The newly baptized



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

The newly baptized

Jan. 17, 2008    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011   
tparham@flumc.org     Orlando {0786}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at http://www.flumc.info/photo_gallery2.shtml.

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

Because the festival of Easter occurs very early this year, on March 23, the season of preparation for Easter also begins very early, on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 6. There is hardly time between Christmas and Lent to think about how we should use the Lenten season to prepare ourselves to participate in Easter.
 
There is no one way to observe the 40 days of Lent before Easter. Each year I choose somewhat different practices in order to mark the days of Lent. I choose what kind of fasting I shall do or what kind of study and prayer I will observe or what kind of acts of service I will perform. The problem with my own observance of Lent is that there is always the tendency for me to forget the overall purpose of Lent in the process of observing particular practices during Lent. Indeed, my own Lenten observance can degenerate into a moralistic endeavor of either personal self-discipline or social witness. When that happens, my fasting, for example, becomes more about controlling my diet than about being a means of grace in God’s relationship with me.
 
What, then, is the purpose of the observance of Lent? Of course, it is supposed to be a time of spiritual preparation for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ so that by faith we might be raised to newness of life by the power of the same Spirit of God who raised the Son of God from the dead.

Yet, the purpose of Lent can be defined in a much more particular way. Historically, Lent was the season when persons were being prepared for baptism. Baptism was administered on the eve of Easter during a candlelight service known as the Easter Vigil. All members of the church were very aware that the catechumens, or candidates for baptism, were receiving doctrinal instruction and practicing spiritual disciplines, such as fasting, during Lent. All members were asked to practice certain disciplines during Lent so that they would be ready to remember their baptism at the Easter Vigil and commit themselves anew to the vows of their baptism. During Lent, all of them — catechumens and members of the church — were focused upon opening their lives to the power of the Holy Spirit who is given during baptism in the name of the triune God. They knew that the way to celebrate Easter is to be baptized, or to renew the vows of baptism, because Christ was not raised as a spectacle to the world, but “Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4).”
 
A growing number of congregations are choosing to have an Easter Vigil in the evening before Easter day. This is a powerful and beautiful candlelight service that involves both the baptismal covenant and the Lord’s Supper. Many churches set aside this night for the baptism of youth and adults who have gone through an intensive period of Christian initiation during Lent (and usually prior to Lent, as well). During the service, those who have already been baptized are invited to renew their vows of baptism. The pattern for the Easter Vigil is given in “The United Methodist Book of Worship,” No. 369-376.
 
I believe the way we can avoid making our observance of Lent a moralistic endeavor is by dedicating all that we do in Lent to the purpose of remembering and renewing our baptism. By putting our Lenten disciplines in the context of baptism, we are guided toward praying for renewal of our lives by the power of the Spirit who is given to us in baptism.
 
The great preacher in Constantinople in the fourth century, John Chrysostom, preached a series of sermons to the members of his congregation about the meaning of baptism. In his sermons, he spoke of “the newly baptized.” Of course, he was talking about those who had been baptized during the previous months or year. Yet, he applied the meaning of being “newly baptized” much more broadly. He said that “the newly baptized” included all Christians for whom the meaning of their baptism was still fresh and who avoided committing sin by the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, every Christian should seek to live as “the newly baptized.” (See “Orthodox and Wesleyan Ecclesiology” by S. T. Kimbrough Jr., St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007, page 274.)
 
There are many of us who will confess that we cannot claim the mantle of “the newly baptized” because of the sins we have committed since we were washed in the laver. However, because of the grace of forgiveness offered to us through the death of Jesus Christ for our sakes, we are free to return to the laver, to remember our baptism, to renew our vows and to ask for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit who is promised to us in our baptism. By doing so, we rejoin the wonderful ranks of “the newly baptized!”
 
I pray during this Lent that all Florida United Methodists will be among those who experience being a part of “the newly baptized” people of God.

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*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.




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