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Baptism: Through Thick and Thin
Kevin Brown

C.S. Lewis once referred to Christianity as one of the few religions that is both "thick" and "clear" (Lewis, 1945). By "clear," he meant religions which are philosophical and ethical in their teachings, and in "thick" he refers to those with ritual, physical, elemental mysteries. It is in this "thick" region of our faith where we are met, at a point where God breaks into our world and uses not just ordinary water, but "water comprehended in God's Word and commandment and sanctified by them," (Luther, 1529) to grant us the gift of Baptism.

Sadly, however, the Church has not always honored this gift nor allowed the practice of baptism to reflect it's true and complete meaning. We have often made our baptism too "thick" to comprehend or too "thin" to have any effect. In fact, it has been said that "no other act in the Church's life has been the victim of the same degree of pragmatic utilitarianism" (Carr, 1964). Here we will take a look at some of the ways in which the practice of baptism is or has been in conflict with its full meaning and purpose. Generally these errors have fallen into two categories, those dealing with infant baptism and those dealing with adult or believer baptism.

"In modern times, the most vexing problem has been …the baptism of infants" (White, 1980). Though there is little Scriptural evidence either way for the practice, the Church by the fifth century had accepted the practice, and since that time most Christians have baptized infants. Through the years the practice has remained, and throughout the Christian era has been the primary method of the growth of the church. The baptism of infants highlights a number of aspects of the meaning of baptism. The themes of grace, covenant, corporate salvation, and true sacrament are carried strongly through the appropriate practice of infant baptism (Carr, 1964). However, infant baptism also carries with it a number of pitfalls of which we must be wary, and into which the Church has stumbled at various points in it's history.

During the medieval period, the tendency was often to view baptism as a magical formula that would save us from hell, and due to fear for the fate infants who died before they were baptized, baptism was often a private ceremony performed at the first available moment, instead of waiting until Sunday or Easter Sunday as the early church had done with all baptisms.. We inherit the legacy of that mindset today in the "fire insurance" baptism, in which parents baptize their children in case it really is necessary for their entry into heaven, without ever intending to see that the gift of baptism is nurtured through involvement with the life of a congregation. This is perhaps a case of baptism being "too thick," or so obscured by our sense of the magical that we loose any sense of meaning behind it.

Even worse is the tendency of many today, no longer burdened by the fear of hell but still sensitive to the traditions of their recent culture, to view baptism as a dedication or naming ceremony for the child, complete with a fancy new outfit and relatives coming in for the celebration (Marty, 1962). While baptism is certainly a cause for celebration, here we have a baptism in which God does nothing, and after which we can congratulate ourselves for being so pious as to present our baby to the Lord. In this case we have watered down our baptism, making it too thin to have any effect at all.

On the other side of the road we have the view of baptism as a culmination of our Christian education, or a public sign that we have come of age and chosen to give our life to the Lord. Though adult baptisms were obviously common in the early days of the church, the practice of only baptizing adults began with the Anabaptists during the Reformation, and has caught on particularly with many non-denominational churches in the United States. This too is a break from a full understanding of baptism, as "only the west, with it's high degree of individualism, could consider restricting baptism to adult believers" (White, 1980). Though there is certainly nothing wrong with baptizing adults, here again we lose the view that baptism is a sacrament through which God acts, when it comes only as the result of our personal choice or study. Our baptism is thinning once again.

Carr points out that "Christian baptism is neither [exclusively] believer's baptism nor infant baptism. Each is a distortion of baptism's original intention and practice" (Carr, 1964). In order to celebrate the sacrament "faithfully according to the Gospel", we must work to embrace the full vision of what baptism entails. Having noted above some of the abuses and deficiencies of the baptismal rite, it is now appropriate to examine all of the meaning that a true Christian baptism entails. What does it mean for baptism to be a "means of grace"?

White defines five "chief New Testament metaphors" that are witnessed to by the Scriptures in reference to baptism (or what he more generally refers to as "Christian Initiation"). These are the themes of union with Jesus Christ, incorporation into the church, new birth, forgiveness of sin, and reception of the Holy Spirit (White, 1980). These five metaphors will provide a convenient framework for us to investigate how each is involved with the celebration of baptism within the life of the congregation.

Certainly there can be no doubt that Paul considers union with Christ to be a main effect of baptism, as is shown in Romans 6: "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Rom 6:4). Baptism joins us to Christ both in his resurrection and in his death, a point that is often overlooked when we view baptism merely as the culmination of our Christian education.

The idea of incorporation into community is a strong one as well. Baptism is the church's initiation rite, and the way by which the church grew and added to it's membership in the days of the apostles. The ideas of union with Christ and incorporation into the community are closely tied together, as Clarks note in his observation about how the union with Christ happens: "How is this union with Christ accomplished; how does baptism effect it? The answer is given in terms of initiation into the Church. Baptism accomplishes union with Christ because it gives entry into the Church which is his resurrection body. Into that body the baptized are incorporated as 'members'" (Clark, 1956).

Certainly when we speak of new birth we often think of Jesus' statement to Nicodemus that "no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above" (John 3:3). But Paul also speaks of our rebirth when he says that "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (II Cor. 5:17). Baptism initiates us into a new life, even here in this world, and one which would not be possible for us without this gift of God.

Consulting Acts again shows us that the early church placed a high value on the forgiveness of sins in baptism at well, where we see Peter's instructions to "repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38). The link between baptism and forgiveness is seen even earlier in the New Testament, as Mark relates that John the Baptist "came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4).

Though there is some dispute within the New Testament as to when the Holy Spirit is received (immediately at baptism, preceding baptism, or following baptism), one thing is clear, that beginning with Jesus' own baptism, the two are always tied together. And it is that Holy Spirit, by which "we were all baptized into one body" (I Cor. 12:13), that marks the community of the faithful.

These themes give as a more complete picture of what baptism really is, in which "God delivers us from the forces of evil, puts our sinful self to death, gives us new birth, adopts us as children, and makes us members of the body of Christ" (ELCA, 1997). Though baptism does incorporate salvation and Christian instruction, it is not limited to those two events, and a deeper understanding of the other processes involved will enable us to be truer to this gift that God has given us. Even with these themes in mind, we must remember that it is God who acts through baptism. It is God who joins us to the death and resurrection of Jesus, who grafts us into the vine of the church, who washes away our sins, who grants us rebirth and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is what it means for baptism to be a means of grace.

The introduction of a case study at this point may help us to examine the significance of baptism and apply the knowledge to the practice of the rite within the congregation. In order to address a possibly less common situation, I have chosen here a case that highlights more the question of baptism as incorporation into the Church than the tension between infant and believer baptism.

I spent six of my summers during my high school and college years working as a counselor at a Lutheran family camp on the shores of Lake Erie. Many great friends were made there and it was an overall time of spiritual growth for me and many others. One part of the wonderful history of the camp is a "work week" at the beginning of each summer season, when families may come and volunteer part of their "vacation time" to assist the staff in preparing the camp property for a busy summer. Quite often, in addition to families, members of a particular church would bring their youth group along, as a combination fellowship/service project week for them. Sometimes the youth would invite friends who were not members of their own church to come along, and this was just such the case one summer with a young girl of about 13 or 14 years. After having spent the week working alongside her peers, attending chapel services and sharing meals with the rest of the campers assembled for that week, and perhaps experiencing for the first time the joy of a Christian community, (and much to the joy of those who had known her that week) the young girl expressed a desire to be baptized during the candlelight communion service which is a camp tradition each Friday evening.

And why not? Given that we can find precedents for "on the spot" baptisms, as in the Acts account of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), why should we refuse the baptism of a young person within a Christian worship service? Certainly this would meet many of the guidelines surveyed above for the celebration of a baptism. It would be a public ceremony, taking place within the assembly of believers. It would involve a complete incorporation into the community, including even a celebration of the Lord's Supper following. This was a believer's baptism, with no danger of performing the ceremony as a baby-rite or a purely cultural nicety. Time was even available for some short instruction in Baptism, to help the girl in the understanding of the event that was soon to take place.

The only issue that prevented this particular baptism from taking place was that of incorporation into the church. Principle 29 of The Use of the Means of Grace states that "In Baptism people become members not only of the Church universal but of a particular congregation" (ELCA, 1997). This was the one element which we as a community of faith were lacking. And yet that single missing element was of utmost importance. For the morning following the baptism, we would all climb into our vehicles and return to our own various congregations, and not return until the next summer. Who would remain besides her sponsors to fulfill the responsibility of the community, to daily act out the words following the baptism, "We welcome you into the Lord's family. We receive you as a fellow member of the body of Christ." (LBW, p.125)? In the light of the effect of baptism which ushers us into a community of God's people, the decision was made that the girl be baptized at the church of which her friends were members, upon her return home, into that more permanent group of the faithful (though we did send home a jar of real Camp Luther water to be used during the baptism!).

Our theology of baptism, then, does impact how it is celebrated within the life of the congregation, and not only in this case. Because baptism is God's gift, we allow it to be bestowed on both adults and infants alike, as God gives graciously to all. Because baptism is incorporation into the Church, we celebrate it communally and with the whole congregation. Because baptism is our being joined to Christ, we remember both his death and resurrection, and refuse to trivialize the act with idle sentiment. Because baptism is rebirth into a new life in Christ, we support and nurture those we baptize and honor our responsibility to be involved in their growth in faith.

With this many faceted understanding of baptism in place, we can guard against the tendency to overly thicken or water down our celebration of this gift, and help both those of us who have already been baptized, and those who will be, to claim all that this promise of God has to offer us.


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