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Baptism Makes Us All Outsiders

I write this President’s message during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. "It has been reported to me...that there are quarrels among you, brothers and sisters." Now there's an understatement. Imagine what Paul might have said about present-day Christians, now scattered, as my colleague John Dally reminded us recently in chapel, into over 30,000 different Christian denominations.

In what has rightly been called our current ecumenical winter, Paul's words stab deep. With Paul we yearn for unity. Yet at the same time many of us fear in our own congregations what perhaps the Corinthians feared in theirs in their quest for unity—we fear being co-opted, or absorbed, or belittled, or worse thing, perhaps, just pitied and ignored.

But we need to lay fear aside. In the end, as Paul knew, it's our common baptism into Christ's death and resurrection that unites us, no matter what branch of the Christian family we find ourselves in, or no matter how many church-dividing stumbling blocks our theologians lay before us.

But we have to be careful. The Spirit can be dangerous, and our baptism in common can take us to places we had not expected to go, especially those of us determined to keep our denominational integrity intact. Ecumenism has been all about a search for inclusiveness, a search for the formula that will allow all of us, Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, to find a common home, a temple where all can worship in safety. Baptism seems tailor-made for this task, the ultimate symbol of Christian inclusiveness.

But baptism is not necessarily a rite of inclusion, nor perhaps should it be. As Bexley Seabury Board member Bishop Tom Breidenthal has argued, we should learn to regard baptism not as a rite of inclusion but as a rite of expulsion. That word expulsion comes as something of a shock. Embracing our common baptism is not about finding a peaceful center where we can all feel comfortable and friendly and polite. To embrace our common baptism is to allow the Spirit to blast our centers apart.  Jesus was baptized by John, and immediately the Spirit expelled him into the wilderness. Nicodemus wants to follow Jesus, but to his horror he's told he needs to be expelled from the womb a second time. Andrew and Peter, James and John, abandoned the everyday world they knew, expelled by the Spirit into the presence of this strange man Jesus, following him even to Calvary, leaving a puzzled and scandalized father Zebedee to ponder his lonely fate in the dust of their sudden departure.

The baptized community is not about inviting people in, which is what our ecumenical discussions try so hard to do, and to such frustrating and feeble effect. Baptism is not about widening the circle of insiders and distinguishing them from outsiders. Baptism makes us all outsiders, expelled from the center to inhabit the margins, driven by the Spirit out of our places of safety—whether it's our fishing boats or our churches, our racial prejudices or our economic comforts—to make common cause with the poor and the isolated, the refugee and the captive. One reason we may have entered an ecumenical winter is at there has just been too much talk of safety, or simply too much talk.  Perhaps in this troubled season we might just let the Spirit empty us of churchy eloquence so that the cross, that ultimate sign of expulsion, might be revealed in all its power to save. Perhaps it's time for our churches in their ecumenical discussions to stop jockeying for position at the foot of the cross, and instead for the sake of all outsiders empty ourselves of our denominational certainties so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

President Roger Ferlo

Roger Ferlo

Roger A. Ferlo is the president of the Bexley Seabury Federation and professor of biblical interpretation and the practice of ministry. Ferlo, who was previously the associate dean and director of the Institute of Christian Formation and Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary, where he also served as professor of religion and culture, took up his duties at Bexley Seabury on July 1, 2012.

Prior to working at Virginia Seminary, Ferlo, who trained for the priesthood at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, spent 19 years in parish ministry, serving in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. He has 14 years of teaching experience at the university and seminary levels; 15 years of service on the board of the National Association of Episcopal schools, including a term as president; and nine years of service on the board of trustees of his alma mater, Colgate University ('73, summa cum laude), where in 2010 he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Ferlo holds a Ph.D. from Yale University ('79) and has authored and edited three books and numerous published essays, sermons and reflections.