With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you

May 16th, 2023

This article is the seventh in a series we're calling "A Good and Joyful Thing: A series on liturgical spirituality." We hope this series takes you on an imaginative “travelogue” at various worship services in a local United Methodist church where the liturgy is treasured. We hope that these resources will accentuate how the Wesleyan “religion of the heart” can be fostered by liturgical experience in the richness of our liturgy, both for United Methodists and others who follow the deep flow of the church's worship history.

He was one of your Sunday School students more than a few years ago. His family was marginal to the congregation, not very involved. He bounced between a local and a distant parent, the local visits becoming less frequent as time went on. You managed to keep in touch with him, sending him birthday cards through his teen years and catching up with him the few times he was able to participate in church activities. Years passed. He was now in college back here in your town. Your congregation was the only church family he had. For whatever reason, he had not been baptized. 

Conversations with him opened the door to his journey to the font. You and the deacon in charge of youth ministry—who, of course, knew the young man, too—lingered with him over an afternoon snack at a local restaurant when the subject came up. He wanted to be baptized. 

“My childhood and youth were complicated, but the church was always there for me. When my own family life got messy, the church acknowledged that God loved me in the midst of that messiness and told me that I was part of a new family Jesus made possible.” He mused, “I wish I had been baptized as an infant, actually. Then I would need the church to remember that day for me. I like that idea. And there’s confirmation, too. I hate I missed out on that. But I’m ready now.” He went on to speak of how his faith was being sustained at the local campus Wesley House, his aspirations to become a nurse serving in community health, and how much he wanted to join a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission work team again next summer. 

And so, a few weeks later, in church, after the sermon, you accompany the young man to the font as his sponsor. The deacon begins:

Brothers and sisters in Christ:
Through the Sacrament of Baptism
we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church.
We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation
and given new birth through water and the Spirit.
All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

That’s enough to remove all suspicion that baptism is a mere rite of passage, something that the young man suddenly felt he needed to cross off a spiritual bucket list. “Initiated into Christ’s holy Church” speaks to a horizontal, relational sign that this sacrament effects. But in this young man’s case it seems a bit redundant. He is already well “initiated,” you think, as you remember the time he finger-painted an entire poster board red when he was about five and in Vacation Bible School one summer. Or the time he and another boy sneaked off to the church kitchen, where you found them devouring a whole package of Oreos and a gallon of bug juice. You loved him even in his mischief. This young man is already “initiated.” How did he miss baptism earlier? Why didn’t anyone invite his family to present him long ago? Were we too afraid to “get in their business” since they so rarely came to church? He was already long since loved into the church no matter how many inconvenient art projects he undertook in VBS. 

So, if his family life was rocky, it might be easy to think we’ve been his real family all along, right? Isn’t that what this is all about? But that’s an incongruity. Families can be dysfunctional, and so can the church. The family of the church is no escape from that. So, what’s different about it?

Maybe it’s the next line that grabs your attention. “We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth...” The horizontal relationships are set next to something vertical, something God already began long ago in mighty acts of salvation that give new birth. It’s what God has done to death in Jesus Christ that makes this a family worth joining. If that’s what’s going on here, this is no pretty little ceremony. The God Moses could not see but through a crack in a rock is about to act. 

Then you say:

I present Eric for baptism.

Infant or adult, we come not to the font alone. We are accompanied, presented, ushered. That you are not this young man’s biological family, but part of the new family in Christ means that the bonds baptism creates with water are thicker than the bonds of blood and DNA. You and the deacon and the pastor had all discussed this with the young man the last several weeks in a kind of impromptu baptismal catechesis. Such impromptu catechesis, done well, is among the church’s most important ministries. It counteracts the assumption that we all know what baptism is about because, of course, it’s every bit as much a cultural rite as getting a driver’s license, right? It’s not. 

Then next:  

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?

I do.

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?

I do.

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?

I do.

These are ancient questions. They link us to millions before us who were asked them. There have been some updates, though. For instance, candidates used to be asked to “renounce the devil and all his empty promises.” That creates a more vivid image than the vaguer “spiritual forces of wickedness” doesn’t it? The devil puts in mind the worst movie villain. Even if “spiritual forces” don’t stir the imagination, you know them. They lurk everywhere. They thrive in the “-isms” that are the offspring of the unholy trinity of evil, injustice, and oppression. Racism. Sexism. Ageism. Exclusion of LGBTQIA folk, the outsider, the stranger within thy gates, the differently abled. You notice, though, that all this renunciation is not described as hard work (though it is), but as “freedom.” We think of freedom as permissive. Here it is prohibitive. The baptized are free not to live in the bonds of evil, injustice, and oppression. Grace empowers us to turn away as much as it enables us to turn toward. Real freedom indeed.

The next question addresses your young friend:

According to the grace given to you,
Will you remain a faithful member of Christ’s holy church
And serve as Christ’s representative in the world?

I will.

And next, to you:
Will you who sponsor Eric
Support and encourage him in his Christian life?

I will.

What will this mean for you, you think? You feel like this young man’s parent. You can imagine standing right here, maybe some years from now, at his wedding. Or, in the fellowship hall one Wednesday night, as he gives a report about his latest UMVIM trip. So often, baptism, or, especially, confirmation, as a rite of passage means “graduation” from church. This young man, however, is different. You feel your life connected to his in Christ’s holy church. You are incorporated together. You have high hopes

The rest of the congregation arises behind you, and the questions continue: 

Do you, as Christ’s body, the Church,
reaffirm both your rejection of sin
and your commitment to Christ?

We do.

Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life
and include these persons now before you in your care?

With God’s help we will proclaim the good news
and live according to the example of Christ.
We will surround these persons
with a community of love and forgiveness,
that they may grow in their trust of God,
and be found faithful in their service to others.
We will pray for them,
that they may be true disciples
who walk in the way that leads to life.

Let us join together in professing the Christian faith
as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ?
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

All of this reminds you that this is not just his baptism today. The rest of the baptized, joining in the baptismal creed, give thanks for their initiation and incorporation into the assembly and the Mighty Deeds by which God made it all possible. Theologians have long made a distinction between “the faith that saves” and “the faith by which we are saved.” Saving faith clings to Christ, trusts that the Risen One is acting for Eric in this water-and-Word before us. This saving faith, though, has specific content, made of mighty deeds: creator, conceived, born, suffered, crucified, died, buried, descended, rose, ascended, seated, will come again. And together we profess this faith in a new family created by the Spirit: holy, catholic, communal, saintly, forgiving, resurrecting, and eternal. 

The pastor stands behind the uncovered font, an acolyte standing by with a glass pitcher full of water. She stretches out her hands in the orans posture and begins: 

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Let us pray.

Eternal Father:
When nothing existed but chaos,
you swept across the dark waters
and brought forth light.
In the days of Noah
you saved those on the ark through water.
After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow.
When you saw your people as slaves in Egypt,
you led them to freedom through the sea.
Their children you brought through the Jordan
to the land which you promised.

Sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Tell of God's mercy each day.

In the fullness of time you sent Jesus,
nurtured in the water of a womb.
He was baptized by John and anointed by your Spirit.
He called his disciples
to share in the baptism of his death and resurrection
and to make disciples of all nations.

Declare Christ’s works to the nations,
his glory among all the people.

Pour out your Holy Spirit,
to bless this gift of water and those who receive it,
to wash away their sin
and clothe them in righteousness
throughout their lives,
that, dying and being raised with Christ,
they may share in his final victory.

All praise to you, Eternal Father,
through your Son Jesus Christ,
who with you and the Holy Spirit
lives and reigns for ever. Amen.

Here is baptism’s Great Thanksgiving. Like the eucharistic prayer, it is rich with biblical imagery: a tour through salvation history, literally walking on water. It calls to mind the waters that have saved God’s people, while not so subtly hinting that water kills, too. This is a dying and rising, as the prayer’s culmination has it, as Paul wrote of it (Romans 6:1-11). The acolyte on one side pours the water into the large bowl, while your deacon friend holds the hymnal on the other, leaving your pastor free to continue to extend her hands generously, graciously, in prayer. At the invocation of the Spirit (the epiclesis) in the last paragraph, she stirs the water as she traces a sign of the cross in it. This is indeed ordinary water. It came out of the tap in the church kitchen a while before the service. It isn’t the water itself, but the water with the Word, that does these mighty things.

Charles Wesley, in a long lost baptismal hymn, put it:

Large and abundant blessings shed
Warm as these prayers upon his head;
And on his soul the dews of grace,
Fresh as these drops upon his face.[1]

And now, the moment we’ve been waiting for arrives.

Eric, I baptize you in the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The pastor cups her hands in the water and pours it on the young man’s head, bowed over the font. It was enough water to be seen and heard, splashing down his shoulders, back in the bowl, and down onto the carpet. Three times. Should this most definitive of events call for anything less? A gracious, abundant, and very wet event. He will literally walk away, wet. Christians are the “walking wet” after all. This young man will walk, wet, into his calling as a nurse, maybe a long-term Volunteer in Mission, perhaps a spouse, a parent. Maybe even a VBS leader helping clean up a kid who just dumped red finger paint all over a poster board tacked to an easel. Maybe he can remember his baptism every day from now on when he showers, with the little laminated card the church will give him today to remind him of baptism in places like the shower or at the bathroom sink. 

The Holy Spirit work within you,
that being born through water and the Spirit,
you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Amen.

You and everyone gathered with him at the water lay hands on him for the invocation of the Spirit. There were protracted discussions about the relationship between the gift of the Spirit and baptism in the early church. What was a laying on of hands at baptism eventually took on a life of its own and became confirmation in the West. Eastern Churches celebrate it as “chrismation” immediately after baptism. This invocation of the Spirit has remained in the baptismal liturgies of western rite churches, where we have been content to invoke the Spirit here and again at confirmation, using the same formula. Were this young man to one day be ordained a deacon or an elder, he would have the Spirit invoked upon him yet again. The Spirit is even invoked over the couple in the marriage service.[2] Maybe the problem is not whether we do this too much, but not enough. Perhaps we should invoke the Spirit on one another every day! What if Christians greeted or took leave of one another with these or similar words?

As the words are said, your pastor takes a bit of oil and applies it in the form of a cross, on his forehead. Oil and water mix and mingle and continue to drip down his face. Israel’s kings were set apart with anointing. The ancient Greeks oiled up before running a marathon. The liturgy has just given us another symbol: the royal runner. 

Now it is our joy to welcome
our new sisters and brothers in Christ.

Through baptism
you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit
into God’s new creation
and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood.
We are all one in Christ Jesus.
With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you
as members of the family of Christ.

These words prompt you to think: baptism, like the supper table, is an act of hospitality. Grace itself is hospitality. It is bread broken and cup filled. It is bath water drawn, graciously poured out. How will you and the congregation continue to welcome with joy and thanksgiving this young man you’ve known for years? Have these words been in vain in past baptisms? 

The God of all grace,
who has called us to eternal glory in Christ,
establish you and strengthen you
that you may live in grace and peace.

There has been a baptismal renewal across many western rite churches in recent decades. Baptism has been reemphasized as foundational, and much of that has made a dent in the older assumptions about baptism as a mere rite of passage. This blessing, which rounds out the baptismal liturgy, asks God to establish and strengthen us. Maybe baptism itself is the means whereby such establishment and strengthening are done. How does the ordo of this liturgy of entrance into the church shape the ordo of our lives? Does it send us forth, walking wet? 

[1] Charles Wesley, “God of That Glorious Gift of Grace,” in A Collection of Hymns for the People Called Methodist, No. 896, 1889 (https://www.ccel.org/w/wesley/hymn/jw.html, Retrieved 4/28/23).

[2] Service of Christian Marriage, UMH p. 866

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