When should Christians baptize? Will any time do, or should the sacrament be reserved for occasions specifically set aside for it?
“The Apostolic Tradition,” attributed to Hippolytus in the second century, describes the way those to be baptized fasted from Good Friday through an all-night vigil Saturday. At sunrise on Easter, “they were baptized beneath the waters and rose with Christ as from the dead” (James White, “Introduction to Christian Worship”).
Baptizing by Easter’s first light witnessed that those receiving the sacrament were leaving behind darkness and stepping into resurrection. This honors the meaning of the word “ecclesia,” used by Jesus in Matthew 16:18 to describe the confessing community that would center around the apostles and carry on his work. Ecclesia means the called-out community. That meaning is double-edged. Just as Israel needed to leave Egypt to move toward her promise, so the church is called out of paganism and into the gospel. Think of the Ephesians discarding their silver miniatures of Artemis before going under the waters of baptism on Easter (Acts 19).
What would happen if we were to ask candidates for baptism to name what they intend to leave behind in order to become part of the called-out people, the ecclesia?
In my own United Methodist Church, our baptismal liturgy asks candidates to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin.” Unfortunately, the definitions of those powers, forces and sins are left to the individual. What if, when Tom and Sandra presented themselves at the font, we asked them to name the Artemis they discard that day? What if we asked them what they were called out of, in order to be called into, the church?
The question is prompted by conversations this summer with pastors from across the UMC. So many congregations are stifled in witness, so many pastors mistreated, so many opportunities for mission lost, that something basic to our identity must be at fault. Perhaps it’s not the quality of our coffee or the antiquity of our hymnody, but, instead, the poverty of our theology of baptism.
When I’m taught that I may confess Jesus without renouncing Artemis, then I feel free to let my secular politics trump the Gospel, to shout down differing voices, to imagine my own experience the equal of millennia of witness and struggle by saints and Apostles. Nobody told me I needed to say “no” to Artemis in order to say “yes” to Jesus.
When Luke tells the story of Paul in Ephesus, he quotes a certain Demetrius, whose business of making silver miniatures of Artemis is imperiled by the spread of the gospel. Should Paul’s preaching continue, warns Demetrius, “. . . the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty . . .” (19:27).
Well, yes, that’s what apostles do, as do all those baptized out of darkness and into the resurrection. Providing the sacrament has been carefully taught them.
Ed Moore is a managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.