This week as I’ve been preparing for Baptism of the Lord Sunday in my local churches, I’ve been reading a lot about water, about Methodist understanding of baptism, and as always, mission. What does mission have to do with our baptism?
Baptism is one of my earliest memories, watching my brothers being baptized in our childhood church. What I didn’t realize as a child was that being baptized meant that we were being incorporated into the body of Christ. A four-year old child has a limited capacity to understand such an abstract concept. To be honest, most of us no matter our age, struggle to really, deeply understand what it means to be incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation, which is the body of Christ for the world.
In the United Methodist liturgy for baptism, these are the words the congregation says to the newly baptized person. “Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you as members of the family of Christ.” This is the thing that we all work to understand as disciples. Our experience of baptism is not private. It is personal, but it moves us beyond our selfish interests and helps us to become part of the body of Christ, given for the sake of the world. We are saved, not for ourselves, but for others.
This brings us to mission. When we go out on a short-term mission trip, we likely have been moved by empathy and compassion for those who struggle and suffer. We want to help! This is clear by the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission response to the needs in Puerto Rico. Devastated by hurricanes, the people of Puerto Rico need help to recover. The Methodist Church in Puerto Rico reports that there are already 125 teams signed up to work there in 2019 – that’s more than two teams of volunteers per week on average. Our baptism means that if our brothers and sisters are suffering, so we suffer with them, and some folks are able to travel and put their compassion into sweat and work.
For our worship on Sunday, we’ll use water imagery. We’ll sing about baptism, we’ll talk about baptism, and we’ll dip our fingers in water to remember our baptisms. A clergy friend of mine has a family coming to be baptized on this special Sunday. I love this imagery. But everyone has a different experience of water, and for me, this includes growing up on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes were an annual threat. I’ve lived through several hurricanes, some with rain and wind, and some with flooding. Water is a powerful image and it is helpful to remember that although we have the water of baptism as one of our sacraments, we need to remember that water imagery can be helpful or painful for people.
I worshiped with a group once that loved to sing a contemporary worship song that talks about God’s love being like a hurricane. The first time I heard it, I was stunned into silence. That song did NOT help me to sing praise to God or to consider more deeply God’s love for me. All I could think about was the destructive power of hurricanes. Surely the songwriter did not know what it was like to live through a hurricane, right? And then I learned that the song was written by a Houston-based Christian band leader. Is it possible that a person living in Houston would not know the destructive power of hurricanes? Yes, it’s possible.
This is the point at which we find the opportunity to learn together through mission projects. All those United Methodist volunteers going from the US to Puerto Rico to help with hurricane recovery have the opportunity to worship with their Methodist brothers and sisters, to listen to their stories, to learn about their faith, and how their faith has sustained them through it all. While the work projects are critically needed, so are the connections and relationships between people. All those mission teams have the opportunity to listen to the faith of the people of Puerto Rico. It can take a lifetime to understand what it really means to be incorporated by the Holy Spirit and to share in Christ’s royal priesthood.
If you have a mission team heading out on a hurricane recovery trip this year and you are interested in having a post-trip team retreat to debrief and talk about how baptism shapes our mission work, contact me! Dates are open now for summer and fall 2019 retreats and workshops.