Monday, March 10, 2014

Letter to the Editor: Keeping the covenant

Dear Editor,

Paragraph 341.7 – No pastor shall re-baptize. The practice of re-baptism does not conform with God’s action in baptism and is not consistent with the Wesleyan tradition and the historic teaching of the church. Therefore, the pastor should counsel any person seeking re-baptism to participate in a rite of re-affirmation of baptismal vows.

From a biblical standpoint I have often thought that this stance was incorrect. I understand it from a theological point of view in that baptism is the work of God pouring out his grace on us. It is telling us that we are part of God’s children, the brothers and sisters of Jesus. Baptizing a second time would be saying that God’s grace was not sufficient the first and so it had to be done again.

Theologically I understand that but biblically it is different, because in the Bible there are baptisms for different purposes. And when we speak about baptism, I believe that many, if not most of our members think first about John’s baptism, a baptism of cleansing and repentance. Now we have tried to teach them otherwise for centuries, but since we refer to John as the Baptist, it is hard to get away from that.

In the Book of Acts we often have two baptisms on display, baptism of the water and baptism of the Spirit. The only problem occurs when the two do not happen simultaneously. In Acts 10, Cornelius and friends had been baptized by the Holy Spirit, and Peter’s response to have them immediately baptized with water. Then in Acts 19, at Ephesus, Paul encounters Christians who had received John’s baptism but had not even heard of the Holy Spirit. Immediately Paul baptized them (a second baptism) into the name of the Lord Jesus, and laid hands on them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.

So, in the Bible there is at least one occasion when individuals were baptized a second time. Should it then be permissible to baptize a Christian a second tome, not into the Lord Jesus, for that has already been done, but a baptism of repentance? Now I would think that a biblical and theological argument could be made to allow that to happen. However, I would not practice [it] because my covenant with my brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church say that I will not do that. Regardless of my opinion, I refrain for the sake and honor of joint covenant.

But suppose a Christian comes to me and confesses that they have been trying to commit their life more fully to the Lord. They know that their sins have been forgiven. But they also know that they have continued to sin. And now they feel compelled to do something to show God, and to prove to themselves that they are committed to turning their life around; that they are committed to leaving their sins behind them so they can face God again.

Because of my feelings on the subject, I have a dilemma on my hands. If I do not go along with the request, I take the chance that I am stunting spiritual growth rather than enhancing it. If I do allow the ritual, I am breaking the covenant. I know that the Discipline instructs me to lead toward a rite of re-affirmation of the baptismal vows. But a re-affirmation is going through the same vows, only that the water is missing. And the water is symbolic anyway. We are immersing these people in the Spirit of God. And I believe that the Spirit of God will be present even if the water is not. It is a rite of baptism but we end up calling it by a different name. To participate in that I think of myself as a hypocrite, and actor pretending not to baptize, when in reality I am baptizing.

If I decide to take part in a re-baptism in the midst of my congregation, an open, public forum, I open myself for charges of violating the Discipline. Should those charges be filed? If just resolution cannot be made, should I go on trial for this violation of the Discipline? After all, I can make biblical and theological arguments to support my position. I can even show biblical precedent to support my actions. And further, I would be doing this action to help Christians to grow closer to the Lord. Does that justify violation of the covenant? And if I vow to continue to teach, preach, and practice my view, in spite of this standard being listed in the Discipline, can I remain in the United Methodist Church as an individual set apart for Word, Order, Sacrament, and Service?

Of course if a decision is made to not file charges, to not go to trial, then are we saying that the Discipline is meaningless? Are there any standards, any limits on the choices and actions of an ordained member of the United Methodist Church that cannot be tolerated? And if we do not have any standards, how can we have a covenant together. Amos 3:3 – “How can two walk together unless they are agreed?” Either we have standards by which we will abide, or we have no covenant at all.

Even though I might occasionally lift up disagreements that I have with the Discipline, I agree to abide by the Discipline for the sake of the covenant with my brothers and sisters, my church, and my Lord. And I would hope that would be the case if I am speaking of Paragraph 341.7, or any of the paragraphs that come before.

Rev. Chuck Sprenkle

Monday, March 3, 2014

Letter to the Editor: Embracing both law and grace

Dear Editor,

While listening to a cantata recently I was reminded of voice lessons that my daughter had taken. At one lesson, her teacher, Ralph Wooley, told her to not just try to read the notes, but to feel them. It was the difference between technical perfection and artistry. And it occurred to me that many musicians consciously or unconsciously choose sides when performing. Do they focus on the technical perfection of each note, making sure it is exactly as written? Or do they concentrate on the song, taking liberties with the foundation before them? The former takes the chance that they will lose sight of the song by only seeing each note. The latter takes the chance that they will lose sight of the document that got them there.

Now why is this important? Because it is not about music at all. This is basic Christian theology. Where did Jesus come down on this issue? Some might say that he focused on notes. I see the notes as the teaching that comes from the law and the prophets. That was the foundation on which he was operating. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen will by any means disappear …” (Matthew 5:17-18 NIV).

Jesus told the people to look at the notes of the composition. And as he explained those notes, he took them to a much greater depth than anyone could imagine. It is not just murder, but anger and hatred. Not physical relationship but lust. And on and on. Obviously Jesus was focused on the notes.

But others come to a different conclusion. They look at Jesus and declare that he thought the song was much more important than the notes. Consider this encounter with the religious leaders: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue, and all other kinds of garden hers, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone … And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:42, 46 NIV).

Obviously Jesus was telling the religious leaders that they were focusing so much on the notes with such strict adherence, that they are losing sight of song, the melodies that God wants to hear coming from the hearts of humanity. Obviously Jesus was focused on the song.

The reality is that both sides are wrong. He could not lose sight of either the notes or the song. And neither can we. In fact the notes and the song need to be in a supportive relationship with one another. The notes are the law by which we are directed to make decisions; by which we are to act. The song is the grace in which we are expected to live and give to the world around us. If we lose one or the other, we are not, cannot fulfill who we are ultimately called to be. The law is necessary to provide standards and principles in life. Grace is necessary because we are called to forgive rather than condemn.

In the United Methodist Church there is a cantata being performed over issues of same sex unions and gay and lesbian behaviors. One side is accused of ignoring the notes, the law. The other side is accused of ignoring the song, the grace. And to some extent, both sides are wrong. Can we find a way to live in grace without leaving the law, the standards, the notes behind? Can we find a way to uphold the law without sacrificing grace to judgment? Can we be the Church Christ calls us to be without embracing both law and grace? Our Lord and our world await our answer.

Rev. Chuck Sprenkle