Voice of the Rector: On Baptism

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By The Rev. Carlton Kelley

carlton_kelleyAs we know, Holy Baptism is our foundational sacrament of redemption in which we are buried with Christ so that we might be raised with him to newness of life.  Not only does this sacrament grant the grace of the reality it signifies – new life – but it makes us inheritors of a kingdom of grace and light that is vastly different from the world in which we live. While “this present world” is still a place of death and destruction, both horrible and devastating, it is our joyful responsibility as Christ’s Body to help to transform it daily into the kingdom of life, light, and peace. The early church took Baptism so seriously that only death by martyrdom for those who were preparing for Baptism could be counted as equal.  As disciples of the Lord, it is our part to live our lives that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” All our deeds of self giving, self sacrifice, and love are part of God’s kingdom which is here and yet to come.  It is by living into our Baptismal vows that we grow into Christ’s image and like. (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304ff)

One of our joys as Episcopalians is that the Baptismal Covenant has found a welcome place in every Episcopal Church of which I am aware.  We are given the opportunity regularly to reaffirm our commitment to the fundamental change in reality that Baptism signifies.  Having been baptized into the kingdom of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which is a relationship of complete love and creativity, we are sustained in our journey by the food of the Holy Eucharist, which is our Lord’s Body and Blood.  St. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 11 that “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  We have been baptized into Christ’s death and are sustained by eating and drinking of that same death which has destroyed death and given the cosmos life in abundance.  It is the central paradox and mystery of our faith that out of a senseless and shameful death abundant life has come. We die to self in order to live to Christ.  Baptism and Eucharist cannot be separated one from the other.  Baptism speaks of a new reality of grace and the Eucharist sustains it.

It seems odd to me given our recovery of a rich Baptismal theology, that some churches have introduced the practice of offering Eucharist to the unbaptized.  While many an unbaptized person may have received Holy Communion, that accident does not make for a good model for either pastoral or systematic theology. (I know of no priest or pastor, although no doubt there are some, who would wish to argue over one’s baptismal status at the altar rail!)  The Eucharist is food for the journey of the Baptized because it is food for those who are willing to die to self in order to live to Christ. The Eucharist is food for those who are members of the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is fed by the Body of Christ.  It has never been an expression of hospitality.  Hospitality is expressed in another, more appropriate and a better way.  That is a topic for another time.

One of the great theologians of our Communion and the ecumenical church, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, finds no convincing reason for the unbaptized to receive Holy Communion.  The generous canons of the Episcopal Church do not recognize it as a possibility reserving Holy Communion to the Baptized, the Holy People of God.  Neither the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches or the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church permit even the baptized of another denomination to receive.  We believe our baptism breaks those bonds of denominational loyalty and affiliation.  There is a great a deal more to be said that space does not permit.  No doubt, this discussion will continue.  The House of Bishops at the last General Convention upheld the baptismal requirement to receive Holy Communion.  And they are not a group that anyone could accuse of undue conservatism!

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