Sunday, August 10, 2014

For Zoe's Baptism

The first time I was approached to baptize someone was when I was in the Society for Creative Anachronism. These are the people that often put on and attend Renaissance fairs. My medieval persona was Brother Gillecriosd, a Cluniac monk from the time of William the Conqueror. It was well known that I was a Christian. (I did a series of mini-medieval lectures on Dante's Divine Comedy.) But I never expected to be asked to baptize someone's nephew. Apparently it was to mollify the grandparents. I had to say “no.” While I know that any Christian can baptize someone in extremis, that is, if someone is dying and consents, I don't think there is any justification to do it just so family will get off your back. Nor is baptism a magical rite to protect children from hell.

The first time I actually baptized someone was when a patient of mine was close to death. I had been taking care of Charlie for 4 years. The only reason he was alive after his massive stroke was because of the loving care he received from his wife, Sue. Now she was dying from breast cancer and I doubted he would live long after she was gone.

And I couldn't take care of Charlie anymore. He was unwittingly the reason I threw my back out 2 years in a row. I took this as a sign from God that I was right to give up nursing for the priesthood. I found another nurse to do his daily care, continued to visit the couple and walk their energetic Labrador daily. I also read them the sermons I wrote as Lay Pastoral Leader. I asked if they wanted me to bring them communion in my role as Lay Eucharistic Minister. That was when Sue told me Charlie had never been baptized. I knew he was well read in Christianity from his library and from his attention to my sermons though his speech was severely affected by his stroke. I asked if he wanted to be baptized and he nodded. So I wrote my bishop, emphasizing the couple's imminent deaths and my role as the nearest thing they had to clergy. I pointed out that while he wouldn't die in minutes, the usual justification for baptism by a layman, he would go fast after his wife died.

The bishop gave me permission on pastoral grounds and I baptized my patient who was by this time a friend. Then I gave communion to him and his wife, who had not received the sacrament since she, a Roman Catholic, had married Charlie, a divorced man. Once the rites were over, Sue said to her husband, “Now I will see you in heaven.” She died within weeks; Charlie died in 6 months.

In today's passage from Romans 10, we are told, “...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That's rather straightforward. And there's no mention of baptism. Does that mean Christians needn't get baptized?

The Rt. Rev'd N.T. Wright complained that when you do theology, people expect you to say everything every time. The absence of a mention of baptism here doesn't mean that Paul thinks it unnecessary. In Romans 6:3 & 4, just a few chapters before today's passage, Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” So in today's passage there is no significance to Paul not saying anything about baptism; he just doesn't mention it at this point, having dealt with it earlier. He is at the moment dealing with proclaiming the good news.

Baptism was originally a Jewish rite. It was undergone primarily by Gentiles converting to Judaism and represented their rebirth into a new life. Their previous life was considered that of a different person. The remarkable thing is that when John started baptizing people who were already Jews, people came forward to let him. They recognized that they were so far from God that they needed to start over as Jews.

Paul is obviously picking up on that but with a twist. Baptism, which literally means “immersion” in Greek, and which at that time meant you were bodily immersed into a river, of necessity involved not breathing while underwater. And Paul connects it with Jesus' period of not breathing, his death. Jesus' subsequent rising from the dead parallels the believer rising out of the water. In baptism one dies to one's old life and is born to a new life lived in Christ.

Though the mode of baptism has changed, due to Christianity being legalized, so that Christians could build and meet in special dedicated buildings, and due to those churches being built in places where there wasn't always a handy river, such as urban locations, and due to the need to accommodate children and infants, the meaning is the same: it is about spiritual rebirth. It's about switching from a life lived according to the dictates of mere human nature to a life lived by following the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

And it should be accompanied by a basic understanding of what is going on, hence what Paul is saying in Romans 10. Because baptism is not about spiritual rebirth in the modern sense of a vague realization about life or love; it is about rebirth through Jesus Christ. So Paul says that “Jesus is Lord.” The Jews, seeking to avoid using the name of God and accidentally profaning it, substituted the word "Lord" instead. So Paul is saying that Jesus is our God, the rhyme and reason for existence, in whose image we were created, who loved us enough to become one of us, who loved us enough to die for us, whose resurrection assures us that he will do the same for us, whose commands are to love God, our neighbor, even our enemies.

There's a lot more theology I could cover here but today I'm not baptizing a patient, parishioner or prisoner. I'm baptizing my granddaughter Zoe. And I have personal as well as theological reasons for wishing to see her baptized.

When you are baptized you become a member of the body of Christ, a citizen of the Kingdom of God. It is a rite of entrance. It makes you a part of a family that covers the globe. I read about a man who was a Star Trek fan, who found himself stranded on a train platform in Japan. He suspected he had gotten off at the wrong stop but didn't know the language. Then he saw a Japanese boy wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a saying in Klingon. The man knew Klingon and found that the boy did too and he helped him find the right stop. When you are a follower of Jesus you are kin to Christians all over the world, the majority of whom are good people who practice kindness everyday, who never makes the news the way that those saying and doing hurtful things do. But they should. They feed the poor, house the homeless, work for justice and peace. I want Zoe to be a part of that.

Besides the spiritual benefits that trusting and following Jesus gives you, science tells us that there are considerable benefits that you receive in this life. People who go to church weekly (the only way scientists can measure religious devotion) tend to have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, and live longer than those who don't attend church at all or who attend only sporadically. They tend to drink less, smoke less, use fewer recreational drugs and are less sexually promiscuous. They have better mental health and have less stress. Kids who attend church regularly are less likely to divorce later in life, tend to do better in college, and are less likely to get involved in juvenile crime, violent crime and domestic violence. They show higher levels of self-control, self-esteem and coping skills, have lower rates of depression, suicide and suicidal ideation, and have higher recovery rates from addiction to alcohol and drugs. If all it takes is an hour or 2 a week to have these effects, I want that for my granddaughter.

Scientists, loathe to attribute this to anything specifically religious, tend to put these benefits down to being part of a social group. But I doubt the social benefits of weekly attendance at a poker game or swingers' party would have all the same results. I think it is odd to ignore the effects of the content of the faith. I would think the weekly reminders of God's love and faithfulness, of his never leaving or forsaking the believer, of his help in adversity, of his self-sacrifice for us, of our duty to treat others as we would like to be treated, to see and serve Jesus in others, especially the unfortunate, would have an effect on the thinking and behavior of those who attend. Why is it that people only think bad stuff taught at some churches affects members' behaviors and but not the good stuff taught at most churches? We know from studies that cheating drops in test taking when people are briefly reminded of God or an ethical code first. It stands to reason that weekly or more frequent reminders of such things would also alter behavior positively. I want my granddaughter to believe in a loving God and in loving others.

A recent study has found that those with a purpose to their life live 15 years longer than those who do not. I want my granddaughter to have a life with purpose, not to drift through life distracted by ephemera, or attracted to things that seem fun but ultimately are empty. I want her to know that God has a purpose for her, that her talents and gifts were given her to make the world a better place and people better off for her being here.

Studies show that people who think that God is loving and close to them were healthier mentally. It had a bigger effect than the quality of one's relationships with other people.
When the Rt. Rev'd. N.T. Wright was chaplain at Cambridge he was used to students telling him that they didn't believe in God. To which Wright would reply, “And just what kind of god don't you believe in?” Those who recovered quickly would say something like, “You know, the mean, angry god who doesn't want anyone to enjoy themselves.” And Wright would say, “Well, I don't believe in that god either. I believe in the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ.”

And that's the God I want my granddaughter to believe in. I want her to know that the God who is love created her in his image and that she is invited into that divine love to live as his child forever. I want her to know Jesus, God Incarnate, who healed the sick, fed the hungry, touched the untouchables, welcomed the outcast, preached God's good news, spoke the truth to those in power, went to the cross rather than renounce that truth, rose to give us hope and who now works through his followers to restore the world to what God created it to be. I want her to know that God's Spirit lives within her, guiding her, giving her access to God, equipping her with gifts and abilities to serve God and to share with and help others, producing in her love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

I want to give her that foundation on which to build a life, a full life physically, mentally, intellectually, and spiritually. A lot of people today don't take their children to church, saying they want them to choose a religion for themselves. That's like saying you want your child to play an instrument but never presenting them with one or getting them music lessons. How are they to make a choice if they are never exposed to the things from which they are to choose? And it's not like everyone who ever took piano was chained to it forever or unable to switch to the horn or violin. But as they say, not to choose is to make a choice. And I want my granddaughter to be given a choice to follow the God of love and forgiveness and restoration.

And it begins here. When we baptize Zoe we are welcoming her into the kingdom of God, into the body of Christ, into the life of the Spirit. And because she doesn't understand what that means anymore than a newborn understands what it means to be a citizen of the United States, we are committing ourselves to teaching and showing her. And it will be good for her and for us. Because you never learn something as well as you do when you need to teach it to others. And as she grows in the faith, we shall too. As she learns who God created her to be, we will too. As she discovers and develops her gifts, we will encourage her and be encouraged to do the same with the gifts the Spirit has given us.

The birth of a child leads parents to rediscover the joys of everyday life and the wonders of the world which they had been taking for granted. Life is the first gift, the one that is necessary in order to enjoy all the rest. Just so, a child's rebirth into the life of the Spirit should lead to a rediscovery on our part of the riches we have in God through Jesus Christ. It's a treasure trove that today we share with Zoe through water and the Word. To the unspiritual, we look as if we are merely pouring a common element on someone's head and saying things that do not make sense in a purely material world. But through the Spirit we see another dimension to what is happening here. The water is giving what we are doing form and the Word giving it significance and power. The physical and the spiritual are coming together to mark this child as more than mere animal, more than a temporary arrangement of atoms and DNA. She is being marked as a resident of a more permanent realm, as God's child, as Christ's own, and as a temple of the Holy Spirit. We are privileged to be witnesses and participants of this act of holy love and to pledge ourselves to continue in this good work with God's help.   

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