Just after finishing Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, I’ve found myself musing about Baptism all day. Discipleship is divided into two main parts, the first of which deals primarily with the call to follow Jesus, the call to discipleship- and the second of which deals with the way this call is lived out in the church-community, Christ’s body on earth. In first part he draws heavily on the synoptic Gospels for the building of his arguments- arguments about the costs of following Jesus, the importance of “simple obedience”, the relationship between gift and responsibility- he considers the stories of Jesus’ call to disciples in the synoptic gospels to illustrate his arguments and he offers a lengthy exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, which in many ways drives the whole book. In the second part of the book, as he works his thoughts about discipleship out ecclesiologically (in terms of the church), he draws heavily on the writings of Paul as Paul was seeking to build up the church and nurture discipleship in the post-resurrection, post-ascension community.
As I read the first part, I was struck by the paradox he presented in this way “only the believers obey and only the obedient believe” (pg. 63 in the volume linked to above). He takes great pains to suggest that obedience is as much a path to faith as faith is to obedience. He talks at great length about the fact that it is incumbent on every individual to “take the first step” in response to Jesus’ call, and that, yes, one is only able to take that step because of the gift of faith given by God, BUT that taking that step puts one in a position to believe… one might not yet believe… but one will be more able to believe if one steps out behind Jesus. He writes “You believe- so take the first step! It leads to Jesus Christ. You do not believe- take the same step; it is commanded of you! The question of your belief or unbelief is not yours to ask. The works of obedience are required and must be done immediately” (67). Of course, I’m left to wonder, if one does not believe, how would one understand oneself to be called, what concern would a notion of “commandment” be to you? But that’s another thought. I said I was thinking about baptism and I am… I’m getting there.
Bonhoeffer makes it quite clear that every individual has a choice to make, and every individual is called to simply obey the commandments of Christ (which is no simple task… but Bonhoeffer says, it is a joyful task.) He is also quite clear, especially as he develops the second part of the book, that this obedience can only be lived out in covenant community. But as I read the first part of the book I seriously wondered if he had rejected the notion of infant baptism. Particularly in light of his arguments about cheap vs. costly grace… when we celebrate the baptism of infants, bonding an individual to Christ without their consent or willful choice are we not then taking the first step for the child… and does this, or might this, get in the way of that child (when grown) ever taking that step for themselves? Doesn’t the practice of infant baptism EASILY feed into the destructive understanding of cheap grace? The gift freely given with no immediate response even being possible…
In the second part of the book, Bonhoeffer has a whole chapter on Baptism in which, almost cursorily, he affirms the practice of infant baptism. He makes a quick case for it largely because it is a testimony to grace (in the footnotes he offers a bit of scriptural backing for the practice), but his most important point about Baptism is that it is necessarily a singular event in the life of an individual; it cannot be repeated. He therefore offers strong cautions around the practice of infant baptism. If the child will not be raised in the faith community he considers the practice an abuse of the sacrament and a great danger to the child. Once a child dies and rises with Christ in baptism, is incorporated into Christ through baptism, he or she must be a part of Christ’s body, the church, for that is his or her new identity.
I suppose that Bonhoeffer leaves room for an affirmation of the practice of infant baptism by saying that the first step is not necessarily a step of belief, it is a step of obedience that puts one in a position of being able to believe. When parents, in obedience, present their children for baptism, they are promising to put their children in a place where they can come to believe, where they can, eventually, make their own commitments to discipleship. Yet, it seemed to me that he affirmed infant baptism more because that was the practice with which he was best acquainted and comfortable than because that was the practice that flowed most naturally from his theology.
For my last worship service in the parish I was serving, one of the elders prepared a liturgy in which several lay people, of all ages, took leadership roles in carrying it out. In this liturgy, the lay person would stand in a particular place in a sanctuary (different places depending on what they were reflecting) and reflect on some aspect of my ministry, or Kevin’s ministry, with them. Two of the youth stood by the baptismal font and talked about my ministry of baptism and they announced the number of baptisms, both of infants and adults, that I had performed in my six years with them. I almost fell of my pew. I can’t now remember the specific numbers, but they were much higher than I realized. I remembered then walking babies down the center aisle and musing about the fact that we do this, that we baptize babies as a sign that God’s grace PRECEDES our choosing or even our knowing. That God CHOOSES us before we could ever think to choose God. At some point in the six years I started handing the baby off to someone along the center aisle and talking about our shared responsibility for this child. I believe strongly in infant baptism. I preached the theology of it every time I walked that aisle.
But it is what I know.
My first quarter in seminary I participated in a class required of all first year students called Pilgrimage in Faithfulness. This was a class that had four main components to every session- a plenary session co-led by something like seven different faculty members, a class dinner, worship altogether (student led), and then small groups. We reflected on the sacraments and the practice of ministry throughout this ten week course. And in my small group I had my eyes opened to some VERY different baptismal understandings than I had ever considered before. One of my classmates said something like, “I had to be baptized twice. The first time I went in a sinner and I came out a sinner. The second time stuck.” It had never occurred to me that anyone ever came out of the waters of baptism no longer a sinner… I believed (and believe) sin to be a persistent reality in EVERYONE’S life, and that we are simultaneously saints AND sinners. So I pushed my classmate over dinner one night, “So tell me what that means to you. Were you totally different after being baptized the second time? Tell me about it.” And he did. He spoke of the radical transformation that he experienced in his life after making what he considered to be a more genuine commitment to Christ and receiving, fully, the Spirit of Christ in Baptism. I couldn’t quite fathom what he was saying to me. But it was the truth of his experience and I was honored that he would share it with me. It is hard for a person baptized as an infant to come to quite this understanding of personal transformation as a result of the sacrament and… I think… possibly for the sacrament to drive discipleship, especially the costly discipleship of which Bonhoeffer speaks so compellingly.
I have already started thinking about the baptism of our little one. The first paper I wrote in seminary, for that very P.I.F. class in fact, was written as a letter to this very child, in explanation for why I would present her (that is what I presumed then… but… could be a him) for Baptism. I’m not sure what I said then, but I could write that paper again today. It would sound something like the musings I offered every time I had the sacred privilege of holding a newly baptized child in my arms and walking that child through the congregation; it would focus heavily on grace. But how do I understand this decision to be drawing my child into the cost of discipleship? How do I understand this decision to be a death in this precious new life, and the beginning of a call to suffer? What will it mean if our child, like so many children, decides against the church, or even against Jesus? What does the Baptism mean then? I’ve said for some time that we can’t resist God’s call, God’s grace, that we can’t erase our baptized identity, we can’t do it… but… we can fail to live it, we can deny it, we can distance ourselves from it. And with that possibility, what does it mean for me to make this decision on behalf of my child?
My seminary roommate fell in love with a Mennonite our first year of seminary and spent the bulk of her seminary career thinking about Baptism. She, a Presby through and through, believed wholeheartedly in infant baptism; He, his last name is Yoder, that’s how Mennonite he is, believed he had been too young when he was baptized at… something like 19! They had no idea what they would do when they welcomed a child into this world. Their son, now nearly four, was baptized as an infant. But, if he wants to be, he’ll be baptized as an adult, too. That is how they settled it. Bonhoeffer would protest. My innards squirm at the notion of multiple baptisms (in an individual life). But… but… I think it makes some very, very good sense.
If confirmation were able, in our society, to be more genuinely an experience of personal ownership of faith commitment and discipleship… maybe I’d feel differently. But… most of the time, let’s be honest, that’s not what confirmation is in our congregations. How can we shape our Christian Education so that all those whom God claims in the waters of Baptism find themselves presented again and again with the opportunity to take the first, second, third, and all following steps to follow Jesus as they grow? Perhaps this is what is happening in a lot of churches and families. But am I wrong to think that it isn’t happening in all that many?
If you have hung in there through this meandering reflection, thank you. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on baptism, discipleship, and such… please. Meander away…