Baptism as an Apocalypse Now

Jason Micheli —  August 9, 2017 — 4 Comments

 

“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Cue the candidate’s response: “I do.”

Recently I presented on the Lordship of Christ at a retreat for ordinands. A friend presented on the sacraments. When she got to discussing the rite for baptism she mentioned how this second vow from the United Methodist liturgy about our freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression meant a lot more to her of late.

In the wake of The Donald’s election, she didn’t need to add.

Afterwards, as headed home, I half-joked to her that “I don’t think the Apostle Paul was quite as sunny as our Book of Worship about our power and potential to resist.”

“I’d like to talk more about that sometime,” she replied.

I shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t much matter though since we’ve excised Satan from the baptismal liturgy anyways. That we might be wrong about our power isn’t a problem if the Power of Satan is no longer the problem.”

I was only half-joking.

J. Louis Martyn writes that for the Apostle Paul:

“The Church is God’s apocalyptic beachhead and Paul sees in baptism the juncture by which the person both participates in the death of Christ (Romans 6.4) and is equipped with the armor for apocalyptic battle (Romans 13.22).”

Baptism, for Paul, is both a being put to death and an ongoing empowerment by God the Holy Spirit. Through baptism and the baptized, God contends against Another: Satan, whom Paul variously makes synonymous with the Power of Sin, the Power of Death, and the Principalities and Powers.

Not only does God put us to death in Christ through baptism, transferring us from the Lordship of Death to the Lordship of Grace, prior to baptism we are slaves to Death and after, Paul says, slaves to righteousness. Or, as Paul puts elsewhere, apart from the righteousness of God in Christ, Sin is a Power who we are all under and from whom not one of us has the freedom or the power to liberate ourselves.

Christians then have peculiar definitions for freedom and power, and we have a more specific set of names for evil and injustice. Prior to our baptism in to Christ, we have no freedom or power at all, as we are captives to the anti-God Powers, and proceeding baptism freedom is slavery to the righteousness of God. This is why Paul doesn’t use the language of repentance, as the baptismal liturgy does. It makes no sense to tell prisoners to repent their way out of captivity; they can only be delivered.

While God has defeated the Power of Satan through Cross and Resurrection, once for all, this defeat, though real, is not yet realized. God is yet contending against a Power whose defeat is sure if not surrendered. Thus Paul reveals the theme of his letter to the Romans only at the very end: “The God of Peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.”

In the sacraments, says theologian Joseph Mangina in Baptism at the Turning of the Ages, “the apocalypse (invasion/irruption/revealing) of God in Jesus Christ becomes an apocalypse now.”

Baptism and Eucharist, in other words, are means (for Paul, in Romans, the Gospel kerygma itself is the primary means) by which God invades territory held by an Enemy, a world that, as the Book of Common Prayer’s baptismal service once put it: “…is the realm of Sin and Satan.”

Note how different that is than today’s baptismal question:

“…evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Here, evil, injustice, and oppression present themselves in varying forms in our world. There is no acknowledged agency behind them.

In the older liturgies (and Romans 8) evil, injustice, and oppression are the forms by which the Power Sin/Satan/Death manifests in our world.

What’s critical about the apocalyptic character of Word and Sacrament in Paul is the active agency of God. When it comes to resisting evil and injustice, God never stops being the subject of the verbs. Even our growth into Christ likeness Paul casts in the passive voice: “…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed…”

It is not that God begins this process of transformation in Christ and then hands it off to us to resist evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Indeed apart from the activity of God in and upon us, we cannot be trusted to identify evil or rightly to resist injustice for the insidious Power of Sin is such that in can corrupt even our best religious impulses. 

God is the acting agent of our transformation into conformity to Christ from beginning to end, acting against the agency of the Enemy.

Likely, Paul would put our baptismal question in the passive as well:

Do you trust that you will be used by God to resist…?

In much of our liturgical practice today, we’ve demythologized the rites such that Satan becomes vague, as in, “spiritual forces of wickedness” or, worse, vaguely anthropocentric, as in, “injustice and oppression.”

Even worse is the example in the present Book of Common Prayer: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

As Joseph Mangina notes: “Striving for justice and peace, respecting human dignity- these high, humanitarian aspirations are as generic as they are idealistic. It is not clear what they are doing in a Christian baptismal liturgy…for only by the agency of Christ can we grasp the true contours of ‘justice’ and ‘peace.’ “

In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer the baptism ritual asks the candidates questions such as “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching…will you persevere in resisting evil…will you seek and serve Christ…?”

In each case, the requisite reply is “I will, with God’s help.” 

In the previous iterations of the Book of Common Prayer, similar questions required a much stronger affirmation of God’s agency (and betrayed much less interest in our own potential): “God being my helper.” 

The prescribed answer in the United Methodist Book of Worship: “I do.” 

Note the (only) subject of the verb.

God’s agency is assumed to the point of obscurity.

Compare this to the Tridentine rite- if you’ve seen Godfather I you’ve seen it.

Salt is placed on the infant’s tongue to protect it from corruption by the Power of Sin. The priest performs an exorcism, blowing 3 times, on the child. The confession of faith is followed by a robust renunciation: Do you renounce Satan? And all his works? And all his pomps?

Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer kept the exorcism as part of the baptismal rite but it disappeared as the biblical worldview waned and the modern liberal world waxed. In fact, the shift from God as acting subject responsible for faith to acted upon object of our faith, from theology to anthropology, in modern Enlightenment theology is mirrored in worship.

Ludwig Feuerbach famously (and correctly) diagnosed most Christian speech about God as really being speech about ourselves. We could not turn to some of our liturgical texts to disprove him.

Compared to the Tridentine rite and the Book of Common Prayer of John Wesley’s day, the emphasis, intentional or not, in our contemporary liturgies is on human promise-making at the expense of God’s singular action in Jesus Christ. This sole agency of God is itself the foundational principle of baptism’s un-repeatablity. In the act of baptism and in the life of the baptized thereafter, God is the acting agent, overturning the world.

“That a Christian has been baptized should be nothing less than a cause for astonishment,” Joseph Mangina says, for it is the work of the Living God.

Such astonishment at the agency of God is either muted or altogether missing in any question where we are the answer: I do. 

Jason Micheli

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4 responses to Baptism as an Apocalypse Now

  1. Well spoken, well written. I find the agency of God at work in our lives a comfort and refuge.

  2. For some reason, the baptism scene in The Godfather came to mind when reading this.

  3. And I just realized I missed the line where you explicitly reference The Godfather scene. Disregard these comments!

  4. Cameron English August 10, 2017 at 12:01 PM

    The statement says freedom and power to resist is God given. Maybe identifying Satan would be useful, but it doesn’t seem that the baptismal statement is at odds with the thrust of your post.

    While I definitely don’t want to help someone put confidence in the flesh doesn’t the use of this power and freedom require effort on our part? I am thinking of car analogy. I don’t continue to push, but I do drive relying on someone else’s engineering, creation, and power.

    How are we not just the marrionettes of reform theology in what you’ve presented?

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