When we are baptized, we are baptized into the church universal. That means that by our baptism we become members not only of a specific local congregation, but of the wider church of Jesus Christ. Our baptism is shared across the differences in individual churches. That bit of theology is shared by the majority of Christian churches, but there are a few that do not recognize the baptisms of other church families. It is a long-standing division in the church. Many people think of that division in terms of the method of baptism. Because some congregations practice baptism by total immersion of the body, while most practice baptism by using water symbolically to pour over or touch the person baptized, it has become common to think of that distinction as the difference between churches. Others have come to distinguish believer’s baptism from infant baptism, saying that baptism should be a matter of individual choice and the one baptized must be old enough to make their own choice. The baptism of infants, and indeed of entire families, however, has been a part of the church from its very beginning. These distinctions of method and of age, however, are not at the heart of the ancient controversy. Anabaptists do hold strongly to their convictions about believer’s baptism, but the name given to this part of protestant Christianity comes not from the age of the one baptized, but rather from the practice of repeating baptism for one already baptized. Mainstream Christianity has accepted baptism as a once in a lifetime event. If it is truly a sacrament, then it is beyond the limits of human frailty. Whether or not we performed the act according to a particular ritual or custom is not the point. If it is indeed the Holy Spirit who baptizes, which is what we believe, then our human part in the ceremony is not the important element.

Christians have been arguing about distinctions of baptism for over 500 years, and it is likely that we will continue to have disagreements about it long into the future. Interesting to me, as a member of the United Church of Christ is that our denomination, formed by the union of multiple predecessor denominations, has elements of both mainstream and anabaptist roots. We practice and recognize multiple forms of baptism. Some of our members have been baptized as infants. Some were baptized as youth. Some were baptized as adults. We recognize baptism by sprinkling and pouring and immersion. As a pastor, I have officiated at baptisms in churches with and without immersion tanks. I have officiated at baptisms in streams and lakes and swimming pools. Our denomination recognizes all of these baptisms as valid and meaningful.

I myself was baptized as an infant. I have my original baptismal certificate, signed by Rev. Brentwood Barker, pastor of the church my family attended. As a young teenager, I was confirmed in that same congregation with Rev. Joe LaDu officiating at the ceremony. In our tradition, confirmation of baptism is the act of free association when an individual joins in an equal covenant with a particular congregation. It was the first of several congregations to which I have belonged. When I was in college, I transferred my membership to a congregation in the town where we went to college. It was in that congregation that we were married and we kept our membership in that congregation when we went away to seminary.

Ministers of the United Church of Christ belong to the local congregations that they are called to serve, so my membership has been transferred to each of the congregations into which I was installed as pastor: Reeder and Hettinger Congregational United Churches in North Dakota, Wright Community Congregational United Church of Christ in Boise, Idaho, and First Congregational United Church of Christ in Rapid City, South Dakota. In the normal course of our lives, we would have already changed our membership to the congregation we participate in here, but the pandemic has meant that the process has taken a bit longer than usual. So today is the day of our formal covenant with First Congregational United Church of Christ in Bellingham, Washington. We will be formally received into membership in this morning’s service. Because this congregation is still meeting virtually due to the ongoing pandemic, the process has been a bit unusual. We actually spoke our part of the covenant in a zoom conference a couple of weeks ago. That recording will be played and the congregation will speak their part of the covenant in this morning’s worship service. Because the service is virtual, some members will be participating live while others will view the service at another time during the week. It certainly isn’t the same as being there in person, but we feel that we are being warmly received and are looking forward to both the worship service and the virtual fellowship hour that will follow.

There is a bit of sadness in having transferred our membership from our Rapid City Congregation. There has been a bit of sadness in each of the other times that I have transferred my membership. I become attached to congregations. I have belonged to 1st Congregational United Church of Christ in Rapid City, South Dakota longer than I have belonged to any other congregation. Transferring my membership, however, does not disconnect me from that congregation. We believe that we are all part of the larger church universal. My baptism has been fully recognized in each congregation that I have joined in this life’s journey.

Through the asynchronicity of virtual worship, our membership certificates arrived by mail earlier this week so we would have them this morning. We are newcomers to a congregation with a long and courageous history. We have much to learn about this specific congregation and we are longing for the return to in person worship, which will begin in this congregation in three weeks on June 27.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s continual creation with words that are often quoted in reference to Jesus: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19).

Today is a day of a new thing for us.

Made in RapidWeaver