Transfer of Power: The Vows of Baptism

March 8th, 2013

One Sunday when I was out of town and therefore out of my pulpit, I attended a local church for worship. It is not often that I was able to see worship from the pew side, and I always learned something valuable. That Sunday a young mother was being baptized. Since the church was not one of my denomination, I was interested to see how the baptism of an adult was handled. Maybe handled isn’t the right word; I think “mis-handled” fits better. The young woman came up into the chancel alone—no family, no mentor, no sponsor. The pastor introduced her by name and stated the obvious: that she was coming to receive the Sacrament of Baptism. He asked her if she wished to be baptized in the faith, and whether she would be loyal to the denomination. Upon receiving a “yes” to both questions, he sprinkled a little water from a bowl he held in his hand onto the woman’s head, offered a very short prayer, shook her hand and invited her to return to her seat. The pastor’s next words were an invitation to the youth group’s chili supper. That invitation, I approximated, was about three times longer than the baptism, and done with much more energy.

I mentally missed the rest of the service. The baptism had been given less time, less energy, less thought than the chili supper invitation! The congregation was ignored; the liturgy was ignored, the teaching moment was ignored, the welcome into community was ignored, the presence of God was ignored , the woman was virtually ignored. “Well,” I told myself, that wouldn’t happen in my denomination!”

A short time later, my husband and I retired from the pastorate. We moved to a different city and were “trying out“ various churches in the denomination in which we had served. We found one with a large but aging congregation. There was a baptism that day. Do I need to go on? It was a case of “deja vu” all over again. The baptism was treated as an afterthought—almost an intrusion—that had to be shoved into a short space to keep the service from running long.

I do not believe that these pastors were concerned that the liturgies for baptism of their denominations were outdated or abstruse, making them unfit for Sunday worship. I believe that they—for whatever reasons—did not see the liturgy as important. It was optional; and they opted out. If that was indeed the case, then I disagree most heartily.

Renouncing Sin

I do not plan to run through our entire liturgy, but would offer one substantial piece of it as witness to both the beauty and importance of our sacramental liturgies. The section titled “The Renunciation of Sin and Profession of Faith,” found in the United Methodist Hymnal in Covenant I (page 34) is rich in meaning and calls those being baptized, along with the entire congregation, into a new way of living.

The first question strips the baptismal candidate of power; the second replaces that power with new power, and the third throws the candidate totally on the power of Christ and makes him/her a member of the power-filled community.

Every six year old knows how to wield “the evil powers of this world.” What are they? They are the things that made us tell our mothers when we were six that we never wanted to go to school again. The evil powers of this world, the spiritual forces of wickedness are the powers of prejudice, exclusion, gossip, mockery, hate, violence, extortion, self-aggrandizement, and the like. Even though children may not know these words, they know the power of these things and they use them. They are the powers we use to tear down others.

As adults, we become more subtle, but no less dependent on these powers. They give us a leg up in competition with others. We feel the power of gossip, the satisfaction of being able to exclude someone, the usefulness of “me first.” But when we arrive at the door of the church, ready to be included by way of baptism, we are told that we cannot come in until we “renounce” those ugly and evil powers that had served us, we thought, so well. In the liturgy the church—not just the local church, but the Church of Jesus Christ throughout time—demands that we renounce those powers, drop them, refuse to use them. And what is more, we must repent of all the times in the past when we did use them.

So, the first thing the Church does when we come for baptism is to strip us of our power. The world may continue to hate and reject, and pre-judge others; we cannot. If you want to know something about how to measure your congregation’s faithfulness to God, you might just have a look at these three promises. Look at the source of the power your church seems to be using.

Accepting Freedom

By the second question, things are looking up. “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you…” Having been stripped of the “evil powers of this world” we are invited to accept a new kind of power, given to us by God. This, in fact, is the only kind of power that is true power. This is the power that lasts. “Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God,” (Psalm 62:11). All power belongs to God. If it is in your hands or mine, it is to be offered to God’s for God’s use.

Just as importantly, we, in baptism, are required to accept the power God gives. Never again can we as individuals, or as members of the Christian Church say, “I can’t do it. I don’t have time; I don’t have enough money; I don’t have the abilities.” (To see where answers such as these got Moses, see Exodus 3). To declare that your church does not have the necessary power to do what God calls it to do may be to deny the presence of the Holy Spirit. The answer to the second question in our liturgy causes us to admit that we do have power from God. The Church is specific about the right use of that power: “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” That is a promise to work against (resist) those people-crushing things we first fell in love with on the playground as children. “Resist” does not mean “dislike;” it means “push back.” It is not passive, but active.

Confessing Jesus

Finally, if we are still standing, there is question 3. “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior…” It is Christ who saves us from worshipping the evil powers—that is, bowing down to them, using them, as those things that make us powerful and important. We did not save ourselves from them by dint of a powerful personality, or our good looks, or racial superiority or anything else we think gives us power. God in Christ has given us the victory. We trust completely in the undeserved, but given love that God has shown us in Christ. Period.

We are now, then, servants of a Lord and Master—our power is for doing his will. And most importantly, we promise to serve our Lord in the community of God’s love and power---the Church. The Church has power from God. It is to be used. That Church, by the by, belongs not to us, but to Christ. Christ has opened it to everyone. We promise to be part of that, too.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that deserves more of the pastor’s time than do the announcements, no matter how good the chili is.

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