Let’s explore the multiple ways that the legs on our three-legged stool of baptism, catechism, and communion relate to each other in forming Christian lives. We can begin by broadening baptism beyond the ritual with water that we use to signify that a person has become a church member, and include all the ways we invite and initiate new people into faith in Jesus. It’s about our identity as children of God and our mission in our world. It’s at once comforting and dangerous.
Theologian James McClendon says that baptism is future oriented and serves as a sign pointing to the coming rule of God. “It’s a ‘Yes’ to the liberating God of the future and a ‘No’ to dehumanizing institutions” (Doctrine: Systematic Theology, 393). In this sense baptism signifies much more than receiving God’s grace. It’s an adventure where we’re staking our lives and our future to something that gives purpose and meaning.
The apostle Paul told the church in Galicia that through their baptism, they have “put on Christ.” For him this had a very concrete social expression. He writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). Authentic baptism begins to dismantle all such human barriers.
Next, catechism includes all the ways we learn and grow together as followers of Jesus. It’s more than instruction classes for new members. Preaching is a form of catechism. While the pastor habitually studies the scripture and relates it to our lives in a sermon, it has to be more than one-way communication. That’s why I like to incorporate sermon responses into our worship service. It’s a continuing conversation that includes all Christians across time and space.
All that we do together can be catechism. Our congregation has a monthly book club at the local library where we discuss various popular books. We don’t directly relate it our faith yet we have lively conversations on all kinds of things about life. That’s a kind of catechism—learning and growing together. The same applies to watching a movie together, as we eat popcorn, and later discussing it?
Communion is a meal remembering Jesus and a sign of us being re-membered with Jesus and each other as the fellowship gathered in his name. While Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection are central, it’s about more than that. Theologian James McClendon writes that it’s in memory of “Jesus himself, and thus of the longer story that frames his life: the divine-human story of creation, the election of Israel, and its existence as a people, and the birth of Messiah Jesus, his life and ministry, and the great signs from God that have followed” (Doctrine: Systematic Theology, 404).
Communion is also a future oriented celebration anticipating the great banquet feast in heaven, including all tribes and all nations. But it’s also a present celebration of the fellowship in our church that’s a foretaste of the great banquet to come. Like baptism, communion is an expression of equality, justice, and care for each other.
Paul scolds the church in Corinth because the way they practice communion actually exacerbates the social and economic inequalities among them. Wealthier church members come early and eat all the food during their love feasts, leaving little for the poor people and the slaves who have to work long hours and arrive later. He asks, “Do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing” (I Cor. 11:22).
In this respect, all that we do together that creates what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community” is a form of communion. Church potlucks are a wonderful form of communion as are food pantries that serve the needy from our fellowship halls. Yet another is a hypothermia program where faith communities join together to offer food, shelter, and hospitality to homeless people on cold winter nights.