Baptism has a place in almost every tradition, but what does this sacrament mean for an Anglican? Plumbing the baptismal liturgy and his own personal experience, Patrick Schlabs of St. Peter’s Church responds.
I can’t recall a time when I wouldn’t have called myself a Christian. As far back as I can remember, I have been aware of God’s love and have embraced this reality in faith. I was raised in the community of the church and it was there that I learned to love and follow Christ through service, spiritual disciplines and encouragement. Interestingly, I’ve also been baptized numerous times. Although I’m a little fuzzy on the exact number, I’m confident that it’s at least six. Though I wasn’t baptized as an infant, an Anglican understanding of baptism has helped me understand and articulate my early experience in the faith (multiple baptisms notwithstanding). In it I’ve come to realize that baptism was primarily a promise from God that called for a response from me, my family and my church.
Baptism is a promise from God to us.
Growing up, I always knew that baptism was about a promise. I viewed it as a public affirmation of my commitment to God, a promise to love and serve Him all my days. But I had confused the subject and the object of the promise—for before it was my promise to God, it was first his promise to me. As the Anglican Catechism puts it, baptism is the inward, spiritual grace that assures us of union with Christ, new birth into God’s family, forgiveness and life in the Holy Spirit. These glorious promises are beyond human will or emotions. In general, the sacraments are a tangible way in which the Holy Spirit makes God’s promises a reality to us. In baptism, God uses the physical element of water to assure us of the spiritual reality that we are in Christ—crucified, buried and risen. These glorious promises are beyond our willing, doing or feeling. They are a divine commitment to us. And regardless of age of baptism, it is a physical sign of God’s love toward us.
Baptism is promise from us to God.
But like grace itself, God’s promises in baptism demand a response.
These ‘secondary’ commitments arise out of God’s commitment to us and involve the individual, the family and even the community. As such, the Anglican baptismal liturgy begins with the response from the individual, or if a child, from the parents and godparents. Following a basic Biblical pattern of repentance and faith, the candidates renounce Satan and all his works and turn to Christ as Savior and Lord. Here the candidates are simply called to ‘live into’ their new identity as children of God. It is a promise that reaches back to God’s call to Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. He and God’s people were to embody the character of the Lord and so point all nations to him. Likewise, our baptismal promise is simply a call to ‘bear the family resemblance’ of God’s people so that we may call others to this new life in Christ. When baptizing an infant, these promises are made by parents and godparents. Their lives are called to reflect God’s grace so that the child will walk naturally into their identity as children of these promises.
Baptism is a promise to one another.
But even this promise is too steep for any individual or family to keep on their own. Anglicans recognize that it ‘takes a village’ for anyone to have the grace to walk into God’s promises. Because of this truth, the baptismal liturgy calls upon the Church community to do ‘all in their power to support these people in their life in Christ.’ All is a big word and should include things such as prayer, encouragement, mentoring and even correction (as a parent of young children, free babysitting is also a welcome addition) for the candidate and family. By this, we make promises to one another to rest in God’s love toward us in Christ and walk in a manner worthy of that love. Lest we forget, the entire community recites the baptismal covenant together during the service. In so doing, we remember and renew our baptismal promises before God, one another and before the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. Even here, we recognize our great need for grace, as this portion of the baptismal liturgy concludes with corporate requests for the Holy Spirit to enact these promises on our behalf. Even our (re)commitments in baptism are dependent upon the grace of God towards us.
Though I was baptized several times, my story confirms the power in these promises of baptism, for before I understood God’s promises toward me, they were proclaimed over me as a child. My parents lived out God’s grace and raised me in that knowledge. Our church community, though far from perfect, encouraged and supported me too in my young faith. Now, every time I attend a service of baptism, the Holy Spirit assures me of the promises of God and invites me to walk more deeply into them.
All praise and thanks to you, most merciful Father, for
adopting us as your own children, for incorporating us into
your holy Church, and for making us worthy to share in the
inheritance of the saints in light; through Jesus Christ your
Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy
Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.