One of the things I take very seriously is baptism.  It is the normative practice for how we are incorporated into the Body of Christ and become Christians.  This doesn’t mean there is no other way to become a Christian.  The early Church felt that those who died for their faith before they could be baptized received a kind of baptism by blood.  Certainly there are babies who die before they are baptized (and we don’t consign them to limbo, somewhere outside of the community of faith).  Friends Meetings (Quaker Meetings) do not practice any outward and visible signs.  They are generally accepted as members of the Christian community.  (Massy Shepherd made a specific point of this back when I was in seminary.)  Still, it’s the normative practice.  It’s foundational for us.

In the Episcopal Church, God is understood to be the primary actor in baptism – requiring only our cooperation with God’s actions.  I know that’s different from some other traditions, where the decision of the individual seems to be primary, and it’s understood as an action of an individual joining a group.  For us, it’s more like becoming a part of a family.  That’s why we have infant baptism (a child that grows up in a family is a part of that family even before they know what that means).  God is the one who makes us family.  Once God has acted, it cannot be undone.

This does not mean that things are always smooth.  A child can chose, when they grow up, not to participate in the life of a family.  Sometimes this is a healthy choice!  But there is a sense in which growing up in a family claims you for life.  Members of a family can be estranged.  Members of a family can be disconnected.  Christians can be non practicing (and do things God would not wish).  But for us, baptism is a onetime thing.  Once God claims us as family, we are family forever.

We do allow for folks who have been estranged from God and or the Church community to reaffirm their baptismal vows, publically.  And we do allow children, who grew up in the family, to confirm the vows made for them by their parents and Godparents and claim them as their own in a public service.  But baptism happens once.  God acts.  What kind of a family member we are is up to us for the rest of our lives.

But baptism, at root, is less about the individual than it is about the family, the community.  We are incorporated, as I said earlier, into the Body of Christ.  We become a part of something bigger than ourselves, something that is God’s gift to us.

I’m reading about 6 “books of readings” along with my daily offices these days.  And I saw something from Hans Kung (from The Church, found in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants) that I believe makes this point pretty well:

The essential part of the Christian message is the idea of salvation for the whole community of people, of which the individual is a member.  Closely linked to the idea of the Christian message is the outward sign which is at once a sign of grace and vocation for the individual and of his reception into the community of the people of God:  baptism (cf. Eph. 4:1-5).  Since God’s call precedes any action and faith on the part of the individual and since this call is addressed to the whole people of God, the individual never stands alone, but within the community, just as the individual communities are part of the one community, the Church.  The Church begins, not with a pious individual, but with God.