by Pastor Doug Kings
Last weekend I made a whirlwind trip to Chicago. I’ve never travelled for this reason before: to conduct a baptism. And so, on a lovely fall afternoon in a suburban Chicago backyard, baby Brooks was officially welcomed into the family of God.
I married Brooks’ parents a few years ago and I married Brooks grandparents some years before that. I knew them because Brooks’ great-grandparents had been active in my home church’s youth and education program. As a teenager, they essentially became my surrogate parents, providing a stable and loving refuge as I navigated my own dysfunctional family and adolescent confusion.
Their living room was regularly filled with mostly teens and twenty-somethings for Bible studies that often lasted into the wee hours. I ate countless meals at their table and joined in raucous gatherings that showed me how fun a family can be. When I returned to Chicago for seminary, their home became my laundromat—and the place for yet more meals.
My life has been interwoven with this family for many years and they have truly been a gift of God to me. When I think of what church can and ought to be, I think of their gracious welcome and hospitality.
This weekend’s baptism came about because the realities of church have changed. Brooks’ parents are fine people who will provide all he needs for his nurture and protection. Yet, while raised in Christian families, they are not members of a church—hence, the backyard baptism.
While the pandemic is the “official” explanation for this omission, their non-churchgoing is completely normal for people of their generation. They epitomize the millions of good, even spiritual people for whom church is a mismatch. Will it be a better match later in their lives? Perhaps, but maybe not.
Early in my ministry I would have been troubled by a request to do a baptism like this, but not now. Times—and I—have changed. I thought of the story in Acts of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. After their chariot Bible study, the eunuch says to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” What indeed? When asked what I would need to do Brooks’ baptism, I said “water.”
What is baptism about? For Paul, in the first decades of the church, it was a matter of life and death. To the Christians in Rome, he writes:
Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
Heady stuff. But Paul is writing to people who would have remembered their own, perhaps very recent, baptisms.
When the church moved to infant baptism as the norm, such language lost much of its force. Baptism became the public welcoming of a new baby, a declaration of God’s love us, but more often, and more darkly and superstitiously, protection from evil and the dangers of hell. Unfortunately, this latter interpretation (“fire insurance” some call it) has been the most prevalent, mostly because of the church’s own promotion of it.
But as the conclusion of the passage above makes clear, in Paul’s view baptism is about this life, not a life to come. Nor does he ever use the “baptism = going to heaven, not baptized = going to hell” dichotomy that became common in the church. Today, a growing number of theologians and church members reject this understanding of baptism and of salvation generally.
One of these is Matthew Fox. Forty years ago, he titled his groundbreaking, best-selling book, Original Blessing, as a counter to the notion of “original sin,” which originated in the 4th century. Fox and others ask why the church has fixated on Genesis 3’s fruit picking story (a fixation which unfortunately included the reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin). Instead, we should focus on Genesis 1 where five times God declares the creation good and on the sixth day, with the creation of humanity, God sees everything as “very good.”
Seeing humanity through the lens of sin has been religion’s “stick” approach to salvation. Jesus’ approach, on the other hand, was the “carrot” of God’s love and compassion. When Jesus’ talks of sin, usually it is either to forgive it without hesitation or to denounce it in the form of religious hypocrisy. The evil of religious rules and regulations, in Jesus’ view, was that they prevented people from finding God’s love.
In a meditation titled, “Original Blessing,” Richard Rohr zeroes in on where the stick theology of original sin goes wrong, with its emphasis on Jesus’ death as the “atonement” for human wrongdoing.
Why did Jesus come? Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. It didn’t need changing. God has organically, inherently loved what God created from the moment God created it. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.
Baptism is considered a sacrament, a “means of grace,” in Luther’s words. A sacrament makes the love of God in Christ tangible and visible. Over the centuries, however, baptism and the church have conveyed a mixed message. Jump through these hoops, agree with these statements, take these classes, adopt these behaviors, and then maybe we’ll let you into our club.
Jesus’ message was radical: the good news of God’s love for everybody. The only way for the gospel to have its original power is for it to be as radical as Jesus’ made it. Is there water? Splash away.
Blessings in your life and ministry.