Wednesday, July 16, 2014
The Three Men I Admire Most
We have a baptism this Sunday.
I did not always look forward to baptisms, but I do now. In fact, I love them. Baptizing infants and children is one of the things I love most about the ministry.
The baptism of youth and adults is important, and there are times when knowing how someone has chosen to be baptized can be incredibly moving. But babies and children are special.
I’m not sure when my attitude toward baptism changed. Maybe I was influenced by being a parent. Maybe it was knowing firsthand the hopes and dreams that parents carried for their children as they brought them to this moment. Maybe it was just about getting older and being more aware of the preciousness of each life. Maybe it was understanding baptism as a profoundly counter-cultural act. Claiming this child for the Kingdom of God as over and against the kingdoms of this world.
At the United Methodist Church in East Greenwich, we celebrate a lot of baptisms. And one of the things that makes them so special is that almost every one is with a family that really belongs to the church family. These are not folks off the street who wanting to have their child “done.” They take discipleship seriously. It means something.
In spite of my very positive feelings about baptism, I was underwhelmed by an article in the Huffington Post about a new ecumenical agreement between Roman Catholics and Reformed Protestants on the mutual recognition of each other’s baptisms. In the opening paragraph, Jaweed Kaleen writes,
“In a monumental occasion for ecumenical relations, the U.S. Roman Catholic church and a group of Protestant denominations plan to sign a document on Tuesday evening to formally agree to recognize each other's baptisms.” Later, Kaleen explains that, “Currently, the Protestant churches recognize Roman Catholic baptisms, but the Catholic church does not always recognize theirs. The mutual agreement on baptisms, a key sacrament in the churches, has been discussed between denominational leadership for seven years and hinges in part on invoking trinity of the ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ during the baptism.”
Although Kaleem initially says that the agreement “hinges in part” on the traditional Trinitarian formula, he later reports a spokesperson saying that “for our baptisms to be mutually recognized, water and the scriptural Trinitarian formula 'Father, Son, and Holy Spirit' (Matthew 28: 19-20) must be used in the baptismal rite." So, in the end, it comes down to saying the rite (and right) words as we invoke the Trinity.
I know that words matter. That’s why I long ago began using the alternative formulation of “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.” Initially, I adopted that language because I wanted to be inclusive and I knew that the “Father” language for God evoked male images which were troubling for many women, confusing in their theological implications, and subverted our egalitarian ideals as Christians. That language is not as important now as it was in terms of gender inclusiveness, but it may be even more important in terms of our theological understanding. The “Father” image lends itself too easily to the personification of God as that great old man in the sky. And the Trinity is already problematic enough, without making the relationship among the “three persons” sound at least partially biological.
Words matter because the wrong words can hurt and exclude people. And words matter because they have meaning, and meaning matters. But words are not magical. A liturgy is not an incantation.