Pondering the Great Commission

Baptism not a goal, but a relationship with God
July 6, 2007

I met recently with a group of appointed missionaries of the Episcopal Church. They gathered for 10 days in New York for orientation before leaving to do mission. It was an enormous privilege to meet them and see their energy and enthusiasm (which means "filled with God") for this adventure.

We had an opportunity for conversation, and one young man shared his concern about how to understand the Great Commission, particularly the directive to baptize, especially in a multifaith environment. It was a wonderful question that engages us all at one level or another.

How do we engage in evangelism, and particularly in the specific directives of Matthew 28:19-20? Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

This passage marks the end of Matthew's Gospel, and its explicitly Trinitarian language should make us aware that it probably reflects the practice of early Christian communities, some time after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yet the question remains: How do we respond to this sending of the disciples, in which we understand all Christians participate, into a multifaith world?

If we believe that Jesus' saving work is for the whole world, that should relieve some of our immediate anxiety. He is pretty clear that he is not here to judge the world, but to love the world and invite all into relationship with Love itself (John 12:32 -- And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself -- and John 12:47 -- I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world). Judgment comes at the end of time, and until then you and I repeatedly are urged not to judge others.

Yet the ancient question remains: Is baptism necessary for salvation? Theologians have wrestled with this in a number of ways and made some remarkably gracious and open-ended responses. Vatican II affirmed that salvation is possible outside the church, even though some statements by Roman Catholic authorities in years since have sought to retreat from that position.

Karl Rahner spoke about "anonymous Christians," whose identity is known to God alone. John MacQuarrie recognized the presence of the Logos or Word in other traditions.

But the more interesting question has to do with baptism itself. Like all sacraments, we understand baptism as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace (Catechism, BCP, p. 857). It is an outward recognition of grace that is both given and already present through God's action.

When we look at some of the lives of holy people who follow other religious traditions, what do we see? Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama both exemplify Christ-like lives. Would we assume that there is no grace present in lives like these? A conclusion of that sort seems to verge on the only unforgivable sin, against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:30-32).

If I believe that God is more than I can imagine, conceptualize or understand, then I must be willing to acknowledge that God may act in ways that are beyond my ken, including in people who do not follow the Judeo-Christian tradition. Note that I include our Jewish brothers and sisters, for Scripture is very clear that God made a covenant with Israel. That covenant was not abrogated in Jesus. Scripture also speaks of a covenant with Abraham that extends to his offspring, including Ishmael. Our Muslim brothers and sisters claim him as their ancestor. In some way, God continues to act in the tradition we call Islam.

Well, if God is already at work in other religious traditions, why would we bother to teach, make disciples or baptize? The focus of our evangelical work can never be imposing our own will (despite the wretched examples of forced conversion in the history of Christianity), but there is a real urgency to sharing the good news.

Can you imagine not saying to another, "Let me introduce you to my best friend. I think you would enjoy getting to know him"? We are certainly not loath to do that when it comes to the latest movie or book or restaurant we've enjoyed, and unless we are leery of sharing, we will not stay silent long.

But let's go back to baptism. What is the urgency? It might be helpful to reflect on what we claim happens in baptism. We are washed, (usually) anointed, forgiven, welcomed as members of Christ's body, receive the Holy Spirit, initiated into the mysteries (welcomed to communion) and begin to take up life as a saint.

We act in all those ways toward infants who are as yet largely unaware of what is happening to them, and we do it in a sense of eschatological hope that the newly baptized will grow into an ability to claim those promises for him or herself. However, we only baptize adults who are willing and able to claim that hope for themselves.

The evangelical question has to do with free will. Should we, shall we, impose that on those who do not fully desire it? Maybe it would be helpful to recognize that baptism is not the goal, but rather relationship with God (or discipleship). We understand that to be a relationship in God's Word, whom we call Christ.

Our evangelical work has more to do with the gracious recognition of God already at work in the world about us than it does with imposing our will on others. When Jesus says "make disciples," that has a great deal to do with inviting others into relationship with the God we know, particularly as we know God in Christ. I do not believe it has anything to do with forcible or manipulative conversion.

It has more to do with showing and telling, through word (Word) and deed, what it is like to know the gift of that relationship -- to demonstrate the unutterable attractiveness of that relationship so that another can not imagine anything more desirable. I do not believe it has anything to do with instilling or playing on human fear (which is, after all, one of the things we renounce in baptism).

How might our evangelical work be different if we began with the disciple-making part (the befriending we know in Jesus) rather than counting coup in numbers of baptisms achieved? It is the latter that has given evangelism a bad name through the ages. My sense is that our evangelical work is likely to be more gracious if we focus on how our own lives exemplify the actions we claim in baptism -- washing, forgiving, welcoming, demonstrating Holy Spirit, entering into communion, living as a holy one of God.

Our very lives can be baptism, living water, new life born out of death, to those around us, even though they may not yet consciously claim membership in the body of Christ. Our understanding of eschatological hope is that, in the end, God will make right what is wrong or broken in this world. We are meant to live as though it is already happening.