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My Faith, My Life
A Teen's Guide to the Episcopal Church
By JENIFER GAMBER
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2001 Robert Bly
All rights reserved.
Baptism and Confirmation: Beginnings
WATERS OF CREATION
Life first began on earth long ago in what scientists call deep time. Nearly three billion years ago, cellular life began in shallow oceans. Two billion years, later life had progressed into multicelled animals visible to the naked eye. Eventually life forms developed that could survive on land. Life originated from water, and life on land still needs water to survive.
People have long recognized the necessity of water in their stories of the beginnings of life. As Christians we share the creation story told by the Israelites, in which God breathed over the face of the waters to call forth all creation. It was from the waters that dry land appeared. It was from the waters that God called swarms of living creatures into being.
Water continued to play a central part in the journeys of the Israelites. It was through the waters of the Red Sea that God led the Israelites out of Egypt and slavery. God provided water for their journey in the desert wilderness. God led the people through the River Jordan into the promised land of Canaan. We read these stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, also called the Old Testament.
WATERS OF JESUS' BAPTISM
The Gospels of the Christian Scriptures, also known as the New Testament, tell another story of a watery beginning—the baptism of Jesus. Jesus' baptism began his ministry in the world. At Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River, the heavens parted, the Spirit came down on Jesus, and God said, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11). The Gospels tell of Jesus' ministry—proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God by healing the sick and the lame, inviting the sinners and others who were looked down upon by society to the center of community, and teaching about God's purpose for humankind. Jesus is central to who we are as Christians. Water is part of Jesus' life-giving ministry. At our baptism, in the water, we share in Jesus' baptism, life, death, and resurrection.
WATERS OF BIRTH AND RE-BIRTH
Each of us was conceived in a place rich in water. For nine months we floated in a sea of water inside our mother's womb—first as one cell, then two, then four, then eight. Soon we developed organs and limbs. Finally, one day, we broke through those waters and into the world.
On the day of your baptism, you were born yet again, this time into the body of Christ, the church. Again, you burst forth from water as a new person. Even if you don't remember your own baptism, you've likely seen other people being baptized.
Back on your special day, a priest poured water over your head, or completely plunged you into the water. Now, you didn't re-enter your mother's womb as a man named Nicodemus wondered when he heard Jesus talking about being born again (John 3:1–10). But you were born again. You can even think of the baptismal font, the basin that holds the waters of baptism, as a womb in which you were born again. On the day you were baptized, the Holy Spirit moved in those waters, making you a new person and giving you spiritual gifts for your life.
The waters of baptism are powerful. They are the same waters of creation over which God breathed and called forth life. They are the same waters of freedom through which God led the Israelites out of a life of slavery in Egypt and the waters of promise through which they walked into new life. They are the same waters in which Jesus was baptized and the same living water that Jesus offered the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 7–15). In these powerful and living waters you were reborn. By those waters you share in the waters of creation, liberation, promise, and new life in Christ. In the waters of baptism you were bathed in the living water where you'll never be thirsty again.
Today's baptisms—unlike the baptism of Jesus in the muddy Jordan River—can be overly sentimental. Babies dressed in white. Receptions with cake and ice cream. Baptisms truly are cause for celebration. But in the festivities we may not notice that a big change is happening before our very eyes. Looking at early Christian baptismal rituals might help us better recognize the change.
Baptism in the Early Church
Baptism meant huge changes in the lives of early Christians. Becoming a Christian sometimes meant putting your life in jeopardy. You'd have to disobey the Roman laws that required you to make sacrifices to the Roman gods, which could easily have gotten you arrested, tried, and even put to death. Some newly baptized Christians, such as those who served in the army, had to give up their jobs. Becoming a Christian in the early centuries after Christ literally meant turning toward a new way of living.
Catechumens began the ritual of baptism by facing west, the direction of the setting sun and the symbolic direction of darkness and evil. They stood on a hair shirt to indicate that they desired to die to their life of sin, then renounced evil three times, professing their desire to give up—virtually die to—their old way of life. Did You Know? The white alb that bishops, priests, and deacons wear at Eucharist and other church services reminds us of the white dress of baptism.
The catechumens then turned to the east, the direction of the rising of the sun and the symbolic place of new life, and three times professed their faith in Christ. Then they stepped into a pool of water, submersing their entire bodies. This pool of water symbolized a tomb in which their old selves died and their sins were washed away. It also represented a mother's womb, out of which a new person was born. Finally, stepping up out of the water, they were clothed in a white garment that symbolized their new life in Christ.
While we live in a country that doesn't persecute Christians, living as a Christian still means that we see the world differently than others do. So just like early Christians we are expected to act differently than those around us too. We see a world in which God loves all of creation and hopes for a world in which people act in ways that show that they love themselves, one another, and all creation. As new creations in Christ, we are asked to collaborate with God's loving purpose by loving our neighbors, striving for justice, and respecting the dignity of every human being. At our baptism we promise to take these actions and at confirmation we affirm those promises. Just as it was for early Christians, your baptism was the beginning of a new life.
Your baptism likely took place years ago, long before you could speak or understand what was going on. You might want to take some time with your parents or godparents to talk about your baptism. Ask them to share stories and photographs. Your baptismal certificate will tell you the date of your baptism, the name of the priest who baptized you, and the names of your godparents.
On that day, your parents and godparents presented you to God and the world. They brought you into the Baptismal Covenant by making promises on your behalf to believe in God and to follow Christ. They promised to bring you up in the Christian faith. Chapter 6 on sacraments explores the Baptismal Covenant in greater detail.
Your baptism was a gift to you by your parents, just as faith is a gift from God. Faith changes how we see the world. The lens of faith in Jesus Christ lets us see the world differently. Instead of a world of random events, we see a world that is part of God's purpose. Instead of a world of unrelated individuals, we see a world of individuals called to be in relationship with one another and whose focus is God and God's son, Jesus Christ. Instead of a world with a creator who is indifferent to the world, we see a world whose creator is in love with and intimately concerned with creation. We can choose to accept or reject that gift of faith. Your confirmation program and this book, along with your knowledge and experience of God, will help you make that choice.
We've used the word "covenant" a few times in this chapter. It's a word we don't hear very much today. A covenant is a particular agreement entered into freely by two or more people, each of whom makes promises to the others in the covenant. Covenants have three characteristics: free choice, promises, and change. As an example, consider marriage. Marriage is a covenant. Two people freely choose to be married. As part of their covenant, they promise to love, comfort, and be faithful to one another. And the covenant changes each person, too. The bride and groom are still the same people they were before they said "I do," but they have created a new thing—a union of two people. Their covenant makes them act as one. Each agrees to honor their promises—to keep the covenant.
Here's another example. Have you ever babysat or mowed someone's lawn? You promise to provide a particular service and the other person promises to pay you for that service. Your agreement is a covenant. You have freely entered it, the parties made promises, and your actions are changed by the agreement. The difference between this covenant and God's covenant is that the covenant God establishes is a gift and is intended for life. God's covenant shapes our every action and lasts forever.
Covenant and the Hebrew Scriptures
We learn in the Hebrew Scriptures that God promised that the Israelites would be his people and he would be their God. This was the covenant God established with the people. God required them to be faithful, to treat people fairly, to be merciful, and to be humble before God (Micah 6:8).
As Christians we are part of God's covenant first offered to Abraham and renewed with the Israelites. The history of God's love and salvation as told the Hebrew Scriptures is our history. Our God is the God of Israel who freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them to the promised land of Canaan. The map on the following page shows one way they may have taken from what is present-day northern Egypt through the Sinai Peninsula and into Israel/Palestine and Jordan. God remained with them through forty years of wandering in the wilderness and provided for their needs—just as God remains with us today and gives us what we need. God is faithful to the covenant and is with us always.
Covenant and the Christian Scriptures
Our God is the God who sent his only Son, Jesus, to live and die as one of us. Through Jesus God renewed his covenant and offered it to all people. In the Christian Scriptures, at the Last Supper Jesus gave us a New Covenant. And during the Eucharist every Sunday we remember his words: "Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:27–28). In this New Covenant, Jesus promises to bring us into the kingdom of God. Our part of the agreement is to love one another as Jesus has loved us.
The covenant given by God in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Christian Scriptures—and our Baptismal Covenant—all share the same basic characteristics: we freely enter, we make promises, and we are changed. If you were baptized as an infant, you might say that you didn't freely choose to be baptized. You'd be right. For you, baptism was a gift, just as being born was a gift. Your parents wanted you to be part of the Christian community—the body of Christ—so they chose for you to be baptized. They spoke on your behalf and promised to teach you about Jesus Christ and what it means to live a Christian life. They stood up in front of family and friends and made it clear that they wanted you to be Christ's own forever!
CONFIRMING THE COVENANT
Now it's your turn. When you're confirmed, you're choosing to renew a covenant with God—to confirm the Baptismal Covenant your parents and godparents made on your behalf and you're seeking God's strength to live into that covenant. That's why you're reading this book and participating in your confirmation program—to prepare to renew your belief in God and renew your promises to follow Jesus by the way you act. Confirming your belief and renewing your promises is a serious step. You'll want to know exactly what you're committing yourself to. That's what this book is all about.
Let's start by looking at the confirmation service.
Examination and Presentation
At confirmation the bishop will begin by asking you two questions:
Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil?
Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?
Responding with "I do" means you want to turn away from sin and darkness and toward life in Christ. You're saying that you're turning from the values of sin and death to the values of God and life. Instead of acting in ways that deny God and break relationships with others, you are saying your actions will honor God and nurture others. The Ten Commandments give us a guideline for right and wrong actions: "Remember the Sabbath day" and "honor your father and your mother" are two examples (Exodus 20). Jesus provided a Summary of the Law with this commandment: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37–39). You're promising that your actions will follow God's desire for you. How do we know God's desire? God's desire will be consistent with the Ten Commandments and the Summary of the Law. God's desire will bring life to you, to others, and to your relationships with others.
RENEWING THE PROMISES
Once you've expressed your commitment to follow Christ, the bishop continues by asking the questions of the Baptismal Covenant of you and the whole congregation:
Do you believe in God the Father?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
If you're going to be confirmed, you'll begin your answer to each of these questions with "I believe." You're already familiar with the complete answers. They make up what we call the Apostles' Creed. In Chapter 4 of this book we'll explore these answers carefully.
The word "creed" comes from the Latin word credo—which has the same root as the word for heart. Saying "I believe" isn't just an abstract statement about whether we believe God exists. It's a statement about where our heart is and who will guide our everyday choices. When we stand up at our confirmation and proclaim, "I believe," we're saying that we give our hearts to God. And to give our hearts to God changes how we choose to live.
The questions about how you promise to live are quite specific:
Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
When you answer "I will, with God's help" to each of these questions, you're promising to take very specific actions throughout your life. You'll be promising to worship regularly, to resist evil, and to ask for forgiveness when you don't live up to your promises. You'll be promising to talk to others about God's love. You'll be promising to love your neighbor as your- self and to strive for justice and peace. Fulfilling these promises is what it means to live into your Baptismal Covenant. Confirmation isn't graduation from church, but an important steppingstone in your faith journey. It's a big "Amen!" to your faith that shows your renewed commitment to Jesus Christ.
Prayers and Blessings
After you've renewed your Baptismal Covenant, the entire congregation will pray to God to give you the strength to fulfill your promises. They'll ask God to deliver you from sin, open your heart with grace and truth, fill you with the Spirit, keep you in faith, and teach you to love others. They'll ask God to send you out into the world to do the good work you've promised to do. Faith, after all, is a relationship with God that we act out in community. Your parents, sponsors, and entire congregation will be there in the church on your confirmation day—and beyond—to help you keep your promises, to stand with you in tough times, to celebrate with you in happy times, and to encourage you to take your faith with you out into the world.
After the prayers, the bishop will lay his hand on you and bless you, asking God to strengthen you with the Holy Spirit, empower you for God's service, and sustain you all the days of your life. The bishop represents the teaching and community of the apostles from the time of Jesus all the way to today and that fellowship throughout the world today. The laying on of hands is the symbolic act that visibly connects you to the apostles and the universal church.
It's Your Choice
At confirmation, you're choosing to renew your Baptismal Covenant. If that's your choice, you're the one who will answer "I do," "I believe," and "I will, with God's help." Your parents and the congregation will continue to support you in your promises. But the choice is entirely yours.
God gives us free choice. Since a covenant is an agreement that we must enter into freely, without free choice there wouldn't be a covenant. You can say "no" and walk away from the covenant. Or you can say "yes." No matter what choice you make, however, you'll always be a member of God's household. You were made a member of the household of God at baptism and you'll forever bear the mark of Christ.
This book and your confirmation program will help you understand what these questions mean, guide you about how to keep those promises, and help you decide: Do I turn from evil and toward Jesus? Do I believe in the Trinity? Do I promise to act in the way that follows Jesus? These promises form the backbone of our faith and our relationship with God.
MADE IN THE IMAGE OF GOD AND MARKED AS CHRIST'S OWN FOREVER
If you read the questions you'll be asked at confirmation carefully, you might wonder whether you can, in all honesty, say yes to them. Don't worry. Questioning whether you can promise such faithfulness means you're taking these questions seriously and being honest with yourself. Like all people, you'll fall short of fulfilling them. The Bible is filled with people who fall short and struggle with God—from Jacob who wrestled with God in his dreams and Jonah who tried to run away from God in the Hebrew Scriptures, to Peter, the apostle who denied Jesus three times in the Christian Scriptures. God wants us to offer our whole selves—our faith and doubt, our strength and weakness, and our joy and pain. God asks for nothing less than everything.
Excerpted from My Faith, My Life by JENIFER GAMBER. Copyright © 2001 by Robert Bly. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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