I was baptized when I was nine years old. I have vivid memories of the baptism because I was terrified as I was fully immersed three times in a deep pool of water, and relieved when I did not drown. But I have no memory of any preparation for that baptism. I don’t recall anyone talking to me that morning or the day before about the meaning of baptism and how it would impact my life.
In the early church people spent two years preparing for baptism. Then, only adults were baptized and the two years were spent unlearning one way of understanding the world - particularly that the emperor was God - and replacing that worldview with an understanding of who Jesus was and the Christian understanding of God.
Now, when I prepare a person for baptism, or meet with parents and Godparents of a child or infant who is to be baptized, I spend about an hour in conversation with them followed by a rehearsal.
Baptism is the beginning of one’s journey of faith. The first thing baptism does is “name” us. In the month leading up to a baptism we pray for the individual by their first and middle name. We do not use their surname. Who knows why? Because in baptism we all share the same last name, “Christian.” In baptism we are named and become a member of the family and body of Christ.
One learns what it means to live as a Christian through being part of a faith community and through facing the challenges of life, making decisions based on the values of the Christian faith. In the world today it can be confusing to know what Christian values we are to live from. The baptismal covenant in the Book of Common Prayer offers Episcopalians some clarity on this.
The covenant asks a number of questions including: Will you share? Will you treat others with dignity and respect? Will you learn about the Christian faith and will you worship in community; and our response is, “I will with God’s help.” We are not asked to journey alone, we are invited into a community of other people of faith and supported throughout our lives by the presence of God. Everything we do, we do with God’s help.
The conversation I have with people preparing for baptism covers three renunciations and three affirmations. Each person preparing for baptism is asked to renounce evil and affirm a new way of life. My hope is that people have a good sense of what they are renouncing and affirming in these vows. The first question I ask is, “What is evil? What does evil mean to you?” To a person this question, the idea of evil, is challenging. We live in a world that is full of evil but we are losing the ability to talk about evil from a spiritual perspective. This is because what gets defined as evil is culturally bound in time and place. Binding evil within the confines of a culture and a time tends to minimize evil and eventually, as times change, people reject that which has been defined as “evil.”
In baptism we are reminded that evil is a spiritual force that pulls us away from God, causes harm to other people and causes harm to ourselves. I define evil as that which causes broken relationship in all its forms - broken relationship with God, broken relationship with the earth, broken relationship with other people, and a broken relationship with ourselves. How are you living with and struggling through broken relationships like these? What does it feel like when you are living with a broken relationship with God? What does it feel like when you are living with a broken relationship with another person? In what ways are you broken within yourself? How do you feel bad about who you are? Can you think about these broken places and recognize the evil spiritual forces at play in your life? Growing into being a mature Christian requires that we think about the broken places in our lives and work to heal them and make amends.
Secondly, the baptismal candidate or the parents and Godparents on behalf of the candidate, are asked to affirm a new life in Christ. What does this mean? What does “savior” mean to you? Again, “Savior” is one of those complicated Christian words that gets culturally bound up in time and place. The end result may diminish the meaning of savior in one’s life. I have often said that I think God called me into the priesthood in order to save me. By this I mean, God was saving me from myself, from my own propensity toward self destructive ways of diminishing myself. As a priest, as a wife, as a mother, I have felt called to do the hard work to be the best person I can. I have worked to have greater self-awareness of what pushes my buttons and how I can be more reflective and responsive and less reactive and emotional. I have gone to therapy and spiritual direction and worked to recognize my feelings and use them appropriately. Years ago, disenfranchised from church, I chose to return to church for the specific reason of having a community with whom to grow and mature as a person of faith. One cannot be a Christian by one’s self. One needs to be in relationship with a community of people who are facing life’s challenges so that we walk the journey together. Becoming a mature Christian and working to have healthy relationships is the bedrock of Christianity.
This is why we baptize people on a Sunday morning in the primary worship service - so that baptism is central to our lives, central to who we are as a community, and so that the person being baptized understands that they are being welcomed into relationship, into community.
In a few moments we will baptize Alexander Frank and welcome him into the body of Christ. Alexander’s father was raised in Christ Church. John and Suzanne were the first couple I married when I arrived at Christ Church. John’s parents have been members for a long time and even though they have moved away and spend part of the year in Florida, Christ Church is still their spiritual home. Today we baptize Alexander Frank into a family, into a history, into a faith community, and he takes on our name, Christian. May we do everything we can to support Alexander in his life in faith, as we have done for his parents and grandparents and for one another. May we do all of this with God’s help.