Of Liquid Transformation: Baptism's Material Significance
(In this paper I explore how the sacrament of baptism, through the lens of John Yoder and Alexander Schmemann, has material significance for social change in community. Whether sprinkle or dunk, infant or adult, baptism ought to change our political and social worlds.)
If you traveled back throughout Christian history, you would notice traditions that seem to have nothing to do with one another. Yet, one practice you would notice that remains throughout different times and cultures is a practice of people, from infants to adults, sprinkled with or even dunked under water. Despite the Christian tradition varying in practice and thought throughout its history, one of the main practices central to every Christian tradition is baptism. Even though it remains a central component to the Christian faith, as I alluded to earlier, it also is practiced and thought about differently throughout different Christian traditions. In this essay I will discuss what I believe happens in baptism, what baptism suggests about death and resurrection, and what is says in regard to creed, calling, and community.
Baptism remains a sacrament that has divided Christians throughout its history. Who receives baptism, what happens in the act, and what it launches in the participant widely varies throughout different Christian traditions. Like John Yoder, the influential 20th century Anabaptist, I believe the sacrament of baptism, for the adult, is not an end in and of itself but a means to an end. Yoder suggests baptism, and other sacramental debates, often are about a sacrament’s degree of symbolism or the degree to which “what external reality it mediates” is effective. However, the material world matters to Yoder, so to reduce baptism to simply a symbol or an act that mediates an external reality does not do justice to the materiality of the act. For Yoder, material existence matters; therefore, baptism must be an act that matters to the immediate material existence of its participants. He calls this sacramental realism. Russell Haitch suggests Yoder understands baptism as an act that mattered deeply to the lived experience of its first participants. For example, the Eucharist for early followers of Jesus was not simply a symbolic act in which they participated but a means to survive by sharing the sustenance of bread with one another. Therefore, what happens in the act of baptism is two-fold. First, it joins one into a community that subverts the divisions between people that many desire in the world. For Yoder, Christian unity is of utmost important, so much so that it “is not to be created, but to be obeyed.” Within the act of baptism is a joining of one’s self to the unity of the Christian community. What also happens within baptism is an act that joins one to a community that radically desires social and material change in the world. As stated earlier, the act of baptism matters to material existence; therefore, it must project one into a community that subverts the powers that be in the world…