The Public Audacity of Baptism
The blog below reflects on the advent of Epiphany, Jesus’ baptism, our baptism, the attempted (and arguably ongoing attempt at) a coup, Christian responsibility for it, and Christian freedom to be ambassadors of another way.
So, I acknowledge that it might be a bit…much to cover in a blog.
But as I often say, theology doesn’t matter unless it matters.
There’s a lot that matters both in theology and in the world right now, and more intersections amongst both than one can count.
Below I strive to draw just a few of those lines.
The text of the blog is, obviously, published below, but I’ve recorded it as well: you can access that recording here.
In these days of tumult, terror, and simply being tired, I wish you courage, and I wish you the peace of Christ.
“The sacraments are not only outward signs, but they are at least that.”
So begins the late Lutheran theologian Walter Bouman’s reflection on Article XIII, “The Use of the Sacraments,” of the Augsburg Confession, the foundational document of the Lutheran tradition.
It was a working joke that Walt was more Lutheran than Luther, but let’s be clear: his is no provincial Lutheran sacramental take.
Instead, Walt’s simply pointing out the obvious: Baptism and Holy Communion publicly identify Christians as Christians, and that public identification matters.
But the crazy thing is, I’m not sure that baptism is, even, recognized by most mainstream Protestants as an outward sign, or, for that matter, as a sign of anything at all, other than some invisible, talismanic fire insurance—the word ‘talisman’ comes from the Greek word ‘telos,’ meaning ‘end,’ or ‘final.’
I fear that the “purpose” of baptism tends to be seen as mostly, if not solely, about the end-times: if you’re baptized, the general consensus is, you won’t be damned to hell, no matter what, because you come…pre-soaked, as it were.
That, right there, that has largely become the import of baptism: saving oneself from eternal condemnation.
Walt, though, Walt here zeroes in on an element—a key, if not the key element—of baptism that has fallen by the wayside: the imminent, evangelistic (even within the Communion of the Saints) effects of baptism.
It’s low-hanging but rich fruit for Epiphany musings.
His own musings were cued up by two back-to-back experiences of his, incidents that happened to him in Eisenach, then in the former East Germany, in 1985, just before the Berlin Wall fell.
The first involved a proud mama: Walt got to visiting with her—he had a knack for striking up interesting conversations with most anyone—on a train. During their chat, the woman told him of her daughter, a swimmer extraordinaire. The mother proudly shared that her girl was so good in the water that she’d even received some assurance that a spot on the East German swimming team could be within reach.
There were, said the mother, clear advantages for her daughter’s athletic gifts.
The conversation took a turn, wrote Walt, when the woman asked him what his vocation was, his “Beruf.”
He replied that he was a theologian.
The news immediately made her uncomfortable.
Embarrassed, the woman explained that she and her family were not religious.
Relatedly, she noted, her daughter was not baptized, because, said the mother, ‘there are no advantages to being baptized.”
And of course, in the former East Germany, that was true. In fact, there were stark disadvantages to being baptized.
As it turns out, the very next day, Walt attended an East German worship service in which both the Eucharist and a baptism were celebrated.
He marveled at the tremendous contrast between the exchange with the mother on the train the day before, and the communal joy of the mother, and the father, and the gathered community, around the table and the font.
Walt wrote, “…in the signs of Baptism, and the Holy Eucharist, and Forgiveness there are privileges of which those without faith cannot be aware. We are let in on the gospel, that Christ is risen, and that he has the last word, a word which is ‘above all rule and authority and power and dominion.’”*
The outward signs, Walt understood—and, in fact, saw in action—reveal less what will happen at some indeterminate later: I mean, do we, or do we not believe that nothing will separate us from God in the risen Christ Jesus (Romans 8)?
Instead, baptism reveals more what happens, and is called to happen, now.
A week ago Wednesday, violent and vile insurrectionists attempted to overthrow our democracy.
All indications are that these domestic terrorists are hardly calling their efforts a wrap.
They—many of them bearing the symbols of Christianity—engaged in despicable violence on Epiphany.
They arrived with a symbol of Christianity on flags—a fish, the symbol of Jesus who came to save the world, desecrated with a nationalistic palatte of red, white, and blue.
They blithely and blasphemously fused Christianity and patriotism, which when strained together create a combustible cocktail known as Christian nationalism.
This mob, swarming with individuals anchored not just in lies and debunked conspiracy theories, but in toxic and heretical notions of Christianity (tendencies all too rarely denounced from mainstream pulpits), engaged in destruction and treason on the very day we in the liturgical Church mark two things:
First, the arrival of the Magi, who showered the baby King—not some demagogue—with gifts, outward signs marking his birth as the Son of God, his life as a Servant of God, and his death therefore as a wrenching inevitability;
Second, the arrival of a season dedicated to paying attention to the revelations of God and God’s vision for the world, one quite in contrast to the Herod of Jesus’ and the Magis’ day, who, as it turns out, was also known for brutality.
Of all days, the beginning of Epiphany is the day the treasonists chose to brutalize both people and democracy.
To boot, last Sunday—and not coincidental to the advent of Epiphany—the Church marked Jesus’ baptism, this inauguration of an age of repentance and of allegiance not to the likes of the autocrat Donald Trump and his enablers, not to the interminable malevolence of these last four years, not to the toxicity of the various characters and cultures which created and nurtured them—but with Jesus and the agenda of God.
Moreover, brother Mark told us in last Sunday’s gospel text that Jesus was baptized with the Holy Spirit.
Not a mob spirit.
But the Holy Spirit.
And in the text from Acts 19, we hear that following the resurrection, new disciples were baptized with water and the Holy Spirit.
Not a mob spirit.
But the Holy Spirit.
Mobs make their working assumption that their numbers, threats, violence, loudness give them an advantage.
But reviewing the matter from a perspective of fidelity to God rather than to some transient ruler or passing political party, the cacophony of chaos is no advantage.
It’s the demonic in action.
Mobs trust that the fear and acquiescence—or just as dangerously, the apathy—in their wake will embolden, enable, and empower their malicious agendas.
Looking at the persisting support for Trump by GOP electeds, not to mention by GOP voters, one can argue that they’ve got a decent case.
But holiness, holiness knows of a different way.
Baptism inaugurates us into that different way.
In fact, our baptism doesn’t mince words about what’s at stake: the congregation and the sponsors—all whom we can assume consider themselves Christians—are asked to renounce purported advantages such as the mobs and the demagogues count and crave.
This is not a gentle, equivocating word, “renounce.”
One does not wonder where things stand, when one summons up the word “renounce.”
“Do you renounce the devil and all his empty promises?”
“Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?”
“Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?”
Renouncing Calls A Thing What It Is—precisely what is so desperately needed in our nation right now and what so many baptized Christians are reticent to do.
That is sacramentally, let alone theologically, messed up.
Baptism, you see, even the act of baptism is itself a threatening act to the powers of this world.
The very act, the splash of water on the head of a child of God, the act that occurs in a community of the baptized, those who have had water and promises splashed on them, rejects the agenda of the world, reminds us of the agenda of God, and connects the community of the baptized to them both.
In so far as that is true, the entire community threatens the powers of this world.
Because baptism immerses us into a new way of being, it sacramentally aligns us with God, and it is a public announcement that we reject that which defies God.
The act becomes action.
Here’s the thing that gets me every time I read Walt’s story of the proud East German mama:
This woman got it.
She—probably herself unbaptized—understood what, I fear, most U.S. Christians don’t.
She grasped the import of baptism.
She understood that there are consequences to outwardly marking oneself, identifying oneself, as baptized.
Insofar as that is true, this woman—the mama who wouldn’t baptize her child—was an ambassador of the revelation of God.
She herself was an epiphanic moment, a revelation, if you will, of God.
She was right, of course: there are no advantages to being baptized…at least as defined by those wielding power and privilege in this world.
Moreover, and I do believe she knew this too, for she had appropriate trepidation: if you are baptized, not only do you not reap the benefits of such advantages.
You are called to renounce them.
In fact, if you are part of the baptized community, you promise to renounce them.
The only passive thing about baptism is receiving it.
But being baptized, and then self-identifying as a Christian, these acts have meaning, they have heft, they mark an inward and outward sign that you are different!
Christianity is no mere club, no extra-curricular, no rote obligation.
It’s a way of life.
You embrace a new way of being.
And you renounce an alternative ones.
And here’s the thing about renouncing:
There is no wiggle room about it.
There is no asterisk, no caveat, no some-conditions-apply.
Renouncing that which is evil means naming the evil.
Renouncing that which is not of God means calling out and calling back those who have been called to live in ways other than they are.
Renouncing idolatry risks alienating friends and family who do not see that they are being called to repentance, but call them out one must.
But here’s the other thing:
Renouncing can multi-task.
For example, when you renounce, you also implicitly affirm.
You affirm that which is good.
You affirm the ways of life that honor God.
You affirm building up the community of God.
You affirm the reign of God.
Baptism is all this: a renunciation, and a blessing.
Insofar as that is true, baptism is mark, an outward sign, an epiphany, of God.
Repent, renounce, and be blessed by the reign of God might not seem like Gospel, might not seem like it is Good News.
But for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, it surely is.
So the thing that gets me every time I read Walt’s story about the East German family who baptized their child, fully aware and fully despite the risks, is their courage.
Their astonishing courage.
They knew exactly what the swimmer’s mama did.
She didn’t have privy knowledge about how the Christian claims directly contradicted the regime’s claims.
Nevertheless, the family gathered around font and table anyway.
Fully aware of both the disadvantages and the freedoms of these very public markings, these very outward signs, and the very clear consequences of them in every day life, they baptized anyway, in spite of fear, to spite fear, because, somehow, somewhere along the line, they were “let in on the gospel, that Christ is risen, and that he has the last word, a word which is ‘above all rule and authority and power and dominion.’”
I can’t help but think, all the more so in these last four years, that had Christians been as aware of the implications of the Gospel as was the swimmer’s mama, and as emboldened, empowered, and imbued with audacious courage as was the family by the font, we would have a) publicly and collectively renounced white supremacy, rising fascism, and cruelty at the border; b) called to repentance Christians who either supported or were silent in the face of this malignant malevolence; and c) called ever so many things what they were and are.
And I wonder whether, therefore, that mob spirit of last week would have been dissipated by the Holy Spirit.
And maybe, just maybe:
Babies wouldn’t have been ripped from families at the border.
Muslims wouldn’t have been banned because of their faith.
War criminals wouldn’t have been pardoned.
Proud Boys and Nazis movements would have been quashed.
Disabled people and the poor wouldn’t have had their already paltry funding cut.
Land and waters would have been protected.
Children wouldn’t have been slaughtered in their schools.
Lies wouldn’t have been passed as alternate truths.
Men who lay their hands without permission on women’s bodies wouldn’t have been given presidential power to decide what women themselves do to their bodies.
Districts would not have been gerrymandered.
Election results wouldn’t have been disputed.
Over 360,000 Americans wouldn’t have died of Covid and suffered the estrangement of friends, families, and jobs because of a dictator’s impotence and pride.
And one of the most recent outward sign of the Church wouldn’t be a demagogue, who speaks of 2 Corinthians, holding an upside down Bible before a Church he co-opted for a photo shoot after he cleared peaceful protesters out with violence.
The time has come—no, it’s been here for far too long—for Christians to grasp the East German swimmer’s mama clarity about the claims of the Christian Gospel, and to be grasped by the courage of the East German Christian’s family to trust it.
For, to lean in to the texts of next week, 1 Corinthians 6, we learn that Christ followers “were washed…sanctified…justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
Not mob spirit.
But the Holy Spirit, with which we were baptized to audaciously, courageously live as an outward sign of the Gospel, and to publicly embody and embrace the implications of it.
*(Bansemer, Richard, and Walter Bouman, We Believe: A Prayer Book Based on the Augsburg Confession, Delhi, NY: American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1999, p. 59)