Thursday, April 26, 2018

Baptism? Why Not?

When I was in college, I was part of a fraternity. During my freshman year, after rush was over, I spent a few months of joyful misery as a pledge. Although I was never hit with a paddle or made to do exercise until I dropped, I was hazed—lovingly? sadistically?—until I was formally initiated and told the secrets of the fraternity. Since then, both I and the undergraduate fraternity system in general have discovered the stupidity, pointlessness, inhumanity, and danger of hazing. Still, it continues.

One way that Greek institutions have combatted the pernicious pattern of hazing is to initiate pledges at the beginning of their education about the traditions of their fraternity or sorority. Once you tell all of the secrets to the pledge, there’s no reason for him or her to hang around while older members abuse them. Imagine that: an almost instant full initiation that is followed by inculcation. Sound familiar?

In Sunday’s reading from Acts 8, the Holy Spirit is at work in powerful ways. The Ethiopian eunuch, a powerful and prominent servant of the Queen, is on his way back to Ethiopia from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship the God of Israel. Led by the Spirit, Philip came up to the eunuch’s chariot and struck up a conversation. It just so happened (isn’t that how the Holy Spirit works?) that the eunuch was reading from the Hebrew Bible and was looking for someone to help him understand what he was reading. The passage he had been reading was from Isaiah: “Like a sheep, he was led to the slaughter, and, like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he opened not his mouth.” Philip proceeded to explain how this passage was connected with the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Overcome by the Spirit, the eunuch looked beside the road and saw some water and asked, “What is to prevent me from becoming baptized?” The answer, of course, was nothing, and, after the caravan had halted, Philip led the eunuch into the water, baptized him, and then disappeared (went away hurriedly?) by the Spirit’s power.

There are several remarkable things at work in this passage. For starters, there’s the Spirit-led connection between Philip and the eunuch and Isaiah and the water. It all falls together quite nicely. Beneath that, however, is the even more remarkable truth that an Ethiopian eunuch—an emasculated man of presumably non-Jewish ancestry whose gender-identity and race would count as two strikes against him in the Mosaic Law—was baptized into the body of Christ. As we read the passage, that may not stick out to us as much as the more-than-coincidental nature of the encounter, but, in the judgment of that day, it is only the Spirit-led connection that makes it clear to us that this is, indeed, the right course of action. There’s another post—perhaps tomorrow—and a sermon or two about the inclusion of gender-ambiguous or non-conforming people in the life of the church, but, today, I want to focus on the surprising nature of the baptism itself—unprepared, unscheduled, isolated from the Christian community, yet perfect.

I remember the first time a colleague asked me in a derisive tone why we were performing a baptism in church at a time other than one of the big five occasions encouraged in the rubrics of the prayer book (1 Epiphany, Easter Vigil, Pentecost, All Saints’, and the bishop’s visitation). I was stunned. What do you mean? I asked with an equally derisive tone. Those big dates are fine, I told him, but sometimes a family and a church want to celebrate baptism in the middle of July because that’s when they can all get together for it. I understand that those days in the church year are “especially appropriate” for baptism, and I love it when it works out that we would have a baptism on those days. I also understand and share the deep desire for celebrating baptism at a time when the congregation can be present, which is to say not in a private baptism after church or on a weekday. If baptism is the full inclusion of a child of God in the body of Christ, then it makes sense that as many members of the body of Christ would be present to see it. Yes, there are probably more people in church at Pentecost or All Saints’ than on the Second Sunday of Easter, but there’s nothing wrong with the congregation coming together to celebrate a baptism on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. And, maybe, given the circumstances outlined in this reading from Acts, having a Saturday-afternoon baptism, before the out-of-town family of the baptismal candidate have left to go back home, isn’t entirely a bad idea either.

I also note with joy the rather impromptu nature of the eunuch’s baptism. Yes, he was familiar with the story of Israel. As one who had travelled to Jerusalem to worship, he was in some way already educated in the story of salvation revealed to God’s people. Nowadays, however, we are far more likely to ask an adult inquirer to come to a series of classes and jump through our appointed hoops before we bring her or him to the waters of baptism. A few years ago, on one of the big baptismal days, I preached a sermon about an “open font” and how, despite not being fond of altar calls, the Episcopal Church sees baptism (or reaffirmation of baptismal vows) as an opportunity for someone to commit (or recommit) her or his life to Christ. Before the service started, I prepared the font for a baptism even though one had not been scheduled. At the announcements, I asked if anyone wanted to be baptized. I showed the congregation that we were ready and that we would stop the service and celebrate a baptism if anyone felt so moved. Would there be appropriate catechetical instruction? Some might say now, but, given this story from Acts, were hearing the lessons and the sermon not enough?

What is to prevent someone from being baptized? That is the question the church must ask. If we believe that the work of transformation being enacted in a person, in the church, and in the world is God’s work, who are we to stand in the way? Baptism is not an opportunity for people to earn their salvation. It is a chance for us to proclaim the fullness of God’s transforming love in Jesus Christ. We cannot proclaim a commitment to God’s grace if the ministers of God’s church have made the process for initiation into that church burdensome. Let’s have an open font. Let’s preach gospel transformation. Let’s celebrate baptisms whenever and wherever and however the Spirit makes an opportunity for it. What happens if someone is initiated before she or he is fully inculcated into the faith? What happens if we reveal to someone all of the mysteries of our faith before we have hazed him or her? Good things.

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