Early this year, I was privileged to join an ecumenical group of Austin-area pastors as invited guests to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Rome. A Catholic priest, three Baptist pastors, and my Presbyterian self enjoyed a 12-day journey into the heart of Roman Christianity. Between the churches, the museums, and the gelato, it was any church-nerd’s dream-come-true. We toured St. Peter’s tomb in the Vatican Necropolis, over-nighted in Assisi and celebrated Mass at the Tomb of St. Francis, and stared in wonder at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But the climax of our excursion was our special invitation to the Papal Vespers celebrating the closing of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.
We entered that evening through the sacristy of the magnificent cathedral, past the halberds and colorful uniforms of the Swiss Guard, and were seated behind the Cardinals and Bishops in the transept of a church so big that it could have hosted a General Assembly gathering with room to spare. Over 6,000 people were packed into the nave of the church. As the organ began to play and the Sistine Choir began to sing the opening of Vespers, my heart raced at the sights around me.
Here I was, a young Presbyterian pastor surrounded by clergy from the world over; Orthodox patriarchs, Anglican archbishops, Coptic priests, monks and nuns wearing every possible configuration of monastic habit imaginable, cardinals in their red cassocks and bishops in their purple robes. I was even able to meet a few pastors from the Reformed Lutheran Church of Sweden who were identifiable by their white linen tab collars. The procession began with the crucifer and acolytes leading Pope Benedict XVI down the long central aisle toward a white throne under the apse of the church.
Vespers was sung and chanted in Latin concluding with a brief sermon and closing prayer delivered by the Pope. In the concluding prayer, the Pope prayed, “Help us to make our way toward you by following in [St. Paul’s] footsteps, and by witnessing to your truth before men and women of our day.” Reflecting on that prayer, I was reminded of the little font in Santa Cecilia that echoed the words in the fourth chapter of the Pauline Epistle to the Ephesians
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
In spite of all of our theological and ecclesiological differences, we stood there, clergy and laity from the world over, and affirmed our common bond in the one body of Christ our Lord. Claimed in the waters of baptism, all other distinctions were, but for a moment, washed away. It was in that profound moment that I was seized by the amazing reality of the inclusiveness and diversity that baptism calls us into.
In that beautiful moment, baptism was made real to me. The audaciousness of that counter-cultural proclamation that all are one in the body of Christ was felt in every fiber of my being. This is what the church is about; witnessing to this
bold truth to women and men in every age and place that all are welcome in the family of God. It was a moment that gave me hope and courage for the road ahead, not just in my own ministry, but the ministry of the one Church of Jesus Christ.
Thousands of miles across the Atlantic, another such service celebrating our common bond in the sacrament of Baptism was being observed in Austin, Texas. My wife, Krystal, was in attendance as representatives from the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed Churches signed the Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism. Being the kind and thoughtful person she is, she saved me a bulletin from the evening prayer service. I was struck by the words in the Statement of Intent offered during the service that read, “We are one in Christ, marked as God’s own in the living waters of baptism. Together we affirm that, by baptism, we are truly incorporated into the body of Christ; that baptism established the bond of our unity in Christ; that baptism summons us all to the fullness of faith, hope, and love in Christ.”
Together we affirm. Together we are washed. Together we abide in Christ. These two worship services, thousands of miles apart, affirmed our deep yearning as Christians to be together. Whether uttered in prayer from the Papal throne, signed in ink on a historic document, or practiced in the communal life of our congregations, the deep desire of our faith is to be one in Christ. The divisiveness that plagues our communities and our dialogue is not who we are, not who were are called to be. Our truest nature is one that reflects the inclusiveness of a washing and welcoming God.
My prayer is that our churches re-examine the role our fonts play in the baptizing and worshipping life of our communities. Crack open that Book of Common Worship and reacquaint yourself with the words and prayers. Dust off the bowl and set it right in the middle of the nave, or better yet, at the entrance to the sanctuary. Pour water into it during the Call to Worship. Splash around in it during the Assurance of Pardon. Allow the sound of living water to dance upon the ears of the assembly. Let the children of the church put their curious hands into it. Touch the water to your forehead before you receive communion in remembrance of why we are welcome at the table of our Lord. Sprinkle the congregation during a Remembrance of Baptism celebration. Help the youth of the church discover the relevance of their baptism in their daily lives. Reach out to those in your community who have been excluded or marginalized, offering a place of welcome and warmth. Start a dialogue with people of other denominations. Volunteer to host an ecumenical prayer service at your church.
Whatever you end up doing, remember and reiterate that Baptism is who we are and why we are here. Baptism is our story and our hope. It is our beginning and our completion. Baptism is what unifies us in the one faith and the one Lord Jesus Christ. May we all remember our baptisms with joy and strive to stand with our sisters and brothers in the saving waters of new life.
John Leedy is the associate pastor for youth and family ministries at University Presbyterian Church in Austin. He received the MDiv from Austin Seminary in 2011.