All week long, I’ve been writing about baptism and why it matters to the present-day church. Yesterday, I discussed infant baptism. The real focus of that piece was grace—that infant baptism demonstrates that God’s redeeming, saving love is not based on anything we do or say or believe but on God’s love—pure and simple. But, in that post, I also discussed my view on sacraments, and that drew some good, sharp, and on-target criticism. Do I really believe that baptism isn’t unique? Do I really believe that baptism is largely symbolic if not merely symbolic? What, then, is my understanding of the role of baptism in the life of the church? Why do we still do it? Why not throw it out? All of those are important questions, and they get to the heart of my tendency to over-psychologize sacramental theology.
Today’s topic is an antidote to that—or at least I think it is. Today, I want to discuss the necessity of baptism—why it’s essential to the contemporary church, why there is no substitute for it, and, ultimately, why Communion should be restricted only to those who have been baptized. (How’s that for surprisingly orthodox?)
To make this point, I’m back to the reading for Sunday fromthe Acts of the Apostles (19:1-7) and the transformative story of Christian baptism. Paul, upon arriving in Ephesus, meets some “disciples,” which is to say “followers of” or “believers in Jesus.” When he asks them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they became believers, they respond that they had never heard of the Holy Spirit. Shocked, Paul asks what sort of baptism they received, and they replied that they had only received John’s baptism. Immediately, Paul baptizes them in the name of Jesus and lays hands on them, and the Holy Spirit comes upon them in clearly visible and audible ways.
It’s a story with (at least) two important implications. First, it lets us know that something happens at Christian baptism. These “disciples” were already believers in Jesus. They had already heard and known and put their faith in his story of death and resurrection. They are identified to us as followers of Jesus’ way. Call them “believers” or “converts” or “Christians,” they are in…except that they aren’t. Something tremendous and revolutionary and life-changing happens to them when they receive the baptism of Jesus. The manifestation of their faith—the way they show what it means to be a Christian—goes from essentially nothing to essentially everything. Their whole selves are taken over by the power of the God in whom they believe. That wasn’t present before. Baptism and laying on of hands—two things that, in this story, combine for a Trinitarian expression that is analogous to our modern-day baptism—make all the difference.
Second, it confirms for us that believing alone isn’t a complete expression of what it means to be a Christian. Since something was missing—since something integral to the Christian faith only came upon the disciples after they received Christian baptism—we can conclude that merely giving one’s intellectual assent to the way of Jesus isn’t sufficient. (It might be sufficient for salvation, but it isn’t complete Christianity.)
Baptism is that thing that we can’t do on our own (see yesterday’s post on infant baptism). It is an experience of God’s love for us that has nothing to do with who we are or what we do or what we believe. It is God’s unmerited, indiscriminate, unmitigated love for us. It’s that thing the dozen disciples in Ephesus get not from being disciples (i.e. from believing or following) but from encountering the power of God’s love. And it is, therefore, the thing that transforms them from disjointed, mind-only disciples to unified, heart-and-mind-and-soul, Spirt-filled Christians.
And that means that Baptism is the difference between calling one’s self a believer and living the life of the Christian. Is there any factor more appropriate for discriminating between those who are invited to the transformative messianic banquet we call Communion?
I don’t want to start a whole new post about the nature of the Eucharist (this one is already too long), but I do want to claim that Communion is about transformation. It’s about repentance and forgiveness and rebirth. It’s not about evangelism or hospitality. At the 2012 General Convention, I argued against waiving the baptismal requirement for Communion because Communion is not about welcoming people into the church. I don’t care how many people will speak of being unbelievers who felt the call to follow Jesus when they unwittingly (and contra-canonically) received Communion. That only speaks to a failure on the part of the church to bring the good news to those who hadn’t heard it yet—in other words bad evangelism combined with a poor baptismal theology. The Lord’s Table is for those who seek new life—not for those who seek a tasty snack or a socially convenient expression of belongingness. Communion is the place where Christians live out the transformation that begins at baptism.
But here’s where yesterday’s post about baptism comes full circle: I don’t ask for a baptismal ID card when people come to the altar rail and put out their hands. In fact, I don’t even use the discriminatory phrase, “All baptized Christians are invited to receive Communion.” Don’t call the Title IV police yet. Keep reading. If I know that someone has not been baptized, I will offer them a blessing instead of offering them the consecrated bread. (Actually, I will have already called them privately and invited them to consider baptism because THAT’S MY JOB AS A PRIEST.) In our bulletin, we print that Communion is open to baptized Christians and that people interested in receiving baptism should contact the rector, who would be happy and eager to offer that sacrament.
But I don’t use the word “baptized” in my verbal invitation to Communion. Instead, I say, “Communion is open to Christians of all denominations. It doesn’t matter where you go to church or even if you don’t have a church home. If you are a follower of Jesus, you are invited to his table.” Why? Because I am not convinced that genuine, life-changed, Spirit-filled, transformed-and-seeking-transformation believers are only those who have been baptized. No, I don’t believe that there is way other than baptism for the church to express that. Let me say that more clearly: I still believe that, institutionally speaking, there is no such thing as an unbaptized Christian. But I live in a community where adult baptism is the predominant mode. And I know that there are intentional, Spirit-filled followers of Jesus whose families left the churches that don’t baptize infants before they were old enough to be baptized, and I accept that for some the stigma of having not been baptized as a child or youth is a hard one to overcome. (Yes, I need to work harder on undoing that stigma, and that is part of the focus of Sunday’s sermon—read it here later.)
So, let’s bring all of this together. I believe that Christianity necessitates baptism. I believe that baptism conveys power. I believe that baptism is initiation into a life of discipleship that focuses on transformation. And I believe that Communion is primarily an encounter of continued transformation. And, because of that, I believe that unbaptized individuals should not be allowed to receive Communion but should, instead, be eagerly and enthusiastically ushered to the font. But I also believe that it is possible for that transformative initiation to happen in a way other than baptism—even if I don’t know what it is and wouldn’t dream of attempting to name a substitute for baptism—because I trust that baptism is, at its core, God’s work and not ours.