptism, the ritual often is seen as something performed primarily for babies. For example, those with little Christian education often to seek out United Methodist pastors in order to “get the baby done,” either in response to grandparents’ pleadings or as a kind of magical thinking, a superstitious protection for the child.
A more accurate understanding of baptism, however, emphasizes God’s grace active in human lives, humans’ response to the awareness of divine grace, and the faith community’s witness to God and service to the world. Ironically, one of the most impressive modern visual interpretations of baptism’s significance can be found in the dramatic climax of the now-classic film, “The Godfather.” Having been urged into the role of godfather by his sister, crime boss Michael Coreleone recites Catholic baptismal responses, pledging to renounce the works of Satan as intercut scenes show his minions assassinating the leaders of rival crime families. In less than two minutes, the sequence demonstrates not only Michael’s fall from grace, but also the nature of evil that Christians pledge to renounce, reject and resist.
“Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola clearly grasped a key element of Christian initiation often missing from today’s understanding: Baptism embraces both death and life. Just as those who bypass Crucifixion to savor Resurrection glory practice a truncated theology, baptism stresses that one cannot receive newness of life without simultaneously “dying” to death-dealing practices. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote in A.D. 352 of the “dying and living” aspects of early baptism, in which catechumens of all ages were immersed naked and then clothed with white robes to represent their new lives. (This tradition is now remembered liturgically in the garment known as an alb, a white robe without decoration suitable for any baptized Christian to wear when leading in worship).
Let’s consider our United Methodist baptismal vows in this light of dying and living:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
Look at the action verbs in this ritual, which reflects the form adopted in a 1982 World Council of Churches document, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. “Renounce, reject, repent, resist, confess, trust, accept, serve” constitutes a powerful set of marching orders for Jesus’ followers. Yet rare is the congregation where our baptismal vows are more than a footnote to other communal activities.
This year Discipleship Ministries (formerly known as the General Board of Discipleship) has been conducting two-day learning retreats throughout Texas to emphasize baptismal vows. I recently attended the North Texas session, “Leaders Living (and Dying) Baptismally.” While to date these sessions have drawn small groups of 15 to 20 participants, they have opened encouraging discussions on baptism’s potential to transform The United Methodist Church.
As our Discipleship Ministries session suggested, one way to restore baptism’s importance for United Methodists would be to develop more accountability through small groups. Called “class meetings” in the Wesleyan tradition, these gatherings of five to eight people are places where we make sure we fulfill the vows we’ve pledged. Current spiritual descendants of the historic Methodist class meeting include Covenant Discipleship, Companions in Christ, Walk to Emmaus’ 4th Day groups and the Order of Saint Luke.
Accountability groups such as these can improve individual spiritual practice and encourage congregations to deepen their baptismal understanding. For example, in order to “renounce the forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of … sin,” a local congregation would have to take a hard look at the world outside its sanctuary walls, asking questions such as:
- Who are our neighbors? Are they people who live closest to our church, or are we called to serve people beyond our local neighborhood?
- What do our neighbors tell us they need from us?
- How could we adapt our worship and activities to meet our neighbors’ spiritual needs rather than our own habits or desires?
If we intend to give more than lip service to our United Methodist mission – “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” – then we must pay more attention to helping one another become the followers of Jesus that we pledge to be in baptism. By focusing on our baptismal vows to renounce evil, repent of our sin, and live like Jesus, we can indeed transform the world, starting where we need it most – with ourselves.
United Methodist laywoman Cynthia B. Astle of Dallas, TX, is an internationally recognized religion journalist, a certified spiritual director, and a member of the UMC-founded Order of Saint Luke, an ecumenical association of clergy and lay women and men devoted to liturgical scholarship. She currently coordinates United Methodist Insight, a collaborative website for leaders and influencers seeking God’s will for the future of The United Methodist Church.