Baptism and Covenant: radical expressions of community

Moved by baptism

Circle of Hope baptism in the DelawareSaturday was one of the best days of my life. It was a shining example of the kind of transformation Jesus can do in people’s lives. Baptizing Madi, Rachel, Meredith, and India moved me. All of them had stories of transformation and new faith. I was proud to be a part of it, and I’m proud we are all part of it. The joy grew when Rebekah, Connor, Brandi, Ellen, both Andreas, and Brittany joined our covenant later that morning.

Baptism and the covenant offer us a tangible way to notice Jesus’ work in the world. Redemption can’t be reduced down to baptism or simply making a covenant, but those acts are nevertheless expressive of that redemption.

To understand some of the radicality that is rooted in both actions, I want to offer you a brief explanation from Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace (1996, Abingdon). Volf’s book is about how the world separates us into categories, and how Jesus is together under a new covenant and a new humanity. In his chapter on Embrace, he notes some similarities between worldly contracts and Jesus’ new covenant with us. (He also notes that the United States and other political states have appropriated the term covenant to describe themselves, so be wary.)

The difference between contracts and covenant

Volf describes worldly contracts in three ways:

It’s “performance oriented.” It exists to ensure that a task is complete, and upon its completion, the relationship ends. “Limited commitment” marks it. It only obliges the parties to “what it explicitly or implicitly states.” Finally, it is “strictly reciprocal.” It only works when both parties are doing it. When one fails, “the contract becomes null and void.” (p. 148-149). Volf continues:

Front cover of Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf“Unlike contract, covenant is not simply a relationship of mutuality utility, but of moral commitment…. Covenant partners are not simply moral agents who have certain duties to one another within the framework of a long-standing relationship. Precisely because covenant is lasting, the parties themselves cannot be conceived as individuals whose identities are external to one another and who are related to one another only by virtue of their moral will and moral practice. Rather, the very identity of each is formed through relationship to others; the alterity of the other enters into the very identity of each.” (p. 154)

The covenant Jesus makes with us, the one we express in baptism and then mimic in covenant to one another, is decidedly different than worldly contracts. Volf says we are making space for the other in our own identity, that other can be someone else in community, or the person of Jesus Christ. We are not holding on to our identities as we wait for the state to offer us, rather we joining in community with one another, considering them, as we form a new identity in Jesus. In Circle of Hope, we are entering into a body and working together toward mutuality and commonality.

It is “self-giving.” God literally died for its sake and defeated death for all of us. We, too, give of ourselves as we enter into this radical partnership. The new covenant members share their time, money, and heart with each other. They are giving of themselves.

A chance to be like Jesus

Though the covenant we share with each other is not eternal, it mimics the eternality of the covenant God has with us. To preserve its unconditionality, God went to the limits of life. In our covenant, we are declaring our eternal love for God and are committing to express it locally among our congregations and cells.

Our covenant is a radical departure from the human contract, a contract which almost mocks the covenant that God has with us. It is a radical act of receiving the claim Jesus has on you. Even in baptism, we are entering into citizenship with God in the Body of Christ and in His Kingdom. Doing so as adults is a rejection then of entering state citizenship, like what happened during Christendom. It is a radical public profession of faith.

I wanted to go over some of the theology, because I think it adds some context to the radical stories that Connor, Rebekah, Ellen, Andrea, Andrea, Madi, Brittany, Meredith, Rachel, and India shared on Saturday morning. I hope it helps you relate to the joy that I experienced as I participated in their inclusion into our incarnation of the Body of Christ.

The covenant and baptism gives us a chance to be like Jesus. It gives us a chance to name the claim Jesus has made on us, and it helps work together toward our common mission as a church. It answers the large existential questions of identity and vocation. I’m proud and excited to be a part of this kind of embrace, as we express it in Circle of Hope. It is radical and even demanding, but I think the world is thirsty for it.

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