Monday, April 27, 2015

Making a Committment

Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch reminds me that discipleship requires commitment, but it also reminds me that the church has some fairly outdated ways of inviting individuals to make that commitment.

On Sunday, we'll read Acts 8:26-30, and we'll hear again the story of the eunuch's dramatic conversion. Although not ethnically Jewish, the eunuch was clearly interested in the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. He had made the trip to Jerusalem and was reading the Hebrew scriptures as he made his way toward home. The opportunity for connection existed. The soil had already been tilled, so to speak. Next, what was needed was the planting of a seed.

Philip is told by an angel to head out to this particular road and led by the Spirit to approach the eunuch's chariot. When asked by the eunuch for help interpreting the scriptures, Philip uses them to point to Jesus, and the eunuch is overwhelmed. In that moment, having received the good news and seeing some water along the road, the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" Good question. Nothing, it seems. (Circumcision, which was an at-that-point unresolved controversy over the question of non-Jews being baptized wasn't really an issue for the eunuch.) So they stopped, and Philip baptized the eunuch, at which point Philip disappeared and the eunuch got back in the chariot to head home.

How many preachers have moments like this? Actually, probably more than you or I would suspect. There are occasions when people come to me looking for some help connecting the dots. And sometimes the result is an "a ha" moment. But I've never had the chance to invite someone in that circumstance to be baptized. Yes, I've baptized lots of children and a few adults, but the vast majority of people I meet who are seeking some clarity have already been baptized--usually long ago. Because of infant baptism AND because I live in a community in which the predominant religious self-identification is Christian, there just aren't that many unbaptized people around. Still, though, there are plenty who are having these "a ha" moments, and I'm wondering what we should do with them?

Of course, we don't rebaptize since the work God does in us at baptism is indelible. So what should I invite people to do? We don't tell people to go and "offer the appointed sacrifice" since we're not participants in that sort of temple worship. And it feels inappropriate to tell someone to make a monetary offering in thanksgiving and as a sign of rededication. So what should we do?

Well, there's that rarely used bit of the Confirmation service called "Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows." That seems to be the place I'm supposed to turn. Someone comes to me, has that "a ha" moment, and wants to solidify that revelation should be told to stand up in front of the congregation when the bishop comes and reaffirm the vows of baptism. That's a reengagement of the baptismal moment--the way we "do" conversions in our church. Right?

But it seems like a strange and archaic way to do that. In my community, most people are baptized before they even understand what religion is, and those who are baptized later in life are still too young to appreciate the nature of that commitment. Still, as adults, people want to make that commitment. People want some way of saying, "I want to give my life to Jesus. I want to be his disciple. I want to take my faith seriously." And what can the church offer?

Seriously, I'm looking for suggestions. Is the answer as old-fashioned as an altar call? Or maybe even as old-fashioned as simply coming to church on a weekly basis? Maybe we need to tighten down on who gets to take Communion so that we have a formal readmission process every year during Lent and Easter. As I think through those options, none of them seems particularly promising.

I'll suggest that preachers like me need to spend more time emphasizing discipleship, and churches like our need more opportunities for structured discipleship. I need to preach more regularly on the importance of taking one's discipleship seriously, and I need lay leaders in our congregation to be ready to mentor new disciples (one on one or in a small group). I haven't figured out how that should work, but, for a church that is hoping to reclaim a vast swath of post-Christian, post-church people, programs for discipleship seem more promising than anything else. What do others think?

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