I have been asked recently about questions in the baptismal liturgy that are asked of adults in response to their own baptism or the baptism of their child. In the liturgy we, as a congregation, are called to respond as well as those who are before us seeking Christian baptism.
Each time I ask these questions during a baptism, they take on new meaning for me. In the sacrament of baptism, those who can respond for themselves are called to renounce “the spiritual forces of wickedness” and reject “the evil powers of this world.” Wicked and evil are words that I commonly do not use in expressing my understanding of our need for God. I do not talk about infant baptism in this way at all. And yet, the first two questions in the liturgy confront us with these words. We are asked if we “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of (our) sin.” The assumptions appear to be that we have been supporting the spiritual forces of wickedness, accepting the evil powers of this world, and that we have sinned. If we hadn’t been doing these things, there would be no reason to “renounce,” “reject,” and “repent.”
When we participate in worship in the sacrament of baptism, we are asked in the liturgy to renew our commitment not to participate in those things that lead to brokenness in our world. My friend and colleague, Walter Wink, related the biblical phrase “principalities and powers” to the dominating sociopolitical structures of the modern era. Most of us do not overtly support evil and wickedness; however, it is difficult not to participate in corrupt and unjust systems in the world. I unknowingly support companies and institutions that are unjust. I accept the existing power structures that I know favor one group of people over another. I do so because the way things are in this nation and the world favor me and because it is easier than confronting the powers that be. Also, I am not that eager to reflect on my own life and go deep into myself and find those things about which I need to repent; therefore, I also need to repent for my lack of enthusiasm in exploring these things. So the first question in the liturgy assumes things about me that I don’t particularly want to assume about myself: my own need for repentance.
The second question gives me hope. It’s about accepting God’s gifts of freedom and empowerment to resist those things that disrupt God’s reign: evil, injustice, oppression, repression. God takes the initiative in giving us grace to be God’s people and participate in God’s purposes. Repentance is hard. To turn from how we are thinking and behaving and go a new direction is difficult, but God gives us the freedom to respond and the power to change.
Baptism is the beginning of our journey toward loving God and our neighbors, all of whom God has created, as our ourselves. When we renew our commitment to love God and all God loves, we experience anew that God’s grace is sufficient along the way in our becoming the people we have been created and called to be. As Martin Luther said, we are to “remember our baptism and be thankful.” The gospel is both gift and demand.