I have been asking myself a question over and over in my head today in response to an article by Andrew Thompson about communion and the talks that have ensued on some blogs about "open table." Here is the question and it is a total chicken-egg conundrum: Was I a Christian before my baptism or was it after my baptism that I was a Christian?
The reason I ask this is because it causes me to wonder about how we approach doctrine and the sacraments. Assuming that "open table" is no longer applicable, it would require me to be baptized in order to partake at the Lord's Table. So in my instance I would have been excluded from the table until I was 12-14. However, I had given my life over to Christ and decided to follow him from a very young age (I prayed the prayer when I was two, but really began to understand what I had committed to around 5 or 6 thanks to my mom and my Christian pre-school education).
At what point would Christ have invited me to dine at Christ's table? Would Christ have said, "Sorry Justin, but to eat here you have to be baptized first." To me that seems to be what we as a community of believers have constructed. Participation to the table is by "invitation-only" and that invitation comes with baptism. To me this seems like it confines the movement of Christ within the "practices" of the Church. Now this might come as a surprise to some of my friends since I am a good Duke Divinity student who believes that practices are an important part in the life of faith. I do believe they are important and that the sacraments are some of the primary means by which God imparts grace on individuals, but I can't get past how things don't just happen in strict order at times and to demand that they happen in a strict order seems contrary to what I have experienced.
Of course as a good Wesleyan, I have to take into consideration reason, experience, tradition, and Scripture (Scripture being primary). So here it goes:
My own personal experience shows me that one need not necessarily be "baptized" to be a follower of Christ and to follow in the way of Christ and to have God move in one's own life. I have also seen how friends of mine have been follower's of Christ and have had a dynamic relationship with a living God that moved them to be who they were without being baptized.
Tradition is a sticky one. Traditionally it has been the understanding of the church that baptism proceeds being allowed at the table. It is a rather new understanding (since the Reformation) that allowed for a distinction in practice. Of course those also go down to understandings of exactly what communion and baptism are too. What has been held by many is that "baptism" is a a mark of being a Christian. I can't deny that.
But what about Scripture? Scripture really seems to side with the tradition of the Church. Paul's writings speak of the importance of baptism and even his own conversion story points to the importance of baptism. However, both Paul and the Gentile believer's in Acts 10 were filled with the Holy Spirit before being baptized pointing and Cornelius seemed to be a devout follower of God before he and his family were baptized (of course the followers of Christ had to work through some understandings such as the requirement of circumcision to be a Christian). It does seem to be appropriate to be baptized in response to the new understanding of identity as a Christian. That I will no doubt affirm, however I don't see how that means it is a necessity.
To put my wonderings into pointed questions: Is it "baptism" that incorporates us into the Body of Christ or is it Christ who incorporates us into the Body of Christ?
(Yes, I know that we understand that God is the primary actor in baptism and incorporates us through the act of baptism, but the question pushes me to try and resolve whether the "act" of baptism the one and only way God incorporates)