This past Sunday we had the ritual of remembrance of baptism. As one who was baptized as an infant, this is always an important way to start the year for me, and I’m so glad I, too was able to have water flung on my face (by poor little Carolyn who was a bit peeved that I had gotten her dress wet). In any case, the ritual is one that helps us as a congregation remember that our baptism (whether we have conscious memory of it or not) is a living covenant-something we live into, rather than a “historical marker” for a personal story. The experience reminded me of one of my ordination questions I answered in 2007. Next week, look for an explanation for what I believe is a rich aspect of our tradition—infant baptism.
If a person in your congregation were to ask for re-baptism, what would your response be? Explain.
I would begin by identifying the reason the person believed his or her first baptism was inadequate. Some seem to want to be re-baptized because they feel they missed out on the experience of baptism and are hungering for a tangible, memorable experience to hold. Others seem to be convinced by other denominations that only a “believer’s baptism” by full immersion is acceptable to God. I have met other people who think that baptism is a marker for every time they have felt a re-commitment to a life of faith, perhaps after a life changing experience.
At every opportunity, I make clear to the congregation that I serve that our church accepts the baptisms of other Trinitarian denominations, and that when others join our congregation from other denominations, we gladly accept their baptism from that church, because we believe the Body of Christ is bigger than our denomination. I also make note of this statement of faith when I am inviting those in the congregation to the communion table.
I can understand that especially in a culture where we tend to treat religious experience as a consumable commodity, those who have no memory of their baptism may feel “short-changed.” The impulse to mark a significant religious experience with a tangible ritual makes sense. Before wading into the theological and scriptural underpinnings to our church’s stance on this issue, I would first give some real attention to this person’s experience that they probably want to celebrate with baptism.
If the parishioner wanted to be re-baptized because they had been convinced by friends or relatives that their baptism was inadequate, I would point to the many scriptures and deep theological resources that show how sacramental baptism is the entry of the recipient into the covenant relationship with God through the Body of Christ, or the church. (See the next answer for more detail on these.) Though we may not stay true to that covenant, God remains faithful, and thus a “rebaptism” is unnecessary. God’s covenant with us, outwardly displayed by our baptism, is a one time invitation because the door is never closed. Baptism is a celebration of what God does, not what we do.
Nevertheless, because we are physical beings in need of tangible and memorable “milestones” (nothing to be ashamed of, since God created us this way), I would also lift up the resources we have in our church to mark occasions of spiritual renewal and commitment, such as reaffirmation of faith, covenant renewal, and remembrance of baptism ceremonies. Anointing is a tangible expression of our calling as baptized members of the royal priesthood that engages several senses. I also believe that a second spiritual baptism is a gift that many experience, perhaps marking the experience of justifying grace, or moments of entire sanctification. Though our Pentecostal cousins limit the experience of this gift to speaking in tongues, I have known it as a physical encounter with the Wind of God.* As believers in the ever unfolding path of sanctifying grace, we affirm the celebration of milestones along the journey of discipleship. There is no need to go back to the beginning of the race (baptism) to experience the wind on your face as you run.
*Standing in a glacial valley in Wyoming, overlooking a lake surrounded by lodgepole pines, I was praying and journaling on a cliff-face during a 2 week retreat. I suddenly noticed that I could see the wind coming down the valley from the glacier while it blew over the lake in front of me. I could see the gusts of wind before they hit my face. I also noticed that lodgepole pines whistled as the wind blew through them. Isaiah’s words rang in my ears, “For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” (Is. 55:12, KJV) Perhaps imparting to me the gift of the interpretation of tongues, God gave me the ability to hear the whistling pines and glimmering lake as creation’s response to the Holy Wind of God. The experience has been stamped on my soul, and I can still feel the wind on my face.