Remember your baptism: reflections with Walter Brueggemann and the Last Poets

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March 1, 2014 by jmar198013

The music tonight is the Last Poets–as I begin to scribe these words, the song is “Homesick.” It’s from their 1993 album “Holy Terror,” which features funk pioneers George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and Bernie Worrell in the backing band.

Near the song’s close, the Poets nudge the hearer toward the anxious bench with what we in the Churches of Christ might call an “invitation,” saying:

Climb out of your bottles, climb out of your clouds and vapors, climb out of the centuries of being less than the thought you really wanted to share. Grow into the journey, the sun breaking through the clouds, the simplicity and beauty of “good morning” to your smile and touch. We used to feel these things–We used to feel these things!–we used to be sacred to each others’ thoughts and expressions. We were true artists, not afraid of giving too much, too soon, and looking too foolish . . .

I hear in these words an echo of Jesus saying that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it (Mark 10.15). We’re going to have to get dispossessed like children–dispossessed of our fears of giving too much, too soon, and looking too foolish. We have to become able to believe, as my friend Mark Van Steenwyk put it recently, “that everyone should be able to live in a home or . . . that coins are just shiny toys or that the boundaries drawn on maps are just pretend.” I sometimes wonder if we are really regenerated if our baptism did not cleanse us of our fears of looking foolish by believing things like coins are just shiny toys. If we are afraid of giving too much, too soon, perhaps we should question our salvation.

Martin Luther was fond of telling his congregants to remember their baptism. By this, he didn’t mean an act of simple recollection. He meant that they’re supposed to wonder at what baptism had done to them, pulling them out of the clouds and vapors that distort us and make us less than what God wishes for us. God’s prayer for us is Jesus, and we are baptized into him, immersed in him, gathered into him and dispossessed like children. Paul says that we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life (Rom. 6.4). And it is not just our individual little lives that are transformed by our baptism into Christ. For elsewhere, Paul writes that: if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Cor. 5.17)

I have been gifted to have grown up among the Campbellite weirdoes who place a high premium on baptism. Most of our Protestant neighbors have dismissed baptism as a sacrament, and they mistrust sacraments. On the other hand, we Campbellites tend to hold a very deontological account of baptism–what is important to us is that you are baptized “right,” e.g., by immersion, voluntarily, for the forgiveness of sins. Our theology of baptism, however, has historically been rather anemic. If someone challenges one of us to remember our baptism, we might reply, “I was baptized on May 22nd, 1963, by brother Batsell Barrett Baxter in a gospel meeting in Altoona, Pennsylvania.” I don’t know that we would be able to describe it in terms of getting dispossessed, of no longer being afraid to give too much too soon or look too foolish. I know very few of us who can entertain notions like “coins are just shiny toys or . . .  the boundaries drawn on maps are just pretend.” And if you suggested to one of us that perhaps that’s what being converted meant, they’d ask you for a book, chapter, and verse.

“Remember your baptism.” Remember that day you were born into a new creation, the day you grew down to welcome God’s will like a child welcomes the morning sun (usually by jumping up and down on mom and dad’s bed asking for pancakes). Remember that day you answered the call to live a revolution–the insurgency of heaven. Welcomed into the community gathered in and by and around Christ to embody an alternative to the deathliness of the world. Walter Brueggemann has said that we are offered

new baptismal identity that makes us odd and free and able . . . [B]ecause evangelism bespeaks this alternative-generating God, it is important to accent in baptismal identity that the break between what was and what is now given is sharp and radical and wondrous and dangerous:

    • It is an embrace of a deep memory to displace conventional amnesia, a memory filled with wondrous instances of miraculous transformation.
    • It is an embrace of an exuberant hope to displace conventional despair that besets both the endlessly afflicted and the comfortably complacent.
    • It is an embrace of neighborliness that displaces conventional self-preoccupations that are grounded in anxiety and that eventuate in careless brutality and aggressive exploitation. (In Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000, 30-31)

In other words, if it is Christ we have been baptized into, then all things are made new. We are given the resources to live without being afraid of giving too much, too soon, and looking too foolish. We have been dispossessed of our amnesia, our despair, and our self-preoccupation. We are free and able to welcome God’s insurgency like children, and live as though “everyone should be able to live in a home [and] coins are just shiny toys [and] the boundaries drawn on maps are just pretend.” If our baptism has not rendered us free and able to so live, was it Christ we were baptized into? And if it wasn’t Christ we have been baptized into, what have we been saved from?

Remember your baptism, brothers and sisters.


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