On Baptism and primary loyalty

It was one of those conversations that started before Sunday worship, just as we were waiting for the bell to ring and the opening anthem to begin, and goes all unwieldy.

In fact, it didn’t start as a conversation, it was a simple declaration by the parishioner. He was just giving me information. There had been a funeral the day before and I guess seeing me brought the subject to mind and he thought he should take the opportunity to make his views known: “At my funeral, I’m going to have a casket, and the casket is going to be draped in the American flag.”

He was a dear parishioner, faithful in worship, an active usher, and proud of his military service to his country. Our country.

A wise priest would have kept her wits about her and said, “I’m so glad you are thinking about making plans ahead of time for your funeral. I would be happy to talk about your plans and get them recorded for the church for when the time comes. Why don’t you call the church office . . .”

But no, I thought I would address his statement right there and then. I thought I could quickly give him a little information about the funeral liturgy and the meaning of baptism on the spot. He would begin worship with a new understanding, and I would have dropped a pearl of Episcopal wisdom in time for the Venite.

So I told him that our practice is you may have your casket draped in a flag on the way into the church and on the way out, but in the narthex, the flag will be removed and replaced for the liturgy by a white funeral pall, a symbol of our baptism. We come before God and find our primary identity as children of God, claimed as belonging to Jesus Christ in our baptism, not as American citizens. Our earthly citizenship may be very important to us, but it’s not the most important thing about us. Our country is not the kingdom of our primary allegiance.

That response did not go over well. Then the bell rang. Then I remembered to invite him to visit and discuss his plans.

I would still say the same things, but not at the same moment. And I would, I hope, better understand how emotionally laden the topic is, not just because we were talking about funeral planning, but because we were talking about loyalty and identity.

There are Episcopal parishes where you are allowed to have a flag instead of a pall (I googled it. I didn’t learn about this in seminary). I don’t think this is good practice, for a bunch of reasons, including the fact that when I come before God after my death, my only hope is to be wrapped in is the robe of Christ’s righteousness, not the red, white, and blue, or maple leaf (the flags of the two countries in which I hold legal citizenship). I’m good with the pall. I’m good with belonging first and foremost to Jesus, who apparently has sheep of other folds as well as sheep who want to be draped in other flags.

I recently read a really good novel by Rodney Clapp, one of the contributors to Common Prayer. The novel is The Second Baptism of Albert Simmel. Set in the future, after petroleum supplies have run out, Albert is on a journey through what used to be called Old America. As he travels on his particular quest, he meets people and finds himself in predicaments that cause him to reflect on his faith.

At one point he finds himself listening to a very popular prophet and preacher who, according to Albert, is telling untruths to his audience, both historical untruths and the claims that “God’s most important institution on the face of the earth is the family,” and that “America is the country where fathers can most truly be fathers, mothers can most truly be mothers, and children can truly be children of God.”

Following the prophet’s address, a time for affirmations and rebuttals is offered and Albert goes to the microphone. He says in part,

“Now, please hear me. I am not saying Jesus meant to eliminate the family. It’s clear that Jesus adored children. He hated divorce. He loved and respected his mother. What I am saying is that Jesus rearranged our loyalties. We are to be loyal to our families, to our country, but we are to be loyal first and above all to the kingdom of God, the kingdom of God revealed in Israel and in Jesus Christ. In the short time I have to speak, let me ask you to think about one thing. Think about your baptism. You, we, have been baptized into the body of Jesus Christ. And our baptisms were declarations of loyalty, loyalty first and last to Jesus Christ and the kingdom he inaugurated and will one day bring to its fullness. Paul says nothing is more basic than baptism. He says being slave or free is not more basic. He’s says being male or female is not more basic. He says being Jewish or the member of any nation is not more basic. For those of us who have been baptized in Christ, and I know that includes many of you, our root, our true, our most fundamental identity and loyalty has been named. And that is an identity and loyalty rooted in Christ, Christ alone. . .

“If that is so, we cannot say that our family, our kinship is the most important thing about us. It is important, but it is not more important than our baptism. The water of baptism is thicker than the blood of kinship. And we cannot say that being American is the most important thing about us. It is important that we are Americans, but we belong first and foremost to another polity, the polity of the apostolic church. Our founding document is not the Constitution of the United States but the Bible.

“So I ask you, when you wonder who you are, to think on your baptism. When you sort out your deepest loyalties, think on your baptism And when you ask what social bodies, what polities, point first and foremost to the gospel and the kingdom of God, think on your baptism.”

The preacher disagrees strongly with Al and responds in part, “I ask you further, sir, are you an American? Are you a patriot? Or do you use my Jesus as the refuge of a scoundrel, a man disloyal to his country? If so, . . . I say again: UNHAND MY JESUS!”

Al replies, “It is not a matter of ‘your Jesus’ or ‘my Jesus.’ If Jesus is Lord, he is Lord of all and not just of you or me. If Jesus is Lord, he is not in my hands or your hands–rather, it is you or I or us who are in his hands.”

Al has more clarity about his beliefs and his need to express them, but the crowd is unconvinced. Al goes on his way, the crowd “giving him the wide berth of a contagious leper.”

Read the whole scene, the whole novel sometime. Lots of food for thought and conversation here.