By Adam Thomas
As the church in which I am blessed to serve God prepares for a new adult Christian formation program, I have found myself thinking about baptism quite a bit lately. And I have also found myself jotting down notes about several pieces of the baptismal services. A few of these notes, I share with you below.
If you were baptized in an Episcopal Church after 1979, either you or your parents and godparents answered a series of six questions. The last of which reads, “Do you promise to follow and obey [Jesus Christ] as your Lord?” Whether or not you were baptized under this particular liturgy, this is the fundamental question at the heart of the Christian faith. The answer, “I do,” is simply two little words, but these two words really aren’t the answer at all. The true answer to this question is the manner in which we choose to lead our lives in the wake of such a powerful promise. Let’s take a moment to break down this question to see what we are really getting ourselves into.
Do you promise…
Girls link pinkies. Guys spit on their hands and shake. Car dealers sell extended warranties. Banks make you sign the mortgage paperwork a dozen times. Each of these signals a promise: the secret is safe, the ex-girlfriend is off-limits, the car will be repaired free of charge, and the loan will be repaid. The act of making the promise itself means little compared to the continuous act of fulfilling the promise. Ex-friendships, fine print wielding salesmen, and foreclosures point to the fact that many promises do not last.
But there happens to be a significant difference between these promises and the one we make at baptism. In most promises, the other entity entering the trust is another human being—another fallible, flawed human being. When we promise to follow and obey Jesus Christ as our Lord, we make our promise to God. And God never breaks trust with us. So our promise to God follows God’s eternal promise to us to be faithful always, to be with us always, just to be…always.
Thus, our fulfillment of the promise always happens in response to God’s steadfastness. When we break the promise, it does not cease to hold sway because God continues to fulfill it. And God invites us to renew the promise again and again and again.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, the first words that Jesus says to Peter and Andrew, his prospective disciples, are “Follow me” (Matt. 4:18). In the Gospel according to John, the last words that Jesus says to Peter are (you guessed it) “Follow me” (John 21:22). Therefore, considering how the compilers of the New Testament chose to lay out the Gospel, the first and last words out of Jesus’ mouth are “Follow me.” What does it mean to follow Jesus? Like the main promise we are discussing, this question takes a lifetime to answer; but here are a few quick observations.
To follow means to come after or travel behind. You do this most often when you don’t know the way to, say, the movie theater, and the friends in the car ahead of you lead you there. Our Christian faith tells us that Jesus walks with us, leading us on right paths through our lives. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). In Greek, the “way” is literally the “road” on which we walk down. So not only is Jesus the guide for our feet; he paved the road on which our feet tread. The Letter to the Hebrews calls Jesus the “pioneer” of our faith: he is the trailblazer. He invites us to walk the difficult path he first walked, a path full of both pain and joy (Hebrew 12:2).
To follow also means to learn by example. To quote a learned man at my parish, we are “apprentices” of Jesus Christ. During the Renaissance, master painters directed their students to copy their works of art in order to learn the craft. More often than not, these apprentice copies couldn’t compare to the master’s, but they still learned how to apply paint to canvas, and they learned well. Likewise, we will never be able to reach the full example of Jesus Christ, but this shouldn’t stop us from following him just the same.
Obedience is a tricky thing because it involves something that many folks aren’t all that good at: listening. To obey means to listen carefully and then to act. Obedience to God begins with our intentional effort to discern God’s will in our lives and continues with our reliance on God to live out that will. The good news is that when we choose to obey God, God has already given us the gifts we need to accomplish that will. (Of course, this doesn’t mean the act of obeying will be easy.)
When Jesus commands the paralyzed man to stand up, take his mat, and walk, the man gets up immediately (John 5:8-9). Jesus speaks no word of healing at all. Rather, the act of healing is subsumed in the command. Jesus gives the man the gift of healing in order that the man can obey his command. Likewise, we discover new gifts when we listen for and obey God’s will in our lives.
…[Jesus Christ] as your Lord…In our Christian parlance, we call Jesus many things: friend, brother, teacher, savior. But in this question, we call Jesus “Lord.” We promise to follow Jesus as our “Lord.” How does “Lord” differ from other titles for Jesus? Leaving aside the masculine nature of the title, a lord is someone in a position of authority and respect. In the Gospel, the Greek word for “lord” (kyrie) can also be translated as “sir.” In the military, a person you call “sir” is someone who has the authority to command you to do something.
Likewise, when we promise to follow and obey Jesus as our Lord, we acknowledge that Jesus has the authority to direct our lives. This authority comes from the fact that God is the author of each of us. God pens each day in the books of our lives; sometimes we are the protagonists and sometimes we are antagonists of our own stories. When we follow Jesus as our author, as our Lord, we consciously take on the protagonist role. To change the metaphor, we resonate with God’s directing creativity in our lives. We are in tune with God.
Of course, these few notes simply scratch the surface of this immense question. I wonder how we each live out this promise in our everyday lives? I wonder how the promises we make with other people reflect the promises we make to God? I wonder how readily we allow God to fulfill God’s promises, which, in the end, allow us to fulfill ours?
The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com.