The Covenant…of Baptism

First Sunday After Epiphany 2010 Trinity Cathedral.

Each year, there are three main themes which mark the beginning of the Epiphany season – the arrival of the Magi  to greet the child Jesus (which we celebrated last Wednesday night with a beautiful Epiphany Evensong and Children’s Pageant); the Baptism of Christ (which we observe today); and his first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (which will be our Gospel reading for next Sunday).

Obviously, you and I were baptized because Jesus was! He joined the crowds seeking repentance and a new life under John the Baptist’s teaching at the Jordan River. Although we are not told that the 12 disciples were ever baptized, we do know (from  the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts) that they baptized others – many others! – and it seems strange that they would have done that, and avoided baptism themselves!

Certainly, down through the centuries, the Christian church has seen this “washing with water” as the primary initiation ceremony for new Christians. Our Prayer Book says that “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the Church.  The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” (BCP 299) Cannot be dissolved!

Although the essential action – the washing with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit –has remained the same over the years, Baptism has been done in lots of ways: full immersion under the water in rivers or large pools; pouring of water into baptismal fonts; even the “sprinkling” of a tiny bit of water in some cases! (Not my favorite method, I have to admit…but we recognize them all as “valid.”)

The kind of preparation we do for Baptism these days is pretty tame compared to the year-long Catechumenate program of the early Church (although there are attempts today to revive that custom). In The Episcopal Church we have at least sought to restore Baptism to its ancient and primary place in the context of the Eucharist on Sunday mornings so that the whole Community can be involved, rather than “privately” in the back of the church on a Saturday afternoon.

We even encourage Baptisms to be done on special Sundays: for example, this Sunday (when we commemorate Christ’s Baptism); at the Easter Vigil; on the Day of Pentecost; All Saints’ Sunday; and on the occasion of the Bishop’s Visit in order to re-connect Baptism to the ministry of those first Apostles’. So, baptism is offered officially every few months throughout the year.

But I believe the greatest single advance in the recapturing of the ancient centrality of the Sacrament of Baptism has been the restoration of the so-called “Baptismal Covenant” which we will use today in place of the Creed. This question and answer recitation is probably the way our Creeds developed in the first place, as the early Church sought to summarize what Christians were asked to believe, and how they were to behave, once they became part of the Body of Christ through Baptism.

Candidates were first invited to renounce “the world, the flesh, and the devil” (phrased a little differently today: we renounce “the evil powers of this world, Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness, and sinful desires!).  We are then invited to make some positive promises – to accept Jesus Christ as Savior, to put our whole trust in his grace and love, to promise to follow and obey him as Lord.

Then follows the Baptismal Covenant beginning with the earliest Christian Creed – the Apostles’ Creed. This statement of belief (and its successor, the Nicene Creed) attempts to preserve for us what the early Church came to believe about the Triune God and about God’s work of Creation, Redemption, and Sanctification.

The final five questions of the Baptismal Covenant are attempts to summarize the kind of ascetical, moral, and ethical life Christians were being asked to live:

  1. To follow the teaching of the apostles, to share in the Eucharist, and to pray.
  2. To resist evil but when we do sin, to ask forgiveness and return to God.
  3. To share the Gospel of God’s love by our words and our deeds.
  4. To love our neighbors as ourselves by looking for Christ in all people.
  5. And finally, to work for justice and peace in this world…and to start by, ourselves, respecting the dignity of every, single human being – since all are created in the image of God!

Well, as I say, since the adoption of the 1979 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, these vows and promises (which are really very ancient) have been recited hundreds of thousands of times by Episcopalians across this church. And I think it has transformed the way we see ourselves, and the way many of us look at the Church and the world.

So I want us to use these baptismal vows and promises at least on the five times each year when baptisms are being celebrated across the Church and certainly whenever we have baptisms and confirmations scheduled here. It’s a way of remembering, not only that we are the community of the baptized, but just what we are expected to believe and to practice as part of this community.

And it’s a way of living out what we prayed for in this morning’s Collect:

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit:  Grant that all who are baptized into his name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

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