April 7, 2015

Working Theology(ies) Of Baptism

This is really a book-length issue about which I’m only going to write a few hundred words. Underneath all of this is a library-full of information, plus an entire life’s journey and discernment. I’m thinking about baptism. It’s Easter, after all, and these 50 Days of Easter are the season of baptism.

Christianity’s one big sacrament of initiation has a noticeably wide spectrum of practice and belief and interpretation surrounding it. From Jesus and John in the Jordan River – and the gospel authors’ mild disagreements about what was happening there – to the divergent ways in which Christ’s earliest followers went about baptizing converts, at least according to the earlier chapters in Acts of the Apostles, to the fundamental question that arose much later in the tradition about where and when and how the Holy Spirit shows up, it can be said that baptism has a profound and yet uneasy both/and nature about it: baptism is both initiation and cleansing; something both for believers and for those who don’t yet (fully) understand; both customary practice and a radical, personal, individual decision. In our current baptismal rite, I think the 1979 Book of Common Prayer captures brilliantly such diversity; it’s a rite which allows for believer baptism and infant baptism and, by consequence, renders that other initiatory sacrament – confirmation – somewhat in question. Like I said, there’s a library full of information and a life’s journey to answer questions and question answers.

The point of this blog post, however, is not to delve more deeply into traditions and histories and theologies of baptism but to encourage the pastoral art of, let me call it, theologizing-on-the-ground.

I’m convinced more and more that every issue the church is facing requires a genuinely theological answer; in fact, I’ve long argued that the church’s only language is theology and that we’d be wise to invest more intentionally in training theologians. From leadership to church management to preaching to pastoral care to, in this case, sacramental ministry, every issue that any working priest faces is basically and thoroughly theological.

No doubt, a priest’s working theology of baptism will probably grow and change and morph over that clergyperson’s ministry. Mine has, and it continues to. As well, that clergyperson’s working theology of baptism might also appear different as she talks to one family or another. Please note I wrote “appear”; that is, the clergyperson’s emphases and nuances might sound slightly different as she talks to different people and families and that is as it should be, given the different nature of each individual’s and family’s journey through life and toward Christ. Perhaps there are different expectations laid on the family who wants to baptize their second child than those who come looking to baptize their first-born. Is this fair? Not at all. But, again, baptism is both an invitation into the family of God and, at other times, a rite which requires a series of lifestyle choices and practices. Does every adult convert require extensive preparation and training? Probably not, which is again not fair, but the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) made both an impulsive decision to get baptized right then and there and, reading between the lines, was perhaps being formed and discipled for some time previously (he did have the scroll of the prophet).

It pays for a given clergyperson and lay leaders to spend serious time cultivating a working theology of most everything they do. In this case, in this season it just so happens to be baptism. But just don’t expect that theology to emerge from scholarship and literature, although those are good companions and friends in this conversation. Like Philip and that eunuch that day, long ago, the heart-to-heart, human-to-human conversation in real time is where it also matters most.

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