By Dale Krueger
The most important moment in my life happened when, in my baptism, I was joined to Jesus Christ. The journey of faith that began for me in that moment led to pastoral ministry, a calling I believe that came from the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel. The community of believers where that Gospel had been proclaimed was the church of which I had become a member when I was baptized. The seminary education I received was followed up by learning practical theology “on the ground.” It was in ministering to people that I was led to a deeper understanding of the great gift of grace given in baptism. In this issue of the DayStar Journal I hope to contribute to the overall theme, “The Ministry of the Baptized,” with this emphasis: “It all begins with baptism.”
Back in 1960 I was learning pastoral ministry while serving four congregations in Northwest Ontario. I was struggling with parents’ selection of “godparents”/sponsors. They would pick neighbors who hadn’t been baptized, or “Uncle Fred” who was a Lutheran but who hadn’t been among the worshiping people of God since he had immigrated to Canada thirty years ago. Parents often had little understanding of baptism. They just wanted their kids “done” as if baptism were some kind of eternal life insurance.
To minister to these parents, their children and “godparents,” the idea of a “Baptismal Seminar” came into my mind. This seminar could to be held prior to the day of the baptism, or even prior to the birth day. Parents would be invited to a two-hour seminar to help them prepare for the baptism of their children. They were asked to bring the “godparents” of their choice along with them. Grandparents and other members of the extended family were also encouraged to join us as well as members of the congregation.
All were requested to bring Bibles with them as passages from the Scriptures relating to baptism would be studied. The seminar was conducted in a conversational manner. After becoming acquainted with one another, everyone was asked to share something about their own baptism . . . when, where, who was there, how they knew about it. All responses, feelings, concerns and questions were accepted and discussed. It was explained that this ordinary Greek word, translated “baptism,” simply means “to wash” or “to apply water.” Pertinent Scriptural passages pertaining to symbolic ritual washings in the Old Covenant . . . pots and pans, proselyte baptisms, the baptisms of John the Baptist and of Jesus, were explored.
The discussion then moved to Acts 2 and to the beginning of Christian baptism in the New Covenant. After his death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus and the Father sent the Holy Spirit to create the church. Baptism was no longer a symbolic action, but an incorporation into Christ. People are now baptized “in the name of Jesus,” “for the forgiveness of sins,” and “are given the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is a gift for them and “for their children.”
The difference between sin and sins was explored so that it could be understood that the children, having sinful parents, come into this world separated from God. They may not show immediately the symptoms of the disease of sin, but they will soon enough. But baptism brings us into relationship with God, and we become the children of God. The separation is destroyed by God’s action in Christ as the baptized ones become his dear children. Galatians 3:26-27 is explored for more insights into what it means to be a child of God. To be “in Christ” is to take on his quality of love for people, a quality which is the very core of the ministry of the baptized.
However, one not only becomes a child of God in baptism, but one also becomes a member of the family of God, the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13), the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. For the baptized child the whole church is like an extended family, and the local congregation is like the immediate family. The baptized person becomes a full member of the whole church and of the local congregation. Family life is discovered and lived out mainly in the local church. One cannot become a member of the local congregation through the Rite of Confirmation because one is already a full member through baptism. Christian education given by parents and teachers is to help the baptized to be confirmed in the knowledge of who they are and as a vehicle for the Holy Spirit to empower them for their ministry. The confirming process continues to the moment of death.
The baptized one has been joined to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and given power to live the resurrected life of love and ministry (Romans 6:3-4). The new birth through water and the Spirit has both present and eternal meaning (John 3:5).
Our Lord’s desire for his church is explored in the words that he spoke after his resurrection (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus continues to make disciples as his church keeps on baptizing and keeps on teaching what baptism means. Jesus summarizes the ministry of the baptized with the words, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). God’s family is assured by the promise of Jesus, “The one who is baptized and believes shall be saved” (Mark 16:15-16), and the words of Peter, “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).
Although parents were urged to select “godparents” from among faithfully practicing Christians, the minimum requirement was that the “godparents” be baptized. Also, parents could select as many “godparents” as they wanted. It was emphasized in the seminar that the parents are, in effect, the real godparents. It was pointed out that if the parents fail in their ministry of helping their children to know the Lord, pastors, brothers and sisters in the congregation, teachers and the “godparents” would be very limited in doing their ministry to the baptized child.
“Godparents” essentially are to assist the parents in helping the children know who it is into whose name they are baptized. Usually the idea came up that the job of “godparents” is to take care of the child if the parents die. This subject would present the opportunity to talk about the need for parents to have a will and to emphasize that the “godparents” are not legal guardians of the child in the event of the death of the parents unless this is stipulated in the parents’ will.
A list of expectations is handed out and discussed. Like the parents, the “godparents” are to care for the spiritual life of the children. As the children grow, they are to be told of their baptism and what it means. Suggestions are given as to how to help the children celebrate their baptism on the anniversary each year.
In the congregation I am currently serving, on the last Sunday of each month all those baptized in that month are invited to a celebration of the gift of God given in baptism. Baptismal anniversary cards are sent out early in the month to adults and children, and follow-up phone calls are made. “Godparents” are also invited to be present. Members of the congregation are encouraged to be godparents to all the other members.
The list of expectations for “godparents” includes sharing the Lord’s Supper with them at their first communion. They are also to look forward to being present for the laying on of hands as the young person’s growth in their baptismal ministry is celebrated in the Rite of Confirmation. “Godparents” are urged to pray for the godchild every day. The “godparents” are then asked to answer truthfully if they want to do this.
Finally, we go over the Order of Baptism in the Lutheran Book of Worship and see how the Scriptural verses just studied are incorporated into the baptismal service. Each person is given the opportunity to respond to what they have learned and felt through the seminar. Some will express how reluctant they were to come to the seminar and how thankful they are that they came and how much they learned. What a joy it is when a father says, “If this is good enough for my daughter, this is good enough for me. I want to be baptized too.” What a joy when “godparents” gain some insight into their own baptism and begin worshiping again. The seminar then concludes with all going to the sanctuary where final directions are given and prayers are offered to the one who died and rose for all.
During the past forty-seven years the Baptismal Seminar has been an integral part of my ministry in the congregations I have served. Although it began for parents and “godparents” of infants and children, it is also modified and used for adult instruction. My preaching and teaching has focused on what we have received as a gracious gift from God in the word and water of baptism. The ministry of the baptized truly begins with baptism.