Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Baptism is not a commodity

I confess I am astounded by some ideas people have about the church and religion in general. I'm not talking about the agnostic/atheist crowd who reject God and religion. I actually get along with them really well. I don't shove my faith down their throats and we often find common ground on social justice and ethical issues.

My real conundrum is with nominal Christians: those folks who say they are Christian but if you put them on trial for it, you'd never have enough evidence to convict them. These are generally folks who will say things like, "I can be a good Christian and not go to church." Basically, they want Jesus when it conveniences them and they really don't want to give up anything to be a disciple. I think of this as "consumerist Christianity."

Basically, these folks reduce faith and religion to a commodity which they feel they can demand from the Church. Nowhere is this more evident than when they have children and the question of baptism arises. It's about this time that they view me and the Church as the purveyor of religious goods and services who will, of course, baptize their kid no questions asked and no demands made.

Last year, I had someone email me on a Tuesday telling me they wanted their daughter baptized on Sunday ... yes, THAT Sunday ... because Grace was the father's childhood church and he wanted his children baptized there. Mind you, this was not an email asking me about what baptism would entail: it was an email demanding their daughter be baptized on that day because that's when they could get the family together. I responded by telling him I wanted to meet with him and his wife. Thankfully, he agreed to a face to face meeting. During that meeting, I showed them the Book of Common Prayer and the vows they made to raise their child in the Christian faith and life. I asked them how they were doing with that vow since they had made it just one year earlier for their oldest daughter. They admitted they were not living into it at all. I asked, "Why not?" They told me they hadn't found a church home close to where they lived.

I explained to them that I don't baptize children whose parents do not take them to church. It's pointless. For all the good it will do, you might as well put your child in the inflatable kiddie pool and squirt them with the hose three times. I suggested they start attending a local Episcopal Church near their home and gave them the contact information. I told them I would be willing to baptize their daughter once they became involved in a worshiping community. They called me back in four months, after getting involved in this local church, and I was delighted to baptize their daughter ... and transfer their memberships to their local church.

Baptism is about joining the Church and committing yourself to being a part of a worshiping community where you can learn to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It's about personal transformation, but we believe this happens within community, not as a solitary enterprise. Baptism is personal - but it is not private! It concerns the whole community gathered who commit to helping you grow into the full stature of Christ. We, the Church, baptize people into the Body of Christ - and at baptism, the individual "me" becomes part of a much bigger "we" known as the Church.

Some things are not commodities. Baptism isn't a commodity. It is a call from Jesus Christ to take up your cross and follow him - which means dying to self and making sacrifices. Jesus makes demands on his disciples. He didn't say to James and John, "Follow me when it's convenient for you" or "Follow me if you have nothing else more interesting to do."

Too many nominal "Christians" think that being a disciple of Jesus is like some sort of a la carte menu where you can pick and choose at your convenience when and where to follow Jesus. They believe they can have their own private belief in Jesus divorced from a community and being a part of the Church is something you do if you want to ... or not ... and baptism is a reason to get together to have a party for your baby. That isn't Christianity - it's consumerism wrapped around a cross. To be a real Christian, you need to nail your consumerism to the cross. It needs to die so that you can really live.

Baptism demands something of you. It's not yours to demand on your terms because it's not cheap grace.


Becki+ said...

Anjel, This is a wonderful piece and captures well so much of what too many think about baptism. Glad you stuck to what's right with that family. Not the popular or easy path, but the right one, and it bore good fruit.

Snarky Anglican said...

Thank you Becki+. Fortunately for this family, they found a wonderful church family to help them raise their two daughters.

I've since been approached by another family who, instead of taking my counsel and finding a church home (or returning to our congregation), chose to make me the "bad priest" because I refused to baptize their daughter - even after I spent several hours in conversation with them in their home explaining why I don't baptize children whose parents are not committed to attending church regularly.

Baptism means something ... and it does make demands on parents. I take those vows as seriously as marriage vows. Would that all couples with children did.