Children’s literature is full of stories in which someone discovers a magic doorway – the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, the back wall of a clothes closet in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – through which they pass into a world where everything is different. The sacrament of Holy Baptism, symbolized by the baptismal font that stands by the entrance to our worship space, is such a magic doorway into the world of Christ.
Through baptism we pass from captivity to the values and visions of this world, from sin and death, into freedom in the values and vision of Jesus Christ, citizenship in the household of God. In the world we are constantly at risk, needing to prove ourselves, competitive, anxious, fearful, desperate, alone. In the kingdom of God we are always safe, always loved, accepted for ourselves, forgiven, part of a community founded in Christ.
Of course, our passage through this magic doorway is never complete in this life. We are always “living into” our baptism – which is why we come together week by week in worship, to renew and feed our baptismal commitment. But through Holy Baptism, as in the other sacraments, God is working all the time in us to bring us to perfection, in ways we cannot see, or notice only now and then when we are “surprised by joy.”
This sharp division between worlds that underlies our theology of baptism is something new in the last generation, or rather something ancient that was restored in the liturgical reforms embodied in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in the Episcopal Church and parallel reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church. These reforms drew on discoveries about baptism in the early Church, when Christians were a persecuted minority in a pagan world, and modern advances in biblical and theological scholarship. We see this in the readings today: the prophet Amos speaking truth over against the rulers of Israel, John the Baptist beheaded because he stood against the corruption of King Herod. Baptism, and biblical faith generally, are profoundly countercultural.
Over the centuries after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the distinctions between the kingdoms and values of the world and those of Christ became blurred and lost. Babies were baptized more or less automatically at birth and people grew up more or less automatically thinking of themselves as Christians. Baptism was often thought of only in terms of a “ticket to heaven” or simply “the thing nice people do.” Traces of that old “Christendom” way of thinking remain in the many people in our culture who “believe in God” or were baptized as infants but have no connection with a church community.
The liturgical reformers sought to reestablish ancient conceptions of the Church – the body of Christian believers – as “over against” the secular world, committed to different values and a different lifestyle. The emphasis shifted from the ticket to heaven to entry into a counter community and its life here and now. Those values and lifestyle are outlined in the five promises that follow the Apostles’ Creed in the Baptismal Covenant, which we will recite in a moment. If you believe in this sort of God, these promises say – the living God experienced as Father, Son and Spirit – then you will live in this sort of way. The believing is inseparable from the “behaving” – or, as we keep emphasizing, the “belonging,” the being a member of the household of God.
Two things were emphasized by the reformers: participation and community. We will encounter them again and again as we move through our look at worship in these coming weeks. Again and again we will see the insistence that worship is not something the priest does for the people, but something that the people of God do together.
When I was a child in the Episcopal Church the priest did virtually everything in the worship service, assisted only by an altar guild, servers, ushers and a choir. “Pray, pay and obey” was never as prominent a rule in the Episcopal Church as it may have been in the Catholic Church, but it was actually pretty much the way things worked. Now the clergy are seen as servant leaders of the congregation; the primary order of Christian ministers are the baptized. Participation in worship is supposed to model the participation by the baptized in carrying out the Gospel in the world.
The second emphasis of the reforms is community. Baptisms used to be performed privately, with only family and friends present. Sometimes they were even performed at home, as the prelude to a private party. No longer. Now, except in an emergency, they must be celebrated in church, at the principal service on a Sunday, with the full participation of the community. Baptism is a community event, just as Christianity is a community religion.
Perhaps the most powerful symbol of this in worship is the exchange of the Peace, in which we greet one another, symbolically uniting before we proceed to receive the Sacrament. In Holy Communion we do not just communicate and unite vertically with God, but also horizontally with one another. The exchange of the Peace encountered enormous resistance precisely because it shattered the “private” nature of previous worship. And it is interesting that the main objection of people when we configure our seating “in the round,” is that “I have to look at other people.” That is about community. We are not saved as individuals alone; we are saved together, as the Body of Christ.
So Holy Baptism is the beginning of our look this summer at worship. But the changes liturgically in Baptism – participation and community – run through all of what we will be exploring in the weeks to come.