Baptizing in a Name: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 19 June 2011

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 19 June 2011 (Trinity Sunday, Year A)

Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Psalm 82 Corinthians 13:11-13Matthew 28:16-20

This will be a brief post because I’m visiting with my wife’s parents, and I’m not going to demand much time for writing while I’m among them.

This week’s Gospel reading stood out to me because of a conspiracy to truncate it at VBS this year.  I won’t say which publishing company it was (but I will say that their slogan should be “Jesus with half the calories!”), but our memory verse for the last night of the week was a mysteriously short version of Matthew 28:19-20, one that had an ellipsis where the classical baptism formula should have been.

Of course I gave our children’s minister a hard time about it (I’ve always had a good bit of sport at the expense of Jesus with half the calories), but when I think a bit longer about the elements of the Great Commission, I realize that I don’t often trace out the connections between the making of disciples, baptism in the name of the three persons of the Trinity, and teaching those baptized everything that Jesus commanded.  I’ve noted more than once that this or that group within American Christianity seems to lose one of the three (and who couldn’t easily name groups less than fully concerned with the Trinity or who become so focused on conversions that the making of disciples is an afterthought?), but what struck me this time through is that the shape of Jesus’s authority, that which the Father gives fully to the Son, works its way out in the finale of Matthew in this range of imperatives.

Also notable, now that I slow down and think about the words, is the curious phrase “in the name of.”  I’ve asked Sunday school groups on several occasions what it means when people end prayers with “in the name of Jesus,” and beyond an awareness that such a formula seems to be at the heart of the unwritten liturgy of Evangelical prayer, there’s not much sense that many of us think about it.  My own best stab at making meaning of the stock phrase is that, when we pray, we do so with the boldness that comes with being the body of Christ and therefore praying not as the nameless numbers that late-modern Capitalism makes us but as people who bear the name of the true King.  Perhaps the baptism formula points to a similar truth, one articulated by Augustine in his disputes with the Donatists, namely that baptism does not rely on the righteousness of the one doing the dunking (yes, I am a Campbellite) but stands as an act of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit.  Therefore those whom Jesus sends not only derive the authority to proclaim but also the mandate to baptize from the Spirit, meaning that we act as the body of Christ as we baptize new friends into that body, and like Christ, our mission is not our own but that of the Father.

As we lead others in the way of the Disciples, may we always remember that God baptizes them for the sake of obedience.

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