Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series on baptism in the United Methodist tradition.
“If you want to be in the club, here’s what you have to do…”
Have you ever heard these words?
Surely, at some time in your life, you have stood in front someone and been asked to do something to become a part of a group, a club, a community. It seems to be a part of human condition, these requests to perform some sort of duty in order to belong. It happens with children and their clubs of the moment, with teenagers in the formation of gangs, with college students in the Greek system of fraternities and sororities, and with adults in a variety of organizations and gatherings. At all ages, and among both sexes, this desire for rituals of initiation shows itself. And, as we learn as children, if we want to be a part of that community, if we want to be in the club, then we have no choice but to go along.
Rituals of initiation are important for groups. The word “initiation” comes from a Latin phrase which means “to come in.” Initiation is about coming into a community, to be accepted as a full participant with all the benefits and privileges that come with being a member of that community. In order to gain access, those being initiated are generally asked to perform some sort of action or undergo some sort of test to prove that they are worthy for full admission into the community.
Many times, those initiation rituals are brutal and dangerous. In several tribal cultures, admission into the community of adults in the tribe involves bodily mutilation, most often some sort of circumcision for both males and females. In many military cultures, initiation rites involve acts of hazing bordering on torture, involving sleep deprivation, verbal abuse, and in some cases physical abuse. Some of these practices followed students into fraternity initiation rituals, although these days most of the rituals tend to involve personal embarrassment rather than physical danger. And more recently, we’ve seen teens engaged in beatings and acts of crime to gain entrance into the gangs that threaten our communities.
We go through these rituals; we suffer through this abuse, to belong. You see, for a variety of reasons, we desperately want to belong. We want to be part of a group, to be in the midst of others who affirm us and care for us and become a part of our lives. The rites of initiation may be torture when we are in the midst of them, yet in some sort of strange way we come out on the other side bonded for life with others who have gone through the same thing. Our desire to be a part of a covenantal community, a community in which we truly live out the motto of the Musketeers to be “…one for all and all for one…” stirs us to do almost anything to belong. And so, we find ourselves doing some pretty stupid things along the way so that we might become “part of the group.”
So what does all of that have to do with the church and our topic of interest this month: baptism?
It is significant in that one of the claims about baptism throughout history, one of the understandings that has been connected to this ritual and sacrament, is that baptism is a ritual of initiation into the church.
That’s right. You heard me correctly. Baptism, the church has claimed through the ages, is the initiation ritual for entrance to full membership in the Body of Christ. We all should know this, for in most of the traditions that we’ve grown up in, membership has been connected to baptism. In our own church, one of the first questions I ask when someone asks about membership is whether or not they have been baptized. If they say no, then I share with them that we would love to have them be a part of the church, but that we understand that they will need to be baptized to gain full entrance into the covenant community. In most Baptist churches, membership in the church is directly tied to baptism, with most of those churches counting all who they have baptized as members. This connection between baptism and membership is true in almost all of the major streams of Christianity, and goes back to the earliest days of the church.
The link between baptism and membership was vitally important in the first two or three hundred years of the church. That was the period in our history before Constantine legalized Christianity and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. During much of that time Christianity was an illegal religion which flew in the face of the Roman gods, as well as the worship of the emperor. While the persecution of the early Christians would ebb and flow depending on who was in power at the time, there was always a sense that being a part of this covenant community wasn’t safe, and the church needed to ensure loyalty among those desiring to enter the community of faith.
We know a little bit about the initiation rituals through the writings of a Bishop in the church named Hippolytus. Hippolytus was the Bishop of Rome in the year 215 when he wrote his description of the initiation practices of the church in that community. Being a Christian in Rome was no small task given that Rome was the seat of the empire, and ensuring that members of the church were undivided in their loyalties was necessary to ensure the survival of the church in that dangerous city.
So, according to Hippolytus, there was a long and involved process to becoming a member of the Church of Rome. It began when those considering membership were brought before the leaders and questioned about their motives for wanting to be a part of the Christian community. If they were found sincere by the leaders, they would then enter a three year period of instruction called the catechumenate, not unlike our current practice of confirmation classes. During that time these persons were allowed to be present for teaching, but were restricted from taking communion, which was seen as the ultimate step of treason against the Roman Emperor.
After the three year period, these early believers would be brought before the leaders again for another examination. If they were found worthy then they were instructed to fast and pray the day before their baptism, and then gather at a central place so that the Bishop could lay hands on them and exorcise them of any demons that remained in their lives. They would stay together all night, praying and reading the scriptures until dawn, when they would be taken to a stream and baptized, children first, followed by the men and then the women. As they stood naked before the elders, the one doing the baptizing would ask, “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” When the person being baptized said yes, they would be covered in water, either through immersion or by having a bucket of water poured over their head. This would happen two additional times as they were asked if they believed in Jesus and in the Holy Spirit. At this point they would receive the kiss of peace from the Bishop as full members of the community, and they would enter the church to receive their first communion.
We live in a different time and place, of course. We don’t find ourselves at risk for our faith here in this country, and so the notion of initiation into a covenant community doesn’t have the same meaning. Yet ask someone in India or Laos today about the meaning of baptism and you will begin to understand the seriousness of this action. Baptism in those places is understood as a rejection of the old religions, and it is upon being baptized that our brothers and sisters in Christ in places of persecution throughout the world find themselves at risk. We take baptism for granted, as just another ritual, rarely thinking about what we are claiming in this act. But for our brothers and sisters at risk of persecution and death, baptism is act of a radical desire to be part of the community of faith.
That is why the apostle Paul connects baptism in his letter to the Ephesians with the call to Christian unity.
“Look,” he says, “you have been called to oneness in Christ. There is only one Christ, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.” In another letter to the Corinthian church, Paul reminds the community that baptism something that unifies the body, not divides it. Baptism, Paul suggests, is at the heart of the covenant community of faith, drawing all together in oneness. To be baptized is to be part of this Body of Christ, gifted by God for specific purposes in the body, and called to love all.
Baptism is the initiation ritual into that body, the way in which we radically claim our allegiance to this thing we call church. In a consumeristic, church shopping culture, we have a hard time thinking about that claim. We want to keep our options open, making sure that we are part of a place where our needs are getting met, and if something changes and they aren’t, well then we are on to the next place, the next community, the next church down the road.
What does it say about our commitment to the body of Christ when street gangs and fraternities and sororities have a stronger bond of community than we in the church do?
No, we may not face physical danger in following Christ, but we still need a place where we can be vulnerable and lay our burdens down without fear of petty attacks or snide comments. We may not be at risk for persecution but we continue to need a place where we can ask questions about faith with the assurance that we are safe and loved. We may be blessed in our freedom to worship where we choose, but we all need covenant communities of belonging, places where we are deeply connected and radically committed.
It is baptism that is a sign of our covenant and commitment to this place we call church. It is our initiation into the body of Christ, a radical call to be different and love different. To be baptized is to belong to a community of love that transcends all.
There may be some here today who haven’t been baptized who are asking, “Are you saying that I don’t belong? Are you saying that I’m not loved and included?”
What I am saying is that you are deeply loved and belong to this place. But there is more, a deeper connection that comes through baptism. It’s the difference between living together and being married. Folks can live together for years on end and feel deeply loved and connected to their partner. Yet, as I hear again and again, there is a difference of connection when one stands at the altar and pledges to the other that they will stick with the other through the grace of God in all circumstances and occasions.
Baptism is like marriage. It is our pledge of loyalty to the covenant community we call the church. It is a sign of our commitment, not easily broken. Like a secret handshake or a special salute only known to the members of the club, baptism draws us together in a unique and mysterious way to become the living Body of Christ in the world.
It is in our baptism that we experience the reality of the words that Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Do you want to be a part of the church?
Well then, here’s what you have to do…