Thursday, June 16, 2011

From entitlements to practices - For Trinity Sunday

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…”  (Matthew 28.19)
It’s pretty clear – baptism and discipleship belong together, in the same sentence, in the same breath. Baptism is how the church makes disciples. I wonder what would happen if we decided that the relationship between baptism and discipleship should be as clear and direct in our practice as it is in our scripture.

For the most part, our churches have leaned toward an apparently more Pauline understanding of baptism – as membership. In baptism, we graft new members into the Body of Christ. A hand, a foot, an eye – distinctive working parts of a purposeful body. Unfortunately, “member” has come to mean something quite different than it once did.

Membership has come to mean “belonging”, as in club membership – the Oakville Club, the YMCA. Moreover, as American Express reminds us, “membership has its privileges”.  It’s easy for us all to fall into the trap of imagining ourselves as privileged members of a religion club, of baptism as a ritual initiation not into a purposeful body, but into entitled membership. Clergy and other staff become responsible for providing the religious product – teaching, worship, and social life – that members want, rather than for equipping each member to make her or his unique and vital contribution to the shared purpose of the body.

That shared purpose, says today’s gospel, is found in discipleship, in following the way of Jesus. And the writer of Ephesians reminds us that the work of leaders – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers – is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry”. (Eph 4.11-12) In Ephesians, unlike at the YMCA, body building is not an end in itself, but the building of a capacity for ministry, for serving the purpose to which God calls us.

Our Baptismal Covenant frames that purpose with five characteristic behaviours:  
  • To sustain a common life of learning, koinonia, prayer and eucharist.
  • To resist evil and turn back to the way of Jesus when we have chosen other ways.
  • To tell the story of Jesus as Good News.
  • To serve God by way of loving service to those among whom we find ourselves.
  • To take up prophets’ witness to God’s passion for a just and peaceable humanity.

In baptism, membership doesn’t come with privileges. Membership comes with a covenant, a purpose, and with practices that sustain that covenant and serve that purpose.

Moreover, this is not a way of life for a particular tribe, for people with shared habits and histories. I wonder if we underestimate how strange and perhaps threatening Jesus’ assertion – that baptism incorporates “all nations” into a community of disciples – would have seemed to his contemporaries, for whom tribes and peoples were distinct and often mutually hostile. To include the Other – Other tribes, Other languages, Other customs, Other food and sounds and smells, the Other-wise oriented, Other histories – is a daring and provocative innovation. To include that Other as a partner in God’s work, not just tolerated, but vitally necessary to God’s mission, is high on the list of the church’s unfinished business. One day, perhaps it will be true that “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” Perhaps it will become more true one day at a time, as the baptized lay aside the entitlements of privileged membership to take up the practices of purposeful discipleship.

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