Baptismal Living: Steadfast Covenant of Hope

By Thompsett, Fredrica Harris | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
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Baptismal Living: Steadfast Covenant of Hope


Thompsett, Fredrica Harris, Anglican Theological Review


Baptism is deeply grounded in the generosity of God. Like all other biblical covenants, whether the Hebraic covenants of Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Jeremiah, or the new covenant proclaimed by Paul and others, baptism is a response to Gods initiating love. Today we who are called forth by water and the Spirit are, like our biblical ancestors, summoned to lifelong relationship with God. The theological foundation for baptismal living is grounded in the expectant hope God holds out for us, pursued in humanity's hope-Riled response in seeking Gods reign, and expressed in the persistent hopefulness oi daily living. As the traditional hymn text asserts, "All our hope on God is founded."

In Jim Griffiss's theology the "courage to worship," as he called it, gives us hope. The sacraments of baptism and eucharist are Riled with hope because they strengthen and encourage us to look toward the future rather than feel resigned to the past. Jim s persistent hopefulness about theology, the students he taught and the colleagues he cherished, has many witnesses. Toward the end of his life he continued to work with the Anglican Theological Review and the Presiding Bishop to gather scholars around topics crying out for theological attention. Furthermore, throughout Jim's life, culminating with his reflections in The Anglican Vision, he deepened our understanding of Christian life from baptism until death.

We are now paying renewed critical attention to baptism and to the formative, hope-filled theological foundations of this sacrament. Two contemporary shifts make this necessary, one liturgical and the other societal. One major perspective for change is evident in the positive ecumenical and denominational achievements of the modem liturgical renewal movement, which has restored baptism to liturgical prominence and made it a focus of religious identity. We know that the loving kindness of God exceeds any response we can make, but even so, from time to time in the church's history, we move liturgically closer to a glimpse of covenanting partnership. Liturgical renewal during the second half of the twentieth century offered contemporary Christians the opportunity to renew their theological understanding of baptism. Anglicans, among other Christians, have moved from a private, domestic celebration of this moment in an infant s liie to promises that are publicly made, shared, held, and affirmed in gathered community amid individual lifetimes of godly living. We are moving away from patterns that obscure the fact of Gods goodness in creation. Ecumenically, as affirmed in the World Council of Churches' text Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, baptismal theology has shifted from an emphasis upon the stain of original sin to the promise of new life in Christ. We may no longer ask, as we did in the past, "What happens if the infant dies?" Today we might rephrase the question to ask, "What happens if the infant lives?"1 Whether the candidate for baptism in a parish today is an infant, a youth, or an adult convert, contemporary pastoral preparation for baptism holds meaning for life. For all participants-candidates, godparents, sponsors, and the community gathered to witness and support baptismal promises-the gift of baptism extends life-changing implications.

A second shift that impels us to reexamine religious formation in baptism today is occasioned by violent religious divisions and genocide. The Holocaust changed the shape of theology, underscoring the problem for Christians and Jews alike in speaking of God "after Auschwitz."2 It is a startling fact that forty-five million Christians were also martyred during the twentieth century, from those Armenians executed for their faith early in the century up through the 800,000 Tutsis massacred in Rwanda toward the century's end.3 In these and other massive outbreaks of ethnic cleansing, religious identity and religious rhetoric have been used to polarize and divide. With such compelling claims upon our attention in communities of faith and within the wider global community, we dare not fantasize or become nostalgic about religious rites of initiation.

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