You’ll be happy to know that before I became a priest I went through a pretty detailed job screening. I had a thorough background check, several hard-nosed interviews; I even underwent a series of psychological tests. It was a typical, if detailed, screening process just like many others. It’s the kind of process that designed to produce results. According to one company who “offers validated and predictive psychological testing”, these are just the kinds of tests that help produce a more “highly motivated and compatible workforce” (www.employeeselect.com). It sounds pretty good. And you’d be right in thinking that it’s awfully nice of our Diocese to provide such services for your benefit before anyone actually receives one of these clergy collars and becomes your priest. You’d also be right in thinking that insurance companies demand these kinds of tests to reduce their liability - even (or especially) in church.
I won’t ask for a show of hands to see if you think this job screening actually worked in my case, whether you think I should have been screened out... But odds are, whether you’ve ever gone through any kind of employment testing or not, you probably already realize that job screening and job performance don’t always go hand-in-hand. Someone can breeze through all the job screening in the world and still turn out to be a pretty dismal daily performer.
Because here’s the problem: none of these tests can ever really predict someone’s daily performance. There’s always a gap between knowing the right answers, and actually doing it. Even you know the right answer there has to be some kind choice and some kind of ability to actually do it. So just because someone performs really well on a test, it’s no guarantee they’re going to perform really well on the daily job. Maybe they’ll decide they just don’t want to. No performance test will ever tell you who they really are - in advance.
This week at church we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus (Mark 1.4-11). And The Episcopal Church, like most churches, believes that baptism is a big deal. In fact The Episcopal Church only recognizes two sacraments instituted by Jesus: baptism and the eucharist. And to show just how big of a deal it is, when we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord at church we confess our faith a bit differently than usual. Instead of confessing our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed, we confess our faith by renewing our Baptismal Covenant.
This Baptismal Covenant contains the Apostle’s Creed and it bids our response to a series of questions about the apostles’ teaching, resisting evil, proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed, loving our neighbors, and striving for peace. In fact we might describe the Baptismal Covenant as one of the classic tests for Christian faith.
But here’s the problem: for most of us this covenant doesn’t really predict our daily performance. Most of us, most of the time, fall far short of the beliefs and actions that we confess in our Baptismal Covenant. And the danger is that we stop taking it seriously. The danger is that we start treating this “test” just like any other job screening - we show up, we give the expected answers, but there’s really no connection between our official response and our daily performance. And if we ever tried to use this Covenant as some kind of screening for daily Episcopal life, then we might just end up with a lot of empty churches on Sunday morning.
Here’s the good news. Our Baptismal Covenant isn’t about demonstrating that we know the right answers. It’s not a performance test or some kind of screening for Christian life. It’s the exact opposite. Because despite our daily performance, whether it’s dismal or not, in the sacrament of Christian Baptism God tells us who we really are - in advance. God tells us who we really are before we even know it. The most important thing isn’t our performance, it’s who God calls us at baptism. That’s the most important thing about who we really are. Now, that’s no excuse to ignore the demands of Christian faith. It’s a reminder that our covenant is there to help us become who we really are - through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
So how does baptism work? Coming next in Part 2.