Holy Saturday: Baptism and the Great Commission

Baptism is Christian initiation. The goal of this process and its culminating rite is not some individualized, purely personal experience. The goal of baptism is initiation into a community of faith, a church. It is entrance into a way of life together, not a rite to do something to or for an individual in private. It asserts from its beginning that to be a follower of Christ means to be grafted into the Body of Christ. There is no Christian without church, no faith outside the community of faith.

Christian initiation and its attendant rite of baptism is the proper and primary business of the church. The church has been told to make disciples by “baptizing and teaching” (Matt 28:19-20). Our major work is the evangelistic business of claiming people for the Kingdom and fitting them for life in that Kingdom. Baptism is that rich, multi-faceted, complex way of engaging the body, head, and heart in that strange and glorious work of claiming, instructing, washing, anointing, blessing, and receiving people for the Kingdom.[1]

These words, written over thirty years ago by a Duke Divinity School professor, did as much to inform my theology of baptism as any other words I have read, either while in or after leaving seminary. In truth these two paragraphs stand as the foundation for my own theology of mission. The Orthodox Church is in the business of making converts. The Great Commission, given by our Lord in the closing words of Matthew’s Gospel, is not an option. Archbishop Anastasios of Albania has stated two remarkable things concerning evangelization: “A Church without mission is a contradiction in terms,” and “Indifference to mission is a negation of Orthodoxy.”[2] I would expand this by saying: “A Christian not engaged in mission is simply not a Christian.”

I am one of those people who are Orthodox by conviction. Like thousands of others in recent years, I made a choice to enter the Holy Orthodox Church, not counting the cost and believing that I had found the “pearl of great price” (Matt 13:46). I have not changed my belief that I was uniting myself to the Church of the Apostles. What I have done is matured in my Orthodoxy, to the point where I can now clearly see the need to rediscover, in most of the Orthodox Christian world, a new zeal for making the Great Commission central, once again, in our common life.

For too many in Orthodoxy, words like “evangelism” and “outreach” are not claimed as our own and are given over to others. This sad fact keeps the “Pearl of Great Price” hidden in ghetto worlds where cultural preservation and so called “ethnic pride” is substituted for the “Gospel Truth.” All too easily our faith communities have created a surrogate gospel supported by surrogate ministries that betray our baptismal identities as Orthodox Christians.

If we accept the dominical charge that we are to “go forth” to all nations, we will do well once again to consider the scripture readings and homilies on the Sundays of Great Lent: they are directed to those who are “preparing for holy illumination.” This is true even in parishes where there are no candidates for baptism being prepared. The Church is catholic and throughout the world we find catechumens seeking to be united to Christ and His Church. Great Lent is the baptismal season of the ecclesiastical year, and preaching must stir this memory and fill the faithful with zeal to share the treasure of their faith. The faithful are also called to listen closely to the prayers offered in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts and to “pray for these brethren who are preparing for holy illumination and for their salvation.”

The blessing of hearing and preaching directed to those preparing to enter the Church through baptism, chrismation, and Eucharist triggers the rediscovery of our own baptismal identity. We are called to once again recognize that having been united to Christ and to one another in Christ, we are His Body. We have been sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we recall that this is not merely a past event, a static reality, but a “stream of living water” (John 7:38).

By privatizing the rite of holy baptism, we have separated the corporate nature of the mystery from the very people who are called to nurture the newly baptized. We have turned baptism into something precious for infants, and we have forgotten the radical nature of what it means to “put on Christ.” The gospel is not only a belief, but a way of life, and, in this life, our values—the values of the Kingdom—often find us at odds with the beliefs, values, and way of life accepted by the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, which is passing and is not eternal.

If Orthodox Christians are once again to proclaim the glad tidings with boldness, we will need to restore the centrality of The Great Commission. We will need to bring ourselves to a fresh response to the New Testament teaching that we did not choose God but he chose us (John 15:16). We are his hands, feet, and voice in this present world. Life in the Kingdom involves our synergia in response to the love offering from God. We are invited to a conversion. We must become as little children to enter the Kingdom (Matt 18:3).

Many years ago I read a book written by Archbishop Joost de Blank of Cape Town titled This is Conversion.[3] I have never forgotten how convicted I was, to use an evangelical term, of just how radical true conversion is. Try turning the other cheek when struck and you will know exactly what I mean. To go down into the watery grave of holy baptism is to rise to a radical, new way of life. Is this not why Jesus says: “If you have ears to hear, then hear”? (Rev 13:9). To hear the Beatitudes is easy but to live the Beatitudes is radical to the extreme!

This radical conversion and way of life that Christians willingly embrace are exactly what preachers are called to proclaim and to make clear to those who seek to fully unite themselves to Christ. To be signed and sealed with the sign of the cross is to be marked as a Christian, and, come the dread day of judgment, an account must be given from one so marked. This is why a lukewarm faith—an anemic response to the great gift given in holy baptism—is so deadly. This is true for us as individual Christians and corporately as the Church. A Christian not engaged in evangelism is simply not a Christian!

We who are members of the Orthodox Church make the audacious claim to have “put on Christ” and to possess “right faith and right worship.” This is why we must be very conscious of our Lord’s words as we live our lives as baptized Christians: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin” (John 15:22).

I have been told, but I don’t know the source, that Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann was once asked what the Orthodox Church needed in order to experience a revival. He responded: “Nothing, as we have everything we needed. All we must do is begin to use what we already possess.” We have many positive signs that a recovery of the centrality of The Great Commission is underway. Many parishes have not only restored the prayers of the catechumenate, but they also have catechumens preparing for baptism and reception into the Church.

This year, as you celebrate the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great on the morning of Holy Saturday, be aware this is the traditional time to baptize those whom we have been praying for throughout the Great Fast. The Old Testament readings from Genesis, Jonah, and Daniel are intended to be read at the actual time of holy baptism for the catechumens. They prepare us to hear St. Paul addressing the Church at Rome with these words:

Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:3-11)

Matthew 28:1-20 soon follows this epistle reading. The Great Commission in the gospel reading is placed at the center of the initiation rites for the newly baptized to hear and for the faithful also to hear, helping them to remember their own baptism and to give thanks to God for the gift of eternal life.

 

Archpriest Chad Hatfield became the first Chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 2007. He previously served as dean of St. Herman Seminary, Kodiak, Alaska, and was founding priest of All Saints Orthodox Church, Salina, Kansas and St. Mary Magdalene Mission, Manhattan, Kansas. Before converting to the Orthodox Christian faith, he and his family were missionaries in South Africa. Currently, he is developing a missiology component in St. Vladimir’s Curriculum. He earned M.Div. and S.T.M. degrees from Nashotah House Seminary, which also granted him a Doctor of Divinity honoris causa in 2008.


[1] William H. Willimon, Remember Who You Are: Baptism, a Model for Christian Life (Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 1980), 22-23.

[2] Luke Veronis, Go Forth, from the Foreward (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2009), 10.

[3] (New York: Morehouse-Gorhma Co.), 1958.

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