Formerly the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, William H. Willimon is a United Methodist bishop who serves in North Alabama. A prolific writer (a clergy colleague once described him as "a man with no unpublished thought"), Willimon has written dozens of books, including Remember Who You Are: Baptism, A Model for Christian Life (Upper Room, 1980), Calling and Character: Virtues of the Ordained Life (Abingdon, 2000), Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Abingdon, 2002), and Sinning Like a Christian: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins (Abingdon, 2005). He has also coauthored books with theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, most notably Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Abindgon, 1989), Lord, Teach Us to Pray: The Lord's Prayer and the Christian Life (Abingdon, 1996), and The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life (Abingdon, 1999). He blogs at "A Peculiar Prophet."
Willimon is also a gifted preacher. He preached the sermon below at Duke Chapel on the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany in 2001. In it, he expounds a wonderful theology of baptism and of Christian faith as a gift that I think is consistent with our understanding in the Episcopal Church.
I remember casually remarking to my mother, “The only course I took in high school that did me any good, the only course that I use everyday, without which my life would be quite different, was typing.” I meant it. “Then, you should be grateful that I made you take typing,” my mother responded. “What?” “Yes, you hated it, did not have aptitude for the course, wanted to drop it, but I told you we had already paid the $25 for you to take typing and you were staying in typing. You should thank me,” said my mother.
Isn’t it curious? Somehow I forgot that typing was not my choice, not my personal achievement, but a gift. Something that was decided for me rather than by me.
We don’t enjoy thinking of ourselves that way. We like to think that we are the captains of our fate, the masters of our souls. I am what I decide. I am who I choose to be. I am self-fabricated.
But in more honest moments, like the one I had with my mother, we are forced to admit that our lives are mostly gifts, a sum of decisions made for us rather than by us. One day Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “Remember, you did not choose me, I chose you” (John 5:16).
I say all of this because in just a few moments we are going to engage in an unnatural act. We’re going to bring forward a couple of infants. We are going to say some words over them, douse them in water, and call them “Christian.” In our cultural context, this is odd.
We are like the old man who was asked, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” “Believe in it?” he replied, “Hell, I’ve seen it!” Well this morning, live in our sanctuary, you are going to see it.
I dare say that most of us think of our Christianity as something we decided. We say, “Since I gave my life to Christ.” “Since I decided to be a Christian.” “Since I accepted Jesus as my personal Savior.” But none of this particular faith is self-derived. Somebody had to tell us the story of Jesus, had to live the faith before us, had to serve as our exemplar. We Christians call it grace, a word that means simply, gift.
I know that is why I am a Christian. I might like to tell you that I am a Christian because I made a careful study of all the world’s religions, carefully comparing their beliefs and ethical systems and decided that Christianity was superior. Therefore I am a Christian.
But no, I am here because I was put here. When I was about six months old, after a big dinner, we gathered on a Sunday afternoon in grandmother’s living room and, using a big silver bowl of my grandmother’s, a preacher named Forrester baptized me. Made me a Christian. I don’t necessarily think that is the way baptism ought to take place. But despite any reservations you may have about the liturgical propriety of my baptism, at least you have to admit that it worked. Here I am, telling you the story of what was done to me, a story that I did not think up myself, but one that was laid over my life. Christians believe we are Christians, not primarily because of something we do, or decide, think or feel, but rather because of something that God in Jesus Christ does to us, something that the church lives before us and tells to us. We call it grace.
Tertullian, one of the crabbiest of the early church fathers, once said in a sermon, “Christians are made, not born. Christianity does not come naturally. You don’t get Christians out of people’s loins [something I would never say in a sermon!], you get Christians out of the baptismal font.” This faith is not primarily a matter of digging down deep within yourself, thinking it through, closing your eyes and trying real hard to believe. This faith is something that is told to you, given to you, lived before you, a gift.
What I am saying is that, in a few moments, when we baptize these babies, they look a lot like we did, not only in our infancy, but also throughout our lives with Jesus. None of us ever gets so smart, so faithful, so adept at discipleship, that we can do it for ourselves. We are always helpless, needy, dependent, as far as our relationship with God is concerned, just like a little baby in its mother’s arms. And our baptism is a sign, among other things, that God loves us enough to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. As Paul said, “Jesus Christ died to save sinners,” (Rom. 6:6).
In Jesus Christ, we, sinners that we are, did not choose him, rather he chose us. And this is why Luther could speak of baptism as the Christian’s great comfort in life and in death. There is nothing very comforting about being told that your relationship to God is dependent on your being perfect. You aren’t perfect. Luther said that baptism is a comfort because it is a reminder that God helps us in ways that we cannot help ourselves. In times of doubt and distress, Luther said that it is a great comfort to remember your baptism. He would say that we must, during difficult times, touch our forehead and say, baptismatus sum. “I am baptized.” Luther said that the same God who made promises to us in baptism will keep those promises, will hold on to us, will bring us home. This is true comfort.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t always think like a Christian. I don’t always feel like a Christian. I certainly don’t always act like a Christian. But that is not the basis of my relationship with God. That relationship is based not on me, and what I do, but on God and what God does. So when you are having trouble being a Christian, touch your forehead, remember your baptism, and remember that you are a Christian because we told you so.
In her wonderful autobiography, An American Life, Annie Dillard tells about her experience of the persistence of baptism. Annie Dillard was a smart young thing. By age seventeen, she had read through most of the books in her branch of the Pittsburgh Library. After reading widely in philosophy, including Nietzche, she decided that Christianity was a bunch of hooey. She therefore resolved to have her name removed from the role of her church, to have nothing more to do with Christianity.
But she went down to the church, and demanded that her name be removed from the roll of Shadyside Presbyterian. A kindly old assistant pastor listened to her and then said that he would have her name removed. “Is that it?” she asked. “That’s it,” he replied. “So my name is off the roll,” she asked. “Yep, you want it off the roll, it is off the roll.” “So I’m no longer a Christian?” she asked. “I just said your name was no longer on the roll of the church,” said the preacher. “You are still baptized. I know what you want, but who knows what God wants of you?” “What is that supposed to mean?” she asked. “We’ll see,” replied the old pastor.
Annie then walked out the door of the pastor’s office and made her way down the hall. She overheard the pastor mumble to himself, “She’ll be back.” She wheeled around, stormed back into his office and demanded, “What did you say?” “Oh, I just said that I expect that you’ll be back,” he replied. “No I won’t! It’s my life. And this is the way I want to live it. I’m not going to be back!” she shouted. “Okay. We’ll see,” he said. Annie Dillard said she stormed out, really perplexed by the old man’s attitude. Then she said, “I am forty-five years old as I write this. Through a circuitous path, I find myself still in this faith. I’m back.”
Remember your baptism and be thankful.