Pastors who think about it will tell you that baptismal practice in the church is anemic. This is not a new or recent diagnosis. Calvin complained of the baptismal practice of his day, as did Barth in his time. In many places, baptism is just a cultural rite of passage. Congregations expect to laugh and smile.
The babies are lifted up and adored. There is little grasp of the cosmic significance of the event: this child is being united to Christ himself and thus to all Christ’s people of every time and place. This child has just been given an identity that trumps its identification with his or her own parents. This child is a child of God, will go by God’s name, and is now expected to develop a family resemblance. So, besides being a time of great joy as we celebrate new life and God’s grace, baptism should also sober both parents and congregation as they assume great responsibilities.
In order to push back against almost empty baptismal exercises, many of us spend a lot of time teaching about the meaning of baptism in as many venues as possible in our congregations. We spend time on pre-baptismal initiatives. We take great care with liturgical practices, hoping that they teach as well as honor God’s action in the sacrament.
In After Baptism, John Burgess takes a very different approach. Burgess looks at the post-baptismal life of the church and family. This is likely the most neglected aspect of baptism in the life of the church. There is a loosely-felt connection between our Sunday School programs and the congregational promise to help the parents raise their children in the Lord. Beyond that, the life of the community is not directed at baptismal identity or belonging. Burgess attempts to correct that deficiency.
The world is filled with threats to our baptismal identity. Martin Luther’s words ring as true today as they did in the sixteenth century: “this world with devils filled” threatens “to undo us…” Burgess contends that in such an environment, three practices in particular help us sustain our own and our children’s baptismal identities. These are not new practices; they have marked the church throughout time. First, there is the practice of attending to the Word. Immersion in scripture transforms us as the story of God’s people becomes our story and shapes our identity. On this point Burgess draws upon his earlier book, Why Scripture Matters (Westminster John Knox, 1998).
The second practice is that of life together. Leaning heavily on Bonhoeffer’s work, Burgess describes this as a discipline of listening to others, helping others, and bearing others’ burdens. How does this help us remember who we are in our baptism? “According to Bonhoeffer, we are able to listen, help, and bear only because Christ himself listens, helps, and bears through us. As we listen, help, and bear we grow in the image of Christ and set forth Christ to others. Others will be reminded about their identity in Christ, not first by our words about the Word but by the Word that speaks through our posture of humility and openness” (14).
The third discipline is the practice of the Eucharist. “In the supper, Bonhoeffer wrote, the community claims its truest, deepest identity” (15). In the Eucharist we rehearse our baptismal identification with Christ. We remember his death and resurrection and also remember that we are those who died and rose with him.
In keeping with the Reformed tradition, Burgess shows how these practices correspond with the three marks of the church, in which the word is truly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline properly exercised (life together). In the past, these marks have been used to judge what was a true and what was a false church. Burgess wants us to reclaim those marks, not to use in judgment of others, but to help us bear witness to Christ in an authentic community. In a world of inauthenticity, this is no small task.
Burgess not only actively recovers the marks of the church; he also understands the commandments according to the third use of the law. The commandments guide us in a way of living that demonstrates who we are and to whom we belong. They are markers of our identity. Reflecting especially on the fourth, fifth, and sixth commandments, he points out that the Sabbath reminds us of our true allegiance and gives us space in which we can reflect on being the people God has called us to be. The fifth commandment to honor our parents promises a heritage of faith that looks both to the past and future. And the sixth commandment not to murder helps us to remember who humans are in the eyes of God.
Burgess’s connection of the commandments with baptism and the life of the covenant community accomplishes two important ends. First, it encourages us to see that Reformed ethics is grounded upon our striving to live as an authentic community of those who are joined to Christ in baptism. Second, in treating the commandments seriously as the rule of life for the community, Burgess develops an understanding of corporate sin that humbles us and opens our ears to the cries of others outside our baptismal community: “Sin places us in solidarity with the world. But the new life in Christ also sends us into another, more profound kind of solidarity with the world. Life in Christ is…[life] under the cross…with others. I allow others and their actions to weigh me down. I no longer see myself in isolation from others, or my actions apart from theirs. God’s will to redeem the whole of creation draws me into the world. I face it; I take responsibility for it, even for those sins that are not mine. I join with Christian brothers and sisters in interceding for a violated, violating world, offering it up to God for God’s transforming grace” (102).
After Baptism is a biblical and theological treatment of the post-baptismal life of the church. But it also has a personal touch as Burgess shares what it means for him as a father to understand that his daughters belong to Christ in the community of the baptized. As a pastor, I appreciate what the post-baptismal shape of a congregation means for the life of its children and teenagers. Burgess spins out a vision that is radical, fundamental, and which, if lived out, could actually make the rite of baptism mean something in the lives of our congregations.