Baptismal Covenant and commitment

October 12, 2009

One of the best known texts from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the Baptismal Covenant. We often refer to it by title – "Our Baptismal Covenant calls us to work for justice and peace," or "the Baptismal Covenant makes us all evangelists" – with the expectation that our audience knows exactly what we mean.

 

The commitments we make in the last five questions, particularly the last three, show up in mission statements and on church websites as summaries of what it means to be Christian, and I suspect that they have been the basis of many a sermon series or Lenten study.

It is gratifying for a liturgist to see such a clear example of our worship, our common prayer, sinking so deeply into our consciousness. Praying does shape believing.

The Baptismal Covenant was new in 1979, crafted to express more fully, and in contemporary language, what had been asked in just two questions in previous prayer books: Dost thou believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith, as contained in the Apostles' Creed? Wilt thou then obediently keep God's holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of thy life?

As drafting of a new baptismal rite began, the committee proposed a rather modest restatement of those earlier questions. The questions that are so familiar today, and even the title "Baptismal Covenant," gradually coalesced over the course of prayer book revision. Rather early in the process, someone pointed out that it was possible to seek and serve Christ in all people and to work diligently for justice without ever participating in the eucharist, so the question from Acts chapter 2 was added: "Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship…?" As the revision process was concluding, there was concern that the new book did not give enough attention to sin and penitence, which resulted in the addition of the question, "Will you persevere in resisting evil…?"

One thing wasn't in question, though: the inclusion of the full text of the Apostles' Creed. The first American prayer book, in 1789, had substituted for the creed the single question, "Dost thou believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith, as contained in the Apostles' Creed?", probably because baptism was supposed to be administered as part of Morning or Evening Prayer, which already included a recitation of the creed. No need to say it twice in a single service. By the twentieth century, though, baptism was rarely celebrated in the context of a daily office, and the drafting committee for the 1979 prayer book envisioned the revised rite as the liturgy of the word at the Holy Eucharist. So the inclusion of the creed in its entirety was deemed essential. When the title "Baptismal Covenant" was introduced, it covered all of the questions, the interrogatory creed and the questions of commitment.

But when we talk about the Baptismal Covenant today, how much attention do we give to the creed? Our energy – and our rhetoric – usually focus on the final five questions. What is it that we must do to live a Christian life?

On the one hand, this emphasis is a very good thing. The 1979 prayer book is enabling the Episcopal Church to reclaim the foundational place of baptism in the life of the church. As we reclaim our baptismal identity, the questions of the Baptismal Covenant are helping us to know more concretely how to follow Christ.

Yet the Baptismal Covenant is not just about us. Indeed, viewed from a biblical, historical, and ecumenical perspective, the Baptismal Covenant is primarily about God and the relationship God establishes with us in baptism. This is why the creed is so important. It tells us who God is and what God has done for us. It tells us that God loves us and calls us into relationship.

Recent decades have seen a resurgence of trinitarian theology. Theologians such as Karl Rahner, Leonardo Boff, Jürgen Moltmann, and Catherine LaCugna have emphasized that the doctrine of the Trinity is fundamentally about God's self-expression in salvation history, the God we know in the sending of the Son and the sending of the Spirit. This is the faith we profess in the creed, and it is here that the creedal questions of the Baptismal Covenant link to the questions of commitment. God who sent the Son and sends the Spirit into the world also sends the church. God who yearns to draw all the world into the divine life calls us to participate in that self-giving for the sake of the world. Catherine LaCugna stated it this way:

The mission, the "being sent forth" of every Christian, is the same as the mission of Christ and the Spirit, to do the will and work of God, to proclaim the good news of salvation, to bring peace and concord, to justify hope in the final return of all things to God. (God for Us, 401-02)

Thus, in the Baptismal Covenant we begin by professing our faith in the triune God, and so we remember who we are and whose we are, we remember what God has done for us, and we remember that God in Christ establishes a covenant with us. The Baptismal Covenant is fundamentally God's initiative. Our response to that covenant is to live as Jesus Christ lived, to live according to power of the Holy Spirit, to participate in God's self-giving love for the world.

The promises we make in the last five questions of the Baptismal Covenant spell out how we will respond to God's initiative. Even then, it's not all about our efforts. To each question, we respond, "I will, with God's help." Our salvation lies not in what we do ourselves, but in what God does for us and through us and with us.

So the next time you say the Baptismal Covenant, remember who you are and whose you are, and remember that God who calls you also gives you all you need to respond faithfully.