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My Faith, My Life
A Teen's Guide to the Episcopal Church
By JENIFER GAMBER
MOREHOUSE PUBLISHINGCopyright © 2014 Jenifer Gamber
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 and these life-forms evolved into recognizable ancestors to modern human beings. Life originated from water, and life on land still needs water to survive.
People have long recognized the necessity of water to the beginnings of life. On the very first page of the Bible in the book of Genesis we read the story of creation in which God breathed over the face of the waters, bringing all creation to life. 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 People of God. God led the Israelites out of Egypt and slavery through the waters of the Red Sea. God gave them water in the desert wilderness. God led them through the River Jordan into the promised land of Canaan. We read these stories in the Jewish Scriptures, also called the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament.
WATERS OF JESUS'S BAPTISM
The Gospels of the Christian Scriptures, also known as the New Testament, tell the story of another watery beginning—the baptism of Jesus. At the moment that he was baptized, 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). Jesus's ministry of healing, forgiving, and calling people to follow him began at his baptism. Jesus is central to who we are as Christians and water is part of Jesus's life-giving ministry. At our own baptism, in the water, we share in Jesus's baptism, life, death, and resurrection.
WATERS OF BIRTH AND REBIRTH
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 reenter 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 of rebirth. 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 and ministry in the world.
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 a 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, freedom, 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 that transformation.
Baptism in the Early Church
For early Christians, baptism meant radical changes. 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. You'd lose friends and maybe your family. 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, people who are studying about the Christian faith with the intention of becoming candidates for baptism, 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.
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. 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, following Christ is a radical choice. We are choosing to see the world differently than others might. We are choosing to see a world in which God is present, loving all of creation and hoping 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 love our neighbors (especially the unlovable) and treat everyone fairly and with respect. 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 ask your parents or godparents to share stories and photographs of that day. 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. If you can't find your certificate, call the church where you were baptized. They will have a record of your baptism.
Water is a central symbol of baptism
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. 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 community of people called to be in relationship with one another and whose focus is God and God's son, Jesus Christ. Instead of a world with an indifferent creator, we see a world whose creator is in love with and intimately concerned with creation. Your confirmation program and this book, along with your knowledge and experience of God, will help you choose whether to affirm that faith.
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 be faithful to the others and to create a new relationship. An example of a covenant is marriage. Two people freely choose to be married. As part of their covenant, they promise to love, comfort, and be faithful to one another. In marriage, God creates a new thing—a union between two people. The covenant makes them one. Each agrees to honor their promises—to keep the covenant.
Covenants are different than ordinary agreements. Perhaps you've agreed to mow a lawn for a neighbor in exchange for $20. While you've freely chosen to mow, the agreement doesn't involve a transformation. When we use the word "covenant" in terms of God, we are referring to something that shapes our every action and lasts forever.
Covenant and the Jewish Scriptures
We learn in the Jewish Scriptures about God's covenant with his people. God promised the Israelites that they would be his people and he would be their God. 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 this covenant. The history of God's love and salvation as told in the Jewish Scriptures is our history. The God of Israel is the same God we worship as Christians. The Israelites were real people. The map on the following page shows one way the Israelites 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 and beyond—just as God remains with us today. God is faithful to the covenant and is with us always.
Covenant and the Christian Scriptures
Our God is also the One who sent God's only Son, Jesus, to live and die as one of us. Through Jesus, God renewed the 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 loves us.
The covenant given by God in the Jewish 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 by God. 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 that covenant with God—to confirm the Baptismal Covenant your parents and godparents made on your behalf. You are also seeking God's strength to give your heart to God and keep your baptismal promises. That's why you're reading this book and meeting with your friends and mentors—to learn about the Christian faith and explore your beliefs to see if you want to claim for yourself the promises your parents made on your behalf. 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 liturgy for confirmation in the Book of Common Prayer.
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 that you want to turn away from sin and death toward God and life. Instead of doing things that break your relationships with God and other people, you are saying you want to 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 show God's love to people and all creation. How do we know what that means? It's acting in ways that are 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 said you want to follow Christ, the bishop continues by asking you and the entire congregation the questions of the Baptismal Covenant. In the first part of the Baptismal Covenant, we answer three questions to proclaim our love for God and tell what God has done for us.
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 we'll explore these answers carefully.
Saying "I believe" isn't about whether we believe God exists. It's saying 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 second part of the Baptismal Covenant is the promises we make to the God whom we love:
Your promises 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 share God's love with your words and actions, to love your neighbor as yourself, and to strive for justice and peace. Fulfilling these promises is what it means to do your part of the Baptismal Covenant. Confirmation isn't graduation from church. Quite the opposite. It's a big "Amen!" to your faith that shows your renewed commitment to Jesus Christ.
Prayers and Blessings
After you, and the entire congregation, have renewed the Baptismal Covenant, the 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 fulfill 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 a hand on your head 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. The laying on of hands is the symbolic act that visibly connects you to the first apostles and to the universal Church.
Excerpted from My Faith, My Life by JENIFER GAMBER. Copyright © 2014 Jenifer Gamber. Excerpted by permission of MOREHOUSE PUBLISHING.
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