I am regularly approached by parents wishing to have their children baptised. Alongside this, I’ve been marking papers written by ordinands (trainee vicars) on the pastoral (i.e. responding to human need) and missiological (i.e. pertaining to the mandate, message and mission of the church) challenges and opportunities presented by those who are seeking to engage with the Church for baptisms, with reference to the spiritual, social and psychological dimensions involved. And so, among other things, I’ve been thinking about the baptismal vows and what it might mean to live them out.
At baptism we make certain vows, either for ourselves or on behalf of our children. These vows concern a turning away, and a turning towards. In other words, a change of orientation, or perspective, a metanoia or change of mind. Though there is some variation in wording, the vows may be as follows:
Do you turn away from sin? I do.
Do you reject evil? I do.
Do you turn to Christ as Saviour? I do.
Do you trust in him as Lord? I do.
Sin is largely self-centredness, and we all know what it is like to wrestle with that. In the context of being a parent—the context in which many people approach me regarding baptism—I love my children and genuinely want to be a good father to them…but when they want my attention when it is fixed on something ‘more important’ or ‘more pressing’ (such as the tv drama I am trying to watch, or the facebook feed I am scrolling down, or work, or…) they may get brushed aside, until the day comes when I want them to talk to me but they have learnt that whatever they are doing is more important. Or, again, I know that our love of fossil fuels and plastics is destroying the planet…but I love the convenience of electricity and do not really want to reduce my habits of consumption. While we can recognise sin in our own lives, vowing to turn away from sin, embracing this as habitual behaviour, is far harder.
Evil is largely the absence of love. Human beings traffick other human beings, or enslave them to drug addiction, or kill strangers, because of an absence of loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. And it is easy to paint certain people as evil, somehow different from the rest of us. And yet, we all know the impact of unresisted evil in creating division, as certain groups of people are dehumanised and the call goes up to strip them of rights, and responsibilities. But to reject evil is an active stance: to resist and resist and resist, in how we think and what we say and what we do. And again, it is far easier to recognise evil than it is to commit ourselves to embracing the rejection of evil.
To turn to Christ as Saviour is, firstly, to recognise that we need saving and cannot save ourselves. And in the immediate context of these vows, that we need saving from sin and from our complicity in evil. I reckon most people I know recognise that they need saving from something that, at root, comes back to sin and evil, and that they cannot save themselves. It may be loneliness, the consequence of the breakdown of relationships into isolated individualism (and, hence, we recognise that individualism is not the answer, and so go looking for salvation in a friendship group). It may be cancer, a complex consequence of our collective modern lives including what we put into our food and our air. From a Christian perspective, I would suggest that running is a poor saviour (I need only get injured to be cast back out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth; or, I may become addicted to running, and use it as an excuse to avoid relationships that need attending to) but that it is a great means by which Christ is at work to save me. Or, again, medical science is a poor saviour (people still die; and even if we eradicate all cancers, we’ll only die of something else) but also a great means by which Christ may work to bring salvation to some. But the baptismal vow grounds salvation in Christ, as the only dependable source and completion of my salvation.
And on that basis, we come to the final vow, to trust him as Lord. That is to say that he is over all things, at work despite sin and even in the face of evil—that he opposes and will ultimately overcome—to bring about salvation not only for me and for my children but for self-destructive humanity and the tragically scarred natural environment. Such a belief is not passive, but, like turning away and rejecting and turning to, trusting calls us to step into the vow we have made. To respond to his voice, that drives out fear and calls forth courage from deep within us, courage we never knew was there. To trust the good purposes of one who is greater than our own self-centredness, the endemic lack of love of neighbour, and our spiritual, social and psychological need for salvation is a daily act of resistance, of refusal to go with the flow.
It should come as no surprise that this is what parents want for their children. At the same time, these vows become so much harder to live out when we attempt to do so on our own. God knows, the church is an imperfect community, but we live out our vows imperfectly together.