Shall we gather at the river?

A reflection on baptismal integrity

by Ken Sehested

            Among my treasured fatherly memories is the baptism of our oldest daughter on Easter morning, 1986. Nancy and I performed the ritual together in worship after having climbed Stone Mountain in Georgia to watch the sun rise.

            Truth is, I think a lot about baptism—as the several excerpts below attest. [See the 6 January 2017 edition of "Signs of the Times," a special issue on baptism.] In fact, I believe a renewal of baptismal covenant, a return to baptismal integrity, is the believing community’s greatest need.

            Unfortunately, conflict over baptism—who gets it, when, by what means, and in accordance to what wording—is among the church’s most contentious internal debates, literally at the cost of bloodshed on occasion. Added to that ugly legacy is the forced baptism of conquered people. Both narratives stem from the consequence of transposing the cross of Christ into a sword of conquest.

            Baptism was once—and still can be—the occasion for transcending divisive claims of tribe, clan, class and nation. (And there’s nothing more important, for us in the US, than fostering a post-national identity to counter the trans-national forces of predatory capital.)

            Baptism can be, should be, the occasion for deciding issues of power, of rewiring patterns of desire, of embedding ourselves in counter-cultural communities of discernment, of assuming the insignia of the one for whom loving enemies was the distinctive mark of heaven’s redemptive claim.

            Then, every time we return to the Table of Remembrance—every week, in my congregation—we recall and reclaim and recommit to those baptismal vows.

            President-elect Trump did not dissemble what moral center was left of us; but his election does personify, in frightful ways, a disintegration of public character that threatens not only democracy but of every semblance of humane relations free of transactional motive.

            The most perceptive lines from all of last year were from author-activist Adrienne Maree Brown: "Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered." This current crisis is in fact the disruptive work of the Spirit, who is troubling the water, pulling back the veil—of what was already well underway—to counsel and shape people of faith and conscience. Our challenge is to fashion and refresh baptismal covenants and accountability to steer the ship of faith during this tempest.

            Baptismal vows are rooted in the assumption of a bountiful God—One who has promised an end to life’s beggarly, bargaining, brawling systems. The evidence stacked against such an outcome is daunting. Conversion, to a different Way, requires an immersion, a certain kind of dying, with its resurrecting pledge.

            The world does not see—or, if seen, does not welcome—the thought that another history is underway, another premise is at work, another outcome is in the making. To see these things requires the river's cleansing plunge.

            Shall we gather at the river?

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