Benedict: Recovering baptism as the epicentre of mission

By Daniel Benedict

This address, the first of three, was given at a meeting of the Uniting Church in Australia leaders in Adelaide, August 2004. The meeting focused on "Becoming Disciples" — a Uniting Church adaptation of the rites of adult initiation (the catechumenate). The address has been edited for readers and some material that was omitted for brevity of the presentation is included here.

This is quite an adventure for me to be here in the “down under” and to dare to try to say something helpful in a cultural context which I only know in caricature through Steve Irwin, the Croc Hunter, and movies like Kangaroo Jack. So, I look forward to getting a dose of up close and personal reality through conversations with you.

A rite of passage

Without laboring to get into this first talk, I am going to simply plunge in with a narrative that I have from Aidan Kavanagh, the one time Texas Southern Baptist, now Roman Catholic scholar and elder statesman of liturgical renewal. Kavanagh told the following story within a lecture delivered in August 1997 at the Theology Institute held at Holy Cross Abbey in Canon City, Colorado. I share it because it gives contrast to the rather perfunctory and anemic celebrations of baptism in most of 20th and 21st century Protestant congregations. Please do understand that I am not suggesting that this is the way that you need to follow in baptizing people in 21st century Australia. I invite you to enjoy the sensuousness of this story and to be alert clues and cues about the relational dimensions that surround the sign act of baptism.

The eccentricity of baptism in present day Protestant thought and practice

With that bit of story telling to stir our imaginations, let me enter into the metaphor of baptism as epicentre of mission. You might be think that the notion is inflated, and you might be right. You might be musing, “Isn’t the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the true epicentre of the seismic shift in history, at least according to the Christian narrative?” And you would be right. Or, you might be brooding over the Day of Pentecost and proposing that it was and is the epicentre of the church’s mission, and I would not argue against that either. I would take nothing away from rule of faith in Jesus Christ or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost and the whole robust story that unfolded from it in the book of Acts or the lives of the saints in Acts 29.

My point this afternoon for thinking of baptism as the epicentre of mission is this: to the extent that by faith we claim some kind of immersion into the life of Jesus Christ in the rite of baptism, and that from that very wet moment we are to share both his drowning and triumph over sin and death for the life of the world, it is that moment that rocks our world and forever marks us as those who have come through the great earthquake of human existence. The epicenter of an earthquake is the point directly above the true centre of disturbance from which the shockwaves radiate. It is the focal point. Existentially speaking, can we think of being joined to Jesus Christ as anything less of a seismic episode? Yet, the reality is that most of us do and our congregations do too.

I suspect that in Australia and the Uniting Church the eccentricity of baptism is much the same as for United Methodists in the USA. We “do” baptism. In fact, Garrison Keillor likes to tell the story of the man who asked another if he believed in infant baptism. The other replied, “Believe in it! Why, I’ve seen it done!” 18th-21st century Protestants have very little of the richness of Euphemius’ experience, and even less of a sense that baptism really make a difference. And so it has a less than an essential place in the deep structures that form women, men and children into Christian disciples. If baptism “does” anything, it gets you in the door of the church!

So how could we recover a sense of baptismal life as epicentral, essential, and at the core of communal and missional life? How could we begin to sense the power of baptism as Paul knew it when he asked, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6: 3) To be buried and raised with Christ had powerful ethical and life consequences: “So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (v. 11) Or, how powerful is John’s recounting of what baptism does when he has Jesus say, “You must be born from above…very truly, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (Jn. 3: 5) Baptism in the time of the apostles and in the early church shook the foundations? Is there any way to recover an ancient-future sense that in baptism we pass from death to life, from slavery to freedom; that in being joined Christ we are transferred from the reign of darkness to the realm of light, from autonomy to discipleship and apostolic living?

We know that in the early centuries of the church baptism was enacted and experienced as a dangerous ritual. But with the rise of Christendom, it became a safe ritual that brought the newly baptized within the established order of the empire. It was the beginning of Western civilization’s confusing the kingdom of God with the empire or nation. In the last century a small but insightful vision of recovering baptism as a dangerous ritual began to emerge. For more than a century the contemporary liturgical movement has been exploring how dangerous the sacraments are if they cut us loose from our cultural entrapments.

Baptism embed in the essential ministry of the church

So that I don’t get lost circling the landing strip, let me get to the point. Baptism as sacrament of as rebirth is the act of God in and through the church. It is the triune God’s initiation of new persons into the reign of God. It is also the action of the community immersing seeking persons in its own life of worship, prayer, reflection on scripture and life, and service in a needy world—the basic practices that go with anticipating the reign of God. In this sense, it is at the heart of the mission of the church. It is not for the survival of the institutional church, nor is it about adding “members” in the sense of putting pebbles in a box. Rather, it is growing branches on the tree—and the tree is the kingdom of God. For this to happen, baptism must be deeply embedded into the life and witness of the church. It is my understanding that that is what we are here to explore and pray about for this time together as we link “becoming disciples” with the initiatory practice of the church.

Let me acknowledge some assumptions that I am making: (I need to test these with you in conversation in the hours to come—not to see that you agree with me, but to see where the Spirit will take us.)

We—the church—are anxious about our future. We feel increasingly marginalized in the culture.

We—the church—like the legendary Ponce de Leon are looking for the fountain of youth, the magic bullet that will turn things around for our increasingly moribund churches. We like to play with buzz words like “entrepreneurial leadership” “spiritual leadership” “visionary leadership” in hope that we can get out of the ecclesiastical doldrums.

In keeping with this we are program addicted: we keep our eyes pealed for new, interesting and tantalizing program offerings from our denominations or other para-church groups to spice up church life and add some zest to the otherwise bland diet of weekly worship, groups and organizational housekeeping. We even invent approaches to worship called “entertainment worship” or “seeker friendly” worship.

We—the church—are overlooking the something that is central to our identity and mission: Holy Baptism. It is, I propose to you, key to recovery of vitality in our ministry and witness as the ecclesia (the Greek word for church)—the called out community for public service and witness. Yet we allow baptism to be a footnote in our life together. The Christian sacraments are at the core of our life—they are acts God uses to act decisively in our lives and to constitute the church for the life of the world, yet we pay them little attention.

We—the church—are living on the edge of an emerging mission frontier; one that is profoundly different from the one we have know in past decades. Here I admit my lack of depth and knowledge of Australian missional context, but I suspect that it is post-secular, post-modern and post-Christendom in ways more pronounced than in my North American context.

We—the church—need to reclaim baptism and the ways of initiating people into the reign of God as a profoundly rich way of knowing who and whose we are and for what end.

So, I want to propose a “what if”: What if we—as a small community within the larger church—began to trust God to do what Scripture and tradition say God longs to do among a baptized and baptizing people? What if we began to trust God to use baptism as a gracious way of initiating people whom God’s Spirit is drawing into the divine life? What if we moved from baptism as a fact to baptism as a truth?

Baptism as truth?

Contrast our low-octane view of baptism with that of Theodore of Mopsuestia in the 4th century:

“These things only happen to us as symbols. But St. Paul wishes to make it clear [ref. Rom. 6:5] that we are not concerned with empty symbols but with realities, in which we profess our faith with longing and without hesitation.”

He understood that in baptism, God was at work to bring about the realities of transforming grace. Symbol, as Theodore uses the term, is not “empty” as we often use the term. Rather, for him, “symbol” has a deep connection to and participation in the reality signified. To use a Charles Wesley phrase, “The sign transmits the signified.” In response to these realities, the newly baptized, with all believers, passionately lived their faith.

Those early congregations of the 2nd – 4th centuries not only had a high-octane sense of baptism—they had it because they surrounded the rite with relationships in order to form men and women in the basics of faith and discipleship. Behavior and belonging preceded believing! They apprenticed hearers to mentors so that they experienced conversion of their practices as prelude to new belief and new relationship.

When we treat baptism as fact, we betray our Enlightenment way of knowing: baptism is something we can record in the parish registry, we can check it off as a necessity. It is something quantifiable and controllable. That way we keep ourselves and those we baptize safe! It is a moment in time, a ritual text said, a ritual action completed. It is just there without much sense of expectation or relationship with anything else in the life.

When we entertain baptism as truth, understand it to part of the larger stream of God’s grace. Baptism is covenant—a relationship with us entered into by God in Christ within God’s community and sealed by the Holy Spirit. It is new birth. It is knowing that we are known and it touches the totality of our being. It is knowing that God has claimed us for continuing relationship and transformation. Viewed as truth, baptism touches the totality of our being and places us within a gracious community of caring people and a network of accountability. It becomes for us the epicentre of life and mission.

Of course, the experience of this seismic energy is initiated by the Spirit, and, as response, we embed baptism at the centre of congregational life and reflection.

Moving on then, what would it look like for a congregation to be a baptized and baptizing community? How would we embed baptism as truth into congregational life so as to be able to offer welcome those who are being “up ended by grace” as Aidan Kavanagh puts it? Are there models that could be instructive?

Baptism as an artifact of the future

There are models based on an archetypal frame. We call that archetypal frame the catechumenate that emerged over time and became quite prominent by the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries. I will acknowledge that I am somewhat mystical about the primal quality of the catechumenate and I will say more about it in another address. Here I suggest that it is an artifact of the future in the sense that it came into being in the ancient church and has astonishing serviceability for such a time as ours in the 21st century. Theology and Discipleship of the Uniting Church of Australia is calling the adaptation of the catechumenate, “Becoming Disciples.”

Let me describe it briefly.

A. First, terminology:

Initiation – a process of moving from one worldview and context to another with the experience of “liminality” between the old way of life and the new one.

Catechumen – the ancient church Greek word for an unbaptized/uninitiated adult preparing for the rites of initiation: baptism, laying on of hands, and Eucharist. The root word is related to “echo”—catechumens were persons being instructed in the Word of God in such a way that the word and life of the risen Lord echoed in both their thought and conduct. In the Greek, katecheo was a verb meaning “to instruct, teach,” specifically in religious matters. Romans 2:18 “because you are instructed [katechumenos] in the law.” Acts 18:25 “He [Apollos] had been instructed [kathemenos] in the word of the Lord.”

Catechumenate – the ancient word for a basic structure and process related to forming and instructing those preparing for baptism—the equivalent for what your church is calling “becoming disciples.”

B. Next, what marks the dynamic of this way of becoming disciples?

Forms behavior: The early church understood intuitively, I judge, that persons are shaped and formed in a way of living by living the life! So, those drawn to the Christian way (about which we’ll say more tomorrow) became hearers along with the church with the expectation that their behavior would change as they lived in relationship to the community. Mentoring sponsors or companions guided these apprentices on the conversion path. In contrast to our 20th and 21st century church’s focus on belonging and believing, the 2nd-4th century churches seemed to have focused on conversion of behavior prior to belonging and believing. This, however, cannot be dismissed on the grounds of it being “works righteousness.” See The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom by Alan Kreider (Trinity Press International, 1999).

Enacts the distinctive story: The early missionary church embraced Jesus’ distinctive story as the basis for its calendar of remembering, celebrating and evangelizing. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was the centre/ epicentre of all Christian celebration. Every Lord’s Day was a little Easter—a day of meeting with the risen Lord at his table. Hearers were invited to participate in the service of the word, but not until baptism at Easter could they share the bread of heaven and the wine of everlasting life. Lent was a catechetical period that led to dramatic reenactment of the passion of Jesus culminating with the Easter Vigil and passage from death to life. “Becoming Disciples” continues this use of the Lent and Easter as the narrative structure for incorporating new persons into the death and resurrection of Christ.

“Lives” faith in community: As an extension of the way of calendar and ritual celebration, Per Harling (Worshiping Ecumenically, 1995, p. 5) reminds us that in the early churches, worship was something done in memory and praise of the risen Christ. In the middle ages, worship shifted and was something said in memory and praise of the risen Christ. In the Reformation, worship became something heard (and understood) in memory and in praise of the risen Christ. See the catechetical sermons of Cyril of Jerusalem or the diary of Egeria to get a sense of worship as something done.

Benchmarks growth with ritual acts: The early church’s wisdom was that conversion took place in relationships and as that growth took place, certain thresholds should be marked publicly. So when it was discerned that a person was ready to share in hearing and taking responsibility for doing the Word of God, they were welcomed as “catechumens”—hearers of the Word. When their behavior and practice of the Way was indicative of their readiness for the final period leading to baptism, they were enrolled for baptism. Then came Easter and at the all night vigil they entered the waters stripped of an old life and entered into the land of milk and honey sharing the Eucharist for the first time. Robert Webber (Morehouse,1992) notes the power of outward rites to shape and redirect inward affections, tempers, and emotions. One of the most poignant expressions of this during Lent are the examination of conscience prayers and the handing on of the traditions. See the worship acts for these on “Becoming Disciples” resources. “Becoming Disciples” enacts ritual moments to mark stages of movement of those journeying toward baptism.

C. Using the ancient model in our context: Adapting that ancient practice of the church, the 20th and 21st century ecumenical practice of the ancient way of becoming disciples has emerged with a rather clear and simple pattern: (and here I use your Uniting Church language in “overview of becoming disciples”)

The four phases are:

Touching the Edges (often called the Inquiry Phase)
(Rite of Welcome)
Discovering the Riches (often called Formation Phase)
(Rite of Calling)
Exploring the Depths (often called the Candidacy Phase)
(Rite of Initiation)
Living the Life (often called the Integration Phase)
(Rites of Reaffirmation)

D. All of this is well and good. It is a neat and tidy structure. However, beware! This “catawhat?” can be risky. It just might take hold of you and your congregation and, to use Jesus’ word to Peter, “[it] will…take you where you don’t want to go.” (Jn. 21) If this becomes God breathed it could transform your congregation. One short story to illustrate, a woman who had gone through the whole process said just before she was to be baptized at the Easter Vigil, “I can’t do this.” Imagine the impact on that congregation! She was baptized the next year. My guess is that more than one in that congregation reconsidered the meaning of their baptism in the intervening year. In another congregation, a 70-year-old woman, never baptized but long active in the congregation, entered the process and was baptized. Now she regularly sponsors others who are drawn to take the journey. The catechumenate is really about a new (and primordial) way of being congregation—congregations upended by grace for the sake of those being up ended by grace.

E. Finally, let me close with a rather rapid rehearsal of the principles that are the foundation of this ancient-future approach to Christian initiation that we are exploring together.

“Becoming Disciples” is grounded in the services of the baptismal covenant as the sacrament of new birth into the reign of God and of dying and rising in union with Jesus Christ.

“Becoming Disciples” is an invitation for people to approach baptism or reaffirmation using several steps raised by the service of baptism itself. In your church’s ritual you ask: (from the UCA ritual of baptism):

Do you repent of your sins?
Do you turn to Jesus Christ, who has defeated the power of sin and death and brought us new life?
Do you pledge yourself to God, trusting in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord and in the Holy Spirit as Counsellor and Guide?
These give the horizon toward which the candidates need time and guidance in order to be prepared. Before them come several thresholds, which your new rites call the “welcome” and “calling to baptism”.

“Becoming Disciples” assumes and requires that the whole congregation will be involved; reaching out, welcoming, praying for, forming faith and discipleship, and sending persons for ministry in daily life.

“Becoming Disciples” is compatible with, and to some extent relies upon, the structure of the calendar of the Christian year, particularly Lent, Easter, and the Great Fifty Days. Congregations can adapt to other times such as Advent, Christmas and after Epiphany.

“Becoming Disciples” engages a number of persons in special roles that represent and make personal the congregation’s worship, caring, prayer, vision and social ministry. See “The Becoming Disciples Team” on this website on the “Preparing the Congregation” page.

Becoming Disciples” is messy. Though we can describe it simply and neatly, searching persons don’t come shrink wrapped. The Spirit will present them to us as they are. This messiness means that hospitality to the stranger is never pro forma; rather it is always about eating with sinners—people who come from another world of experience! It is meeting people where they are, as they are, listening to them in their hurts and hopes, and sharing with them the great hope that is the church’s treasure.

“Becoming Disciples” requires thoughtful, long-range planning and leadership. Somebody—maybe several—will need to be intentional about implementing this process in the life of the congregation. It must be a clergy-lay partnership, though it actual expression should be largely by the laity.

“Becoming Disciples” calls for a companion for each inquirer/candidate. Companions serve throughout the conversion journey.

“Becoming Disciples” assumes that readiness for baptism or reaffirmation of baptism will be based on mutual discernment. [See the last section of the third address in this series for more on this.] The candidate, candidate, coordinator, and pastor share in this mutual discernment.

“Becoming Disciples” can be adapted for building relationship with parents bringing infants and young children, to baptized persons returning to the baptismal covenant, or to church members who want to deepen and affirm the baptismal covenant.

I hope this has helped to engage us as a group with the historical and theoretical framework of “becoming disciples”. Asserting that baptism is the epicenter of mission one thing; discovering it in experience and living it out in church life is quite another. However, that is the challenge I want to leave with you as we move deeper into our exploration of “Becoming Disciples.”

“Recovering Baptism as the Epicentre of Mission” copyright 2004 The General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church. Posted with permission. It has been edited for readers. Material by the author of this address may be quoted for non-commercial, one-time educational use so long as the copyright notice and the General Board of Discipleship Worship Webpage URL, Worship, United Methodist Church, appears with the quoted material.

Daniel Benedict (email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is Worship Resources Director in the Center for Worship Resourcing, The General Board of Discipleship, The United Methodist Church.