In preparation for the upcoming baptism on July 14, I have been meeting with the family, as I do with all the individuals and families who come for baptism in the church. Each time we talk about the promises that they will make, either for themselves or on behalf of children who are not old enough to make those promises for themselves. The most recent conversations have led me to reflect on baptism, particularly the role of community that is highlighted in both the promise of the candidates and by the promise of the witnessing community.
Baptism predates the Christian faith as a ritual of cleansing and initiation in a life of faith. There are indications that Jews during Jesus time at least had a form of baptism. John the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus called people to a baptism of repentance. It appears that it was both a ritual cleansing, which was an important part of the Jewish faith and also a way in which converts to Judaism were initiated into the faith through a ritual similar to baptism. Jesus in his ministry, particularly as the end approached, talked about the baptism of the Holy Spirit that was coming. As well, his final words to the disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, (28:17-19) commissioning them and those who came after them to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, as we celebrate baptism we continue in this ancient tradition of welcoming new believers through the waters of baptism.
Baptism is not only an initiation into the Christian Church, but a public acknowledgement of our faith and desire to follow Jesus. The fact that the Church has moved away from private baptism to only celebrating baptism as part of public worship service is an important reminder that it is a public declaration of faith and the importance of the community in our Christian life. We were not intended to make this journey on our own, to be a Christian in isolation from the larger Christian community.
In the baptism service itself there are at least three different times when the role of community is highlighted. First, the candidates are presented by someone else, whether that is a friend or relative. This person or persons by presenting the candidate are making a commitment to support them in their life of faith. In the case of children this often includes but is not limited to parents. I have often said that the god-parent or sponsor of a child has the unique role of nurturing that child in faith along with their parents. In some Anglican Churches I have also seen that there is a parish sponsor, someone who becomes the contact or connection to the faith community.
Second, as part of the baptism covenant or promises, which the community gathered join in renewing, the first question in the series of six that speak to how we live out the faith that we have just proclaimed is, “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?” This question for me highlights our commitment to being part of a faith community (the apostles’ fellowship) and the worship (breaking of bread and prayers). For many parents this is the promise that I highlight, because we can live out all the rest of the promises on our own, but this is a promise that we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
Third, and probably not something that we think about as often is the promise of all who are present, “will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” Each time there is a baptism I ask this question to the congregation gathered and we make a promise to support them. As a community this begins by providing a place for people to learn about and come to know Jesus, to have their faith nurtured. We do that through Sunday school for young children, through bible study and faith study groups, we do that through the sermons and other teaching of the church. This promise is also about how we take care of the whole person, as we follow in the tradition of the early church by providing for those in need, by being a welcoming and inclusive community, and by being advocates, giving voice to the voiceless and oppressed.
As we prepare to welcome a new family into the family of God, let us all reflect on the importance of community in our faith lives and how we seek to love and serve one another in this community and especially those we have promised in baptism to support in their life in Christ.
Blessings, Rev. Dana