There are two messages coming from some pulpits today that I personally don’t like. I’m sure there are plenty of things being said from plenty of pulpits that could be addressed, but these two things have become so ubiquitous that I’m simply fed up, and feel I must say something.
The first of these is the admonition to “live into my baptismal vows.” The other is the admonition to “see Jesus Christ in the face of ‘the other’.” I’ll deal with the first one here, and the other one at a later date.
So you want me to live into my baptismal vows? Wow, that sounds like a great idea! One hitch though: how am I supposed to do that?
Now, granted, in the Episcopal liturgy those who are about to be baptized make certain vows (and the congregation present renews those vows) to renounce evil, turn to Christ, etc., etc. Here’s the rub, though: in making each vow, we all say, “I will, with God’s help,” the point being, of course, that I have absolutely no chance of fulfilling these things that I’m promising to do without the work of God within me.
If I wake up in the morning and say, “Today I think I will live into my baptismal vows,” I’m doomed to failure. I will come home that evening sorrowing, because all I will have achieved is a troubled conscience that points out to me each and every time I failed to do that which I vowed to do. Besides, that isn’t really the point of my baptism, is it?
No, the point of baptism is not my promises to God, it’s God’s promise to me: the promise that through baptism I am accepted as God’s own, sealed with Christ in his death, and raised with Christ to a new and everlasting life. That’s God’s promise to me that is sealed in my baptism.
I’m reminded of two Old Testament examples that speak to this matter. The first of these is God’s handling of Moses and the Israelites. After Moses had received the ten commandments and come down from the mountain, he presented God’s Law
to the Israelites. Then they sacrificed young bulls, Moses sprinkled the people with the blood of the sacrifice, and the people vowed, “All this we will do.” And we know how that turned out! They failed at every turn. And that’s what “living into my baptismal vows” looks like. The Israelites never managed to follow the Law, and I can’t do it, either.
The other Old Testament example, the one that points to what baptism is really about, is that of God’s covenant with Abraham. After God made his covenant with Abraham, he told him to make sacrifices, and Abraham split the animals in two, after which God’s spirit passed between the halves, thereby sealing God’s promise in blood. So with Abraham, it wasn’t him saying “All this I will do,” it was God promising what he would do for Abraham.
That’s what Baptism looks like. It’s not my vow to God, it’s his vow, his promise to me. And like God’s promise to Abraham, his promise to me is sealed in blood, the blood of Christ shed on Calvary. That’s the blood sacrifice that seals this promise of the new covenant. That’s what I am sealed into with my baptism. And that’s where my only real hope lies.
So, please, you folks who ascend the pulpit Sunday by Sunday, take note: if you’re going to tell me to live into my baptismal vows, I might as well stay home. Failure is the only possible outcome of that errand. Instead, tell me the good news about what God has done for me, which is symbolized and sealed by my baptism, and for that I will gladly show up every Sunday!