Many of us struggle with determining how to apply our faith to the secular world. In the Episcopal Church, behind our red doors, we are very comfortable with the creeds, the liturgy and our beautiful expressions of love for God. But, outside those doors, how do we apply our love for God to the fractured world around us? How do we interact with the divisive social issues of our day? Are we to advocate in the areas of public policy and secular government? Or, are we to leave a strong barrier between our walk of faith on Sunday morning, and our walk through the secular world the rest of the week?
I was reminded recently these questions are not only answered, but answered emphatically, in our Baptismal Covenant. This reminder came during the closing church service at St. Crispin’s, the summer camp and retreat center of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma, where I went Saturday to pick up our youngest daughter, Lucie, from an enriching, Christ-focused week.
Each week at St. Crispin’s ends with a Saturday morning celebration of the Holy Eucharist from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Campers, family members, counselors and clergy gather in a large outdoor pavilion for readings from Scripture, a sermon, celebration of Communion, prayers and songs. It is a beautiful and relaxed service, with most people wearing shorts and T-shirts (except that one awkward dad who showed up wearing khakis and a polo — yes, that was me).
I’ve been to quite a few of these services at St. Crispin’s — at least one a year since our oldest daughter, who is now off to college, started going there in third grade. The counselors change from summer to summer, but the same camp songs remain, giving the service a sense of familiar continuity, even beyond the natural familiarity of the Book of Common Prayer. But, this recent service took a minor turn that turned out to be profound.
In the Service of Holy Eucharist the Nicene Creed usually is read right after the sermon, right before the Prayers of the People. With the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed is one of the core statements of Christian faith, and is a key element of the Liturgy of the Word — the reading of and teaching from Scripture, which forms the first half of the Mass (with Holy Communion being the second half). Anyone who’s used to attending Mass will usually begin to recite (or at least mumble along with) the Nicene Creed without having to read it, as soon as the sermon concludes.
But, at this service, the priest, after a wonderful sermon on love, service and finding courage in Christ’s presence beyond the safe confines of summer camp, diverted to the Baptismal Covenant instead of the Nicene Creed. This was in no way an omission, because the Baptismal Covenant, described in “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church” as “the normative statement of what it means to follow Christ,” includes, in its first three question-and-response statements the entirety of the Apostles Creed:
Celebrant Do you believe in God the Father?
People I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
Celebrant Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
People I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Celebrant Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
People I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
The Apostles Creed, like its slightly more expansive cousin from Nicaea, is a fundamental statement of our faith — the summation of what we espouse in our baptism. This first portion of the covenant is focused on our understanding of the nature of God, and God’s immutable, passionate love for us, as demonstrated through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, and the Body of Christ in the Church.
The latter statements turn to our response to God — to how we are meant to, to how we promise to, live our lives in response to, and as a reflection of, God’s love for and in this world. First, we promise to live in community — a community centered around common faith, regularly gathering to strengthen its members through prayer, study and worship, and through spiritual feeding on the real presence of Christ:
Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
People I will, with God’s help.
We promise to persist in our internal battles against evil and sin — anything that detracts from our focus on and experience of God — while acknowledging we will fall. Christ does not call us to be flawless. Christ calls us, through grace, to keep getting back up when we knock ourselves down:
Celebrant Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People I will, with God’s help.
We promise to evangelize, to spread God’s Gospel, not just through preaching on Sunday morning, but through every aspect of our daily lives. In a time when “evangelical” has taken on an association with particular social and political leanings, it is important to remember that all Christians are called to be evangelical — to spread God’s word through our lives. This is a particularly important statement for Episcopalians, who traditionally have been a bit, well, squeamish about evangelizing outside those red doors.
Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People I will, with God’s help.
That promise to proclaim God “by word and example” calls us, commands us, to carry the Body of Christ beyond our sanctuaries, beyond our beautiful comfort zones of stained glass, vestments and red doors, and to live out the Gospel in every aspect of our lives. There may be far more instances where it’s more appropriate to evangelize by example than by word, but by word or by example, we cannot escape our obligation to the Great Commission.
Finally, we reach the last two statements of the covenant, where the rubber really meets the road on our walk with Christ. These are action statements. They are our promises to act Christ into the world, and they defy any desire we may have, any excuse we may invent, to constrain Christ to the cloistered safety of church only, Sunday only.
Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People I will, with God’s help.
The priest read the question. We responded, with all the urgency of something that’s been read, and re-read a hundred times before. But, he was not content with that. He paused, then raised his voice, and demanded in a louder, more urgent tone, annunciating each word: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
The change in the congregation was immediate. Kids stopped doodling with their fingers in the dirt on the concrete floor. Parents who’d been fanning themselves with the paper song books, thinking about the drive home, suddenly were present. But, the person I noticed the most-changed was a man seated next to me, who had been staring at his feet for most of the service. I don’t know him or his story, but it was evident he wasn’t much interested in the service or what was being said. But, at that repeated question — Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? — he suddenly sat up, and seemed to take notice.
This is a question that commands attention, because it calls us to live in a way that is utterly at odds with the world around us — the world into which these young campers were about to return. The world thrives on division, between classes, races, religions, nationalities, gender and orientation. Our Baptismal Covenant tells us to destroy those divisions, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. These are not “neighbors” in the sense of those like us. Our neighbors are all people. And we are commanded to seek and serve Christ in them all.
I like to think it was the radical, counter-world nature of this question that aroused the man sitting next to me, and all those present at the service. In an Americanized Christian culture that focuses on finding Christ among American Christians, the priest drew us back to the radical call of the cross: to Love without reservation, and to seek and serve Christ in all. That means finding Christ in your Muslim neighbor. Your atheist neighbor. Your neighbor who hates you. The neighbor you struggle not to hate. There is no room for picking and choosing here. Christ is in them all, and we are to seek and serve Christ in them all. Seek and serve. Those are action verbs — not the realm of a passive, “leave it at the church door” kind of faith.
Finally, with everyone’s attention now focused on the service, the priest continued, with the same urgent tone, the final question of the covenant:
Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People I will, with God’s help.
He raised his voice yet again, and repeated the question, putting special emphasis on select words: Will you strive for JUSTICE and PEACE among ALL people, and respect the dignity of EVERY human being?
We responded, with a volume and enthusiasm seldom witnessed outside a sporting event: I will, with God’s help!
Any doubt about our vocation is wiped away in that last question-and-response. We are to strive for justice and peace for all people, and to respect, and demand respect for, the Christ we seek and serve in every person. You can’t strive passively. It is a statement that commands action. It is a statement that defies mealy-mouthed, passive platitudes about keeping Christ within the church.
We live in a broken world, ruled by greed, division, hate, fear and more greed. Into that world Christ calls us. In our Baptismal Covenant we promise to follow. We promise to take up our cross and follow Him. We promise to put the action of our words, our work, our conscience, our coin, and our votes — all of us, in every aspect of our lives — into moving the cross forward, toward the Kingdom where Christ is found and honored in all, where Justice, Peace and Dignity prevail for all God’s children.
We Proclaim. We Seek. We Serve. We Strive. We Act. With God’s help.
Let us pray. And then, let us act.
Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us
grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace
with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom,
help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our
communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy
Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
3 thoughts on “It’s all in there… Our Baptismal Covenant calls us to action”
Beautiful, passionate piece. The line, “These are not ‘neighbors’ in the sense of those like us,” jumped out at me. The Good Samaritan story tells us these are, in fact, “neighbors” who are specifically not like us. It can be uncomfortable to be reminded that Jesus challenges us to do that exact thing we dread–reach across some imagined barrier to touch someone we see as “other.” With God’s help, we can do it.
This was an excellent post! Thank you so much for sharing your insight! As I was reading I was thinking about how this message pertains to my own life and the things I have learned along this journey through my relationship with God. It seems to me that it is increasingly more difficult to uphold any of the promises we make in our baptismal covenant if we are not right with ourselves first. I think about the lyrics of the famous Michael Jackson song “Man in the Mirror” and how the song encourages us to take a good hard look in the mirror if we want to know how we can change this world. If every single human being on the planet did that this would be a very different world. My point is it has to start with us. I have to work on me before I can love you. If we are right with ourselves this baptismal covenant becomes a lot more simple. There are many that say that working on yourself, focusing on yourself, doing things for yourself is narcissistic, vain, and selfish. I say you cannot have a true, healthy, loving relationship with any other human unless you do – because we are all connected and you cannot love someone or something else unless you love yourself first. Are we challenging ourselves every day to live mindfully in mind, body, and spirit? Are we looking for changes we can make to improve who we are as humans on a personal level? If we are we will have better relationships with others and God. The golden rule is “Do unto others and you would have them do unto you”. How do you treat yourself? That is how you will treat others. It is that simple and God designed it that way. Instead of pointing fingers, blaming, criticizing, and judging others it would behoove us all to take stock of our own shortcomings and get to work. Our species is dependent upon it.
You are absolutely right. It starts within, where Christ resides within us. We have to get right there as the launch point for acting Christ into the world. This is why I think Jesus followed up “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” with the more-to-the-point command in John 13:34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” We’re not always good at loving ourselves. But Christ, who lives within us, is perfect in his love for us. He’s saying, in a way, “pour me out from within you into the world.”