Baptism Of The Heart

A priest in Arizona said a word wrong when he baptized somebody, and because he might have said that wrong word many times, every single baptism he ever performed has been declared invalid by — I don’t know, the Arizona Diocese, I guess. The Catholic Church considers baptism foundational, so any and all sacraments that follow an invalid baptism are also invalid. So it’s possible that there are people whose marriages are now ruled invalid if either party was baptized by that particular priest.

This is legalistic nitpicking. This is exactly the kind of thing that Jesus went off about — Matthew 23 — which is a big part of why the leaders of the religious establishment wanted Him dead.

Baptism is a symbol. It’s a very good symbol, one that I am a fan of, but it is not more than a symbol. The words that are used matter and the whole thing should be taken seriously, but the meaning of the symbol is that a person has made a decision to follow the teachings of Jesus — that’s why some denominations don’t baptize infants — and the validity of that decision is entirely dependant on the individual being baptized. The official who performs the rite has nothing to do with it.

When I was in the process of joining the ELCA, I was meeting with a pastor, talking about my decision to join. Somehow baptism came up in the conversation and I said I was baptized in the Church of the Brethren and then said “but baptism is baptism, right?” The ELCA is not a full communion partner with the Church of the Brethren, so the technical answer to that question is very much “No”, and the look on the pastor’s face made it clear that she knew that, but she didn’t choose to make an issue of it. Good for her. It doesn’t matter even a little bit.

I try to be clear when I’m going on my own imagination, because I don’t pretend to have a direct line to God. I’m also willing to say things when the Bible clearly backs me up. The Bible doesn’t give us the exact wording that John the Baptist used when he baptized Jesus — though we can be pretty sure he didn’t use the phrase “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” — or the words used by any of the Apostles, which makes me think the exact wording isn’t the important part. Before baptism, the most important symbol of inclusion in God’s family, for people who had penises, was circumcision. This minor surgery was important because God gave it to Abraham as a symbol of the covenant. It was always a symbol. As early as Deuteronomy and as late as Romans, the symbol is shown to be exactly that — both urge God’s people to be circumcised in the heart. In Romans and other books in the NT, circumcision of the flesh doesn’t even matter anymore.

Is it so hard to understand that baptism is the same? What matters is not whether you were dunked or drizzled, at two weeks or thirteen years, in a Brethren or Lutheran church, but whether or not you’ve made the decision to follow Jesus.

I was surprised by the Arizona decision. I had the impression that the Catholics had been moving away from that kind of straining gnats/swallowing camels since the Second Vatican Council. I know that some dioceses are more conservative than others, so maybe a different decision would have been made somewhere else. I don’t know. Generally, I like Pope Francis and I think he’s doing good things, but I’m not a Catholic, so I don’t hang on every word.

It is pretty obvious to me that taking a hard line on wording and other details of rites is missing the point. It’s also one of the things that people mention when they tell me — whether I asked or not — why they’re no longer Catholic. If they seem like they want to be part of a religious community, I’ll say that Lutherans have a history of disagreeing with the Catholic Church, and they might enjoy our thing. Most former Catholics that I’ve known seemed content just quitting religion altogether. The phrase that comes to mind here is “the Spirit gives life; the letter kills”, which is based on 2 Corinthians 3:5–6.

As a Lutheran, I don’t agree with every single thing Luther said, but I think he was right on the nose about the “priesthood of all believers”. Any and all Christians are equal members of the body of Christ, and none have greater authority, though some might have more education. I’m not trying to pick a fight with any Catholics, but I feel comfortable declaring the Arizona baptisms perfectly valid, if the baptized want them to be. This seems like a good place for the verse I mentioned above — “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

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