A Further Reflection on the Baptist Union Statement on Same Sex Marriage

Whatever we make of the Baptist Union's Council statement on same sex relationships last month it will not be the last word. Those Baptists who feel they are unable to affirm any kind of same sex relationship and who see this as a victory for a perceived 'majority', will find that the statement will not be the last word. In fact it may well be that the statement will galvanise those who seek to affirm same sex marriage to be more open in their conviction, and will also lead others, not affirming themselves, to more vocal as well, in arguing that an affirming position be acceptable within the Union. That is, rather than drawing a line in the sand, the statement has ignited a bigger conversation.

Those who affirm same sex marriage amongst BUGB Baptists are more numerous than the conservatives realise; not a majority within the Union, but then I challenge the view that the conservatives hold the majority either. (I'm not convinced that speaking in terms of 'majority' is helpful, because it smacks of democracy rather than communal discernment). I suggest that many sit in the middle between the two extremes, and find themselves pulled by both Bible and culture, but are driven most, by wanting to find pastoral solutions. If I'm right then the view of the Baptist Union, if the Union is to hold together, must be one of reconciled diversity on this issue. The question that must drive the Steering Group and the Council and all those who care about the future of the Union, must be, (as Angus Ritchie's suggests with regard to the Church of England): 

can we find a way of living together in one Body that preserves the integrity of opponents as well as supporters of change?

This is what we have done on the issue of women in ministry, we generally tolerate a diversity. We do not (openly) seek to unChristian those who hold a different view from our own - and this is not always easy.

We need to find ways not to unChristian one another of the issue of gay and lesbian relationships. To quote Ritchie again:

This requires traditionalists to accept they are not the only orthodox Christians, and those of an affirming view to accept that traditionalism is not always based on homophobia.

What is needed are those on both sides to say, in view of the tie that binds us, can we for the sake of unity and mission, seek to listen to one another, hard and painful though that may be, to see if that tie is strong enough to enable us to continue to walk together. My hope is that the Steering Group might, behind the scenes, seek to make that happen. 

The Council's statement attempted to 'humbly urge' those who affirm same sex marriage not to press ahead, in all reality, this will carry little weight. The seeming imbalance of the 'mutual respect' asked of those churches who have registered or are seeking to register, challenges any moral authority they might otherwise see the statement as having. 

It is my own view that neither those who are against or those who affirm hold the monopoly on truth on this question. In fact much of the arguments for or against I find wanting. As on many other issues, it remains contested, and it remains contested, also amongst those who identify as gay or lesbian. 

This will continue to not be an easy time for the Union, especially those who hold office at a national level. For them we must pray especially. Whilst I don't think they can or will (at least not quickly) retract the statement, I hope that the Steering Group and the Council (when it next meets), will recognise they will have to come back to this issue, that we have not reached a settled place. A more theological conversation is now all the more pressing and the willingness of all sides to participate is essential if we are to avoid the fragmentation of our Union. This is the story of all other church traditions, Baptists are no different. 


He is Risen: An Easter Sermon

The entire Christian faith hinges on the words ‘He is risen.’[i]

We talk about the centrality of the cross,

in fact for some Christians the cross is all that matters,

everything else is like window-dressing.

But without the resurrection the cross is just a death;

We might sing of the power of the cross,

            but the power of the cross is powerless without the resurrection.

Without the resurrection the gospel is no news;

without the resurrection the words of Jesus are an impossible dream;

without the resurrection the church is a bunch of delusional do-gooders who’ve wasted too many opportunities for a Sunday lie-in;

without the resurrection Jesus himself is just a tiny footnote in history;

without the resurrection death is still the last word on life;

without the resurrection the only way to overcome evil is to fight fire with fire;

without the resurrection our past is a prison and our future is fate;

without the resurrection your bank balance and your BMI is all that matters;

without the resurrection the possible election of President Trump would mean

the end of the world.

I say again the entire Christian faith hinges on the words ‘He is risen.’

As the apostle Paul says:

            ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile’ (1 Cor. 15.17)

The resurrection means Jesus is alive,

            Jesus lives.

It means the narrative of his life has not ended.

The gospels are not biographies of a dead man,

but they are the account of one who lived and died and was raised to life.

The gospels are not simply a record of the past,

            they are the revelation of the Living One

                        who invites us to follow him,

                        who beckons us to listen,

                        who forgives us of our sin,

                       who loves us without restraint.

To read the gospels

            is encounter the one who is the same

                        yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13.8)

The whole Bible becomes his living words,

            because Jesus, the Word become flesh,

                        Is the Living Word of Life.

This is the good news:

            Jesus is alive today

And so we know we can live his way,

            loving enemies, forgiving wrongs,

            letting go of control.

And this is why the church is not deluded.

They are a community of persons

            who lives have been, and are being, transformed

            by their worship and witness,

            of the Risen and Reigning One who breathes

                        His gift of mercy and peace upon them.

            The church does not worship a dead hero,

                        But a risen King.

            The church is a community of living memory,

                        Because it remembers one who lives,                    

                                    who is the head of the Church

                                    and Lord of creation.

That Jesus is alive,

            is why he is not a footnote in history,

            but its meaning and key and its goal.

The life of Jesus has created the greatest music and poetry,

            has founded centres of healing and learning,

            lies beneath the basis for justice and dignity.

            This is to practice resurrection,[ii]

            this is to anticipate the coming kingdom of God.

The church are an Easter people or they are no people at all.

The resurrection of Jesus is the defeat of death,

            the end of endings.

It is the assurance that he alone is the first and last word,

the resurrection of Jesus is the promise that we’d not fear our final breath.

The resurrection of Jesus means that the reality and power of evil is not

overcome through violence

            but instead through the cross –

the resurrection is God’s vindication of non-violence

‘The cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determine the meaning of history.’[iii]

The resurrection says the way of the cross is not accidental,

            but the grain of the universe.[iv]

Rather than fight fire with fire,

the church fights fire with water and bread and wine

                        with baptism and holy communion

            believing that the cross and resurrection of Jesus are more powerful than guns or bombs, tanks or Trident.

The resurrection of Jesus means our past can be forgiven and our future is now our destiny in Christ.[v]

            Where our past can be a prison, holding us in its grip, the resurrection announces that Jesus comes to free us, meaning our past is no longer able to assert its power over us: what has been is forgiven.

            Where our future can be fearful, uncertain, the resurrection announces that our future is now knowable – it is life with Jesus, we are no longer subject to the whims of fate, but can live with confidence that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus.

The resurrection of Jesus means that money and health no longer determine what a good life looks like.

Without the resurrection, we live fearful of not having enough, we live fearful of being destitute; we live with the lie that money makes happiness.

The resurrection declares that we live in the abundance of God, whose gifts never run out, who calls us into fellowship and friendship, who gives us good work to do, who offers us the joy and peace and hope of Holy Spirit.

            Without the resurrection, we live fearful of suffering and illness.

The resurrection of Jesus says that even in the midst of suffering, God is with us and God is for us.

The resurrection causes us to see life as a gift rather than a right, it draws us to see that suffering can sometimes be a vocation, for it is not finally ultimate.

The resurrection of Jesus means that we need not finally fear Trump or Putin or Isis.

The promise of God revealed in the raising of Jesus is that a new world is coming

The witness of the church is not dependent in living in a benign democracy,

            but on the power of the Holy Spirit

The early church did not fear Caesar,

for the resurrection of Jesus turned the church outward in mission

            with boldness, courage, faith, love, hope.

With the St. Paul let our prayer be to know Christ and the power of his resurrection (Phil 3.9).

The early church witnessed to a new age, a new time, a new creation.

Two thousand years on it can feel like we are stuck in the old age, the old time, the old creation.

The claim is that the church in the west is dying,

            it is certainly losing numbers,

but the resurrection of Jesus says God will never give up on the church,

            not because of its own righteousness,

            but because of the mercy and grace of God,

            that is raising daughters and sons,

                        like you and me,

who have experienced the power of resurrection

                                    to transform, forgive and be sent

                        to proclaim the good news that Jesus lives.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through

the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,

and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.

This inheritance is kept in heaven for you,

who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.

These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—

of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—

may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Though you have not seen him, you love him;

and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him

and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy,

for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1.3-9)

Amen.

 

[i] This sermon found some inspiration from ‘If Christ is Risen’ a sermon preached by Sam Wells on Easter Sunday 2015. http://www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/wp-content/uploads/April-5-SW.pdf

[ii] Wendell Berry, ‘Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front’

[iii] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus

[iv] Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe (SCM, 2001) borrowed from Yoder.

[v] Sam Wells, The Nazareth Manifesto (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015)


Cross Art

I am part of a small team that has sought to find ways of telling the Christian story in Southend Town Centre. A few years back we took over an empty shop for Holy Week and installed a form of the Stations of the Cross. Last year we sought again to tell the Easter story through a series of framed bits of art that we placed in different locations across the Town Centre. This year we commissioned 5 local artists to design a cross. We then produced 500 small crosses and we dropped them all over the town centre for anyway to find a take away.

The five cross designs was a fascinating way to how others see the cross. I'm not sure what each of the artists was intending, but these are my reflections.

12439168_1743223125922555_3087816158612026394_n This first cross is imprinted with a compass. I see this in two ways. First, the cross is that which stands radiating out across the world - north, south, east, west. Second, the cross is the compass of the Christian life, it is how the church seeks to orientate its life.

 

 

 

 

 

This second cross is imprinted with flowers. I see these flowers either as about to flower or in the process of withering away. The cross is both death and life. It perhaps captures something of St. Paul's words to the church in Corinth that 'we always carry around in our body the death of Jesus … death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.' 942868_1743222782589256_3778254669096056587_n  12063849_10154033414788430_7454691459228584178_n

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This cross reminds me of a rainbow and so the promise God makes Noah to never flood the earth again. It is a promise of commitment to all creation. The cross also contains across it a line of thorns, and so saying that God is making a new promise now in the death of Jesus, a new covenant. A new promise, a new covenant that confirms the promise to Noah and at the same time dealing with the human propensity to sin. 12705331_10156637445845363_1851606440469577233_n 

Chocolate now lies at the centre of the Easter season. It has replaced the cross. And so here in this fourth cross we see the two juxtaposed together. Do they any connection? Chocolate can taste bitter or sweet, which perhaps also reflects the meaning of the cross, it is bitter and sweet, sorrow and joy.  12919070_10154058660980148_1913538865_n
 
 
This final cross is one that suggests that though  it happened long ago, the cross remains alive as something with power. The images look like fossilised fish and the words are 'life', 'long before', 'on belonging to', 'hand in hand', 'remains.' It is perhaps the most enigmatic of the five designs. The Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes wrote a book called Past Event and Present Salvation and I see this cross as grappling with that sense of past and present.

40 Days of Baptism: 40

Today is the last day of Lent, tomorrow is Easter. The 40 days is up and this is the last in my series of posts that have offered an account of baptism. For this last day, I turn to the 'baptist' theologian James McClendon. Probably the most important Baptist voice of the 20th century. Author of a 3-volume Systematic Theology and now (posthumously) The Collected Works of James McClendon (also 3-volumes). The third volume was published during this 40-days and I offer an extract from it, in a sermon where McClendon speaks of baptism.

One was baptised in the River Jordan, another in the River Tiber. One was baptised at the seashore, another in a mountain stream, another in a city fountain - Rome was full of fountains. Yet there was something alike in all cases. "When we were baptised," Paul writes, "it was a burial ceremony" (see Rom 6.3-4). "we were buried with him by baptism into death." Not, of course, literal death, but a ceremonial death, a ritual death - to sin. Yet a death so effective that the baptised are now identified with Jesus who died and rose again.

In other words, baptism is a sign, an acted show, reclaiming for the believer the great central event of human history, the death and rising of Christ. Christ died; was buried; that death and burial were the proleptic funeral for sin in the human race. Christ rose, and it was resurrection day for authentic humanity. The question is how to identify with that authentic life, that secret of Christian living - Christ in you, Christ alive. When the trusting candidate goes under water, he or she reclaims Christ dead and buried. Never again can sin say of this buried one, "I am in charge here," for the death of Christ has intervened. What comes up out of the water is a new identity with the risen Christ. The church is the fellowship of the once buried; the church is the fellowship of the resurrection. Here your old life is buried the watery waste that preceded creation, tohu wabohu; here your life in faith rises up to last forever; here in dramatic sign is the secret of the Christian life. So far, the teaching of Paul the apostle.

For long ages these great truths were lost to sight, and the churches suffered the loss. Partly, churches neglected baptism itself. Baptism was shrivelled, diminished, cut loose from faith and from the great story of God's action in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, cut loose from the repetition of that story in redeemed lives. Baptism then became only a birthday shower, a kind of cradle party or a high school graduation affair - pleasant, sentimental, but remote from the risky business of following Jesus in the present age. Yet what God had done remained true, and from time to time Christian churches recovered these facts, written in Scripture, ringing true to the reality of Christian life. A lost secret can be reclaimed. Maybe we have lost the secret here? Maybe we need to reclaim it? Baptism - New Testament baptism - is God's signpost, announcing what life is all about.

James Wm. McClendon, Jr., 'The Inner Secret of Membership' in Ryan Andrew Newson and Andrew C. Wright (eds.), The Collected Works of James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Volume Three (Baylor, 2016), p.243-244. (Also printed in James McClendon, Making Gospel Sense: To a Troubled Church (Wipf & Stock, 2004 [1995]), pp.56-58.

 


40 Days of Baptism: 39

Earlier in Lent I shared a prayer by Stanley Hauerwas. Today, on Good Friday, I share an extract from a sermon he preached on the occasion of a baptism in 2007.

What do we today to Sierra and Jonas cannot help but put them in danger. For today they will be given life not only through death but through a particular death. The life they are given through this death is one that threatens those who are hard at work creating a world without death. Baptism is deadly business. To be baptized is to die in Christ and to be raised with him. Through baptism into the life and resurrection of Jesus, Sierra and Jonas are made participants in a living body that defies the culture of death.

Through baptism the baptized have inscribed on their hearts the story of Israel, Jesus, and the church. Their bodies will be storied by the story begun with Abraham, who did not ask God for a life without death. He wanted to know what God would give him, and God gave him an heir and land. We believe that God kept his promise to Abraham; Jesus is the heir and his body is our land.

The question of whether Sierra and Jonas understand what is being done to them in the baptism is beside the point. How could any of us know what we are doing when we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus? What we do, what the Holy Spirit does through us, in baptism is to make these children a part of a people who have been given the gift of life in Christ. Accordingly they will discover they can risk praying for their enemies, they can risk living lives of peace, and they can love one another because death no longer has dominion over them. What we today will not make Sierra’s and Jonas’s lives safe, but it will, with God’s help, give them lives worth living.

Stanley Hauerwas, 'A Deadly Business' in A Cross-Shattered Church (Brazos, 2009), pp.113-117.


Gethsemane: A Sermon

Baptists tend to name their churches geographically.

So we are Belle Vue Baptist Church because we happen to be located on Belle Vue Avenue. There are a few Baptist churches named after people. I know of a Thomas Helwys Baptist Church in Nottingham, named after one of the co-founders of the Baptist movement and there is a Carey Baptist Church, named after William Carey, the first BMS missionary, who went to India.

I know of a church in Cardiff called ‘Calvary Baptist Church,’ named after the placed where Jesus was crucified. There are others apparently named Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and more. I wonder why they chose that name? I wonder how that name shapes the church?

I share all this, because earlier this week I came across, as you do when you use google, various churches in America called Gethsemane Episcopal Church.’ Anglicans usually tend to go for names of Saints – St. Mary, St. Martin, St. John’s.

I wonder what it means to be named Gethsemane? I wonder what it might mean we renamed ourselves ‘Gethsemane Baptist Church’?

Often our focus on Maundy Thursday is on the Last Supper, but tonight I want to look at what happened later that night, when Jesus and his disciples go the Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives, just east of Jerusalem, to pray. This was normal. The gospel of Luke says that while Jesus was in Jerusalem, at the end of every day, he would leave the city and go to the Mount of Olives.

Jesus comes to pray. There is perhaps an extra heaviness about tonight. The meal they have just shared will have heightened the mood. Most of the disciples sit down, and Jesus goes further into Gethsemane with his three closest disciples – Peter, James and John. He asks them to stay awake and pray. He himself goes even deeper into the garden and there he prays. As he prays, we get to eavesdrop onto his conversation with the one he calls ‘Father.’

At no point until now has Jesus shrunk from his mission.

In the wilderness, tempted by Satan, he prevails.

On the road to Caesarea Philippi challenged by Peter to avoid death, he says, ‘Get behind me Satan!’

He resolutely journeys towards Jerusalem.

He says three times on the way that he will suffer and die at the hands of the chief priests and elders.

On arrival he enters the city with a declaration of his messiahship. In the temple, he makes no attempt to temper his words or message.

At the Passover meal, he predicts he will be betrayed,

he predicts he will be abandoned.

He understands that his mission will end in death, and makes no bid to avoid it.

But here in Gethsemane, as the darkness creeps in and the shadows lengthens, Jesus is overwhelmed with grief, with sorrow, with distress, with anguish.

Jesus does not go skipping to the cross. There is no joy or serenity in this moment. Jesus doesn’t go all zen, into a state of contemplative detachment. He appears to succumbs to human terror.

There are two ways we might read what is happening here.

We perhaps read his praying in Gethsemane as Jesus’ most human moment in all the gospels. Like any person, Jesus finally appears to fear death, at least, the kind of death he knows he will probably face. He is overwhelmed by what is to come. We think to ourselves, Jesus is just like us.

The second way to read Jesus’ praying in Gethsemane, is not as the fear of his death, but as Jesus at war with the forces of evil.* Here is the beginning of his passion. These are the first rounds of the key battle for the salvation of the world. What we will read as Jesus’ trial before the Jewish and Roman authorities, seen in the high priest Caiaphas and the governor Pontius Pilate, is also Jesus’ trial before the Powers of darkness. Here in the garden they seek to tempt him once again to choose a different path. Jesus battles to accept the will of God. His words ‘not my will, but yours be done’ are joined by his rising from the ground like a boxer rising from the mat.

Gethsemane mirrors in some ways the temptations in the wilderness that followed Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of his mission. In the wilderness Satan tempted Jesus with the option of leading a crusade – the messianic king at the front of an army overcoming all opponents. Here in Gethsemane, the temptation perhaps again is the same.

What does it mean to be present at Gethsemane? What might it mean to be a community that joins Jesus in Gethsemane? It is not be like the disciples, those who should be in Jesus’ corner, are founding wanting, they are found asleep, inert to the struggle of Jesus, inert to deepening darkness. To be a Gethsemane church is to stay awake in the darkness of history, and to refuse to compromise the way of the cross. It is to pray with Jesus, ‘not what I want, but what you want,’ ready to accept what ever that means. Ched Myers writes that the ‘world is Gethsemane’** and so perhaps to take Gethsemane as our name is to acknowledge – to be alert to, to be awake to – the horror and the hope.

To be a Gethsemane people is to resist the temptation that we can sleep through life.

To be a Gethsemane people is to be awake to the horrors of the world, and to join Jesus in contending for the world’s salvation.

To be a Gethsemane people is to be awake with hope that the darkness can and is and will be overcome, to join Jesus in taking up our cross, because the cross is the hope of the world.

To be a Gethsemane people is face that there is a battle going on out there in the world, and in here, in the heart of every person.

It is a battle for the will of God – every time we pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’ we are praying with Jesus in Gethsemane.

To be a Gethsemane people is to follow Jesus through the shadows of betrayal, denial, separation, anguish, treachery, hypocrisy, humiliation to the cross.

We know the phrase ‘a matter of life and death’, a Gethsemane people, a Good Friday people, an Easter people, come to see that the gospel is always a ‘matter of death and then life.’

Let us keep awake with Jesus. Amen.

 

* Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (Eerdmans, 2015)

** Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Orbis, 1988)


40 Days of Baptism: 38

As we gather closer to Good Friday, here is a reflection on baptism from Craig Hovey.

The church's failure to be a martyr-church is supremely seen in those cultures that continue to baptise the young for sentimentality's sake. For many, baptism involves neither incorporation into the life of the community of faith nor incorporation into the death and resurrection of Christ. It is not a drowning in the surging waters, a participation in the suffering Christ, a commitment to undergo the discipline of the church relative to its new life and mission made possible by Christ's resurrection. For many, baptism does not recall and invite the promises of God to the new member, those promises that will be necessary in a life marked by dedication and risk. Rather, it forgoes the weightier matters of life and death in favour of sanctioning the life and choices one will make on one's own. In absolute contrast to the gift God has given the church in baptism for marking the difficulty of discipleship and God's upholding, for many baptism only enshrines one's individual life apart from God and entrenches one's autonomous freedom from the church. It becomes a quaint ceremony for an innocuous blessing, a hopeful but ultimately bland sign for receiving good things from life, a plea for calm and good luck, a positive omen, and perhaps an exercise in superstition. What is certain is that many are baptised who have no intention of dying with Christ or suffering for their faith.

But just as baptism is a gift by God enriched with promise, the church must continue to trust that God will preserve its life for its gospel mission despite the way that the life appears to be undermined, in this case, from within. This is surely the more difficult of the challenges to the martyr-church: not persecution from the outside but weakening from the inside. It is tempted to think that its common life can be marked by the calm displayed by those who want the church but do not want to suffer because of it. It is asked to provide fellowship but not challenge. It is asked to provide blessing but not discipline.

Craig Hovey, To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today's Church (Brazos, 2008), pp.40-41.


40 Days of Baptism: 37

Here comes a reflection on baptism in the Syriac Christian tradition from Eugene Rogers and his book on the Holy Spirit, After the Spirit. The Syriac tradition looks at the meaning of baptism in a different light.

The Syriac tradition does not portray baptism as a grim moment in which sinners grit their teeth and try to wrest their redemption from the cold and unforgiving water. The tone is entirely different: one of praise, thanksgiving, and wonder, as befits a glimpse into the trinitarian relations and a share in the feasting at the wedding of the Lamb:

How fearful and full of awe is this moment when the supernal beings stand in silence upon this baptismal water - thousands upon thousands of angels, ten thousands of Seraphim hover over this new mother, holy baptism, the spiritual mother who gives birth to spiritual sons who enter into the bridal chamber of life that is full of joys … They stand by the river Jordan to receive the Son of God who has come to perfect baptism. The Holy Spirit descends upon him from the uppermost heights, not to sanctify him, but to bear witness to him.

The Syriac tradition can see the entire history of salvation and the entire Christian life in terms of the wedding parable of Matthew 22, in which putting on the wedding garment is putting on the Spirit. In both cases the wedding feast is the eschatological banquet at the end of time for which God has been preparing the human race since the beginning. Baptism washes human beings not primarily because of sin, but for the feast. Baptism is the great washing before meals. Bathing is already part of the joy of preparation even for the clean; so much the more so for those who are dirty. Consummation is logically prior to redemption, as the goal specifies the species of an act.

Furthermore, the wedding feast is the consummation for which all human beings were created. The Spirit who hovered over the waters at creation is bringing up her creation over time, when she hovers also over the waters of the font. The wedding garments are prepared already. The guest who was cast into the outer darkness for the lack of a wedding agreement was not one who had never had one, but one who had been given one and lost it.

Christ came to baptism, he went down and placed in the baptismal water the robe of glory, to be there for Adam, who had lost it.

That applies to all children of Adam:

You [Christ] who were without need were baptised in the river Jordan and left into the garment of divinity for those who were naked that they might be clothed with it.

The children of Adam become children of the Father by being clothed again in the Spirit:

You have clothed us in the robe of glory of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and you have granted that we should become spiritual children to the Father in the second birth of baptism.

Eugene F. Rogers, Jr., After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology form Resources Outside the Modern West (SCM, 2006), pp.137-139. (The use of italics represents where Rogers is quoting).


40 Days of Baptism: 36

If it is not too indulgent, today I post a sermon I preached on baptism in March 2014.

What has happened here today? What have we witnessed and experienced? Some might say that what has happened here this morning is an ancient initiation rite, it’s the means that the church requires for people to join the club, to become an insider. And this is not untrue. Aimee through her baptism has become part of the body of Christ, a member of God’s people. Some might say that what has happened here this morning is the declaration of what somebody believes, they have announced in public their faith in God. And this is also not untrue. Aimee has made a confession of faith, she was asked four questions and shared her story of why she believes and felt it was right to come to baptism.

But I want to suggest something else has happened here this morning which does not begin with the church or with Aimee, but with God. I want to talk about what baptism does to you and more specifically what God in baptism does to you. So this is a sermon for Aimee, to say something of what has happened to her in the water. This is a sermon for all those here, who are baptised, to say something of what happened to you, when you went into the water. And this is a sermon for those who are here as the curious, to say something of what, as a church, we pray, will be your baptism.

I’ve got six things baptism does to us.

Number one, baptism makes you odd. Now some of you may be thinking Aimee’s always been odd, which I find hard to believe, but if true, baptism makes her odder. Baptism is not a normal part of life, especially believers’ baptism. To be baptised is to be made different, the Bible says we a ‘strangers and aliens’ (1 Pet 2.11) we are different because the baptised person now lives by a different story, with a different purpose and a different Lord. In baptism we identify with the story of Jesus and that story becomes the story of our life it is a story that tells of invitation and challenge, friendship and betrayal, suffering and death, resurrection and hope. The purpose of our life, odd as it may well appear is to tell that story as faithfully as we can because we have declared that Jesus is Lord that as odd as it may sound, Jesus is the key, the point, the centre, the reason, the beginning, the end of everything. Baptism makes you odd.

Number two, baptism means you’ve died. We’ve just witnessed a funeral. We’ve just heard it read. It’s in the Bible: to be baptised is to die – but it is a certain kind of death: it is to die with Christ. And it is a certain kind of funeral: it is to be buried with Christ (Rom 6.4). If that is so, death is no longer something to be feared or something to be denied or something that hangs over over us. Baptism says we have died, death is behind us, life is ahead of us, life in Christ.* Aimee has died, but she has also been raised; she was lifted out of the water, and so she has been lifted out of death to a new life, a life in Christ. Baptism means you’re a “dead person walking.”

Number three, baptism makes you royalty. Now as far as I know Aimee is not a member of the royal family and isn’t married into the royal family. But baptism takes us from being nobodies to being somebodies (1 Pet. 2.10) from being plebs – those in the ancient world who had no status or standing, no name or fame to royalty – those who are children of God, those who are member’s of God’s household, those who are given the royal name of Jesus. Baptism is a coronation we are crowned, we are set apart,                  we are anointed. Where the world can conspire to make us believe we are worthless, that we are no good, baptism reminds us we are made in God’s image. No ifs or buts, just this is who you are.

Number four, baptism means you’re found. It’s not that we find God, but that he has found us (Luke 19.10). It’s not that we choose God, but that he has chosen us (John 15.16). It’s not that we love God, but that he has first loved us (1 John 4.19). It’s not that Aimee said ‘I want to be baptised’, but that God said ‘Be baptised!’ Baptism gives us a new name ‘I am not.’ I am not the answer to every problem the author of my life, the centre of everything, God is.

The gospel says we’re sick and baptism says I am not the doctor.  Jesus is. The gospel says we’re lost and baptism says I am not the detective. Jesus is. The gospel says we’re stuck and baptism says I am not the one who can set free. Jesus is. The gospel says we’re broken and baptism says I am not the one who can mend. Jesus is. Baptism give us a new name ‘I am not, but I know I am’** I am not God, but God knows me: God the creator, the saviour, the finisher, God the author, the rescuer, the healer. Baptism means we’re found.

Number five, baptism marks the beginning of an adventure you’re not in control of. God said to Abraham and Sarah ‘Go.’ Jesus says ‘Follow me.’ After baptism, the question we ask is not what am I going to do with life, but what is God going to do with my life? One pastor said this to one person he had baptised:        

“By this act of baptism, we welcome you to a journey that will take your whole life.This isn’t the end. It’s the beginning of God’s experiment with your life. What God will make of you, we know not. Where God will take you, surprise you, we cannot say. This we do know and this we say – God is with you.”*

By being baptised, you’ve made yourself open to God’s call, you’ve become an actor in a drama, that’s been performing for a quite a while and unless Christ returns, will continue after you, but in which, for the rest of your life, you are called to perform the script God is writing for you. This gospel adventure is not one we live alone. All of us who have baptised are in it together, we’re one body being led to offer our lives as a letter of Christ to the world.

Number six, baptism means you’ve got a new wardrobe. Now this isn’t to suggest that Aimee is without fashion sense I’m neither that brave, or, probably more importantly, in any place to be giving out fashion advice. But baptism, says the Bible, is where we get clothed with Christ (Gal 3.27). In the early church, you would have been baptised naked and then as you came out of the waters you would have been give a new robe as a sign and symbol of new life in Christ. The wardrobe in baptism is not a set of clothes – sorry Aimee we’ve got no T-shirt with Jesus on it for you – the wardrobe in baptism is not a set of clothes, but the practice of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience and most importantly, the practice of love (Col 3.12). In baptism we take off and leave behind anger, rage, malice, slander, abusive language, lying and put on the new wardrobe modelled by Christ.

So baptism makes you odd, means you’ve died, makes you royalty, means you’re found, marks the beginning of a life-long adventure you’re not in control and gives you a new wardrobe to wear. That is what’s happened today and at every baptism. That is what God is about: calling, naming, saving, creating a people who know what being human is really about and who exist to tell the world. Today, Jesus says, ‘Aimee, welcome to my world.’ Indeed God’s invitation is always open to everyone to enter this to strange new world of being Christian. May be one of you have heard the summons today. Amen.

 

* I owe this way of putting things to Kim Fabricus’ sermon ‘Welcome to my world’ http://www.faith-theology.com/2010/07/welcome-to-my-world-baptismal-sermon.html

** I owe this phrase to Louie Giglio, I Am Not, but I Know I Am (2006)

*** Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon, Resident Aliens (1989), pp.52-53.


40 Days of Baptism: 35

Today's post comes from Kim Fabricius and a sermon he posted on the Faith and Theology blog, to which he is a regular contributor. Fabricius is a URC minister in Wales and is very funny, as well as a great preacher. In the sermon below he reminds us of the oddness of baptism.

I’d like your opinion about a couple I know, about something they did, did to their child. Of course they loved their baby to bits and surrounded him with all the care in the world, cooing and cuddling, bathing and bonding, taking tender care about all his needs and his feeds and his smelly little deeds. They were good parents. But then one day they made a decision: they decided they didn’t want to keep their baby to themselves, or even to their own kin; they decided they wanted to share their child with other people, indeed to raise their child as part of another family, a genetically unrelated family, where their child would have not only other brothers and sisters, but also other mothers and fathers too. In fact, this new family would, in principle, supersede their own family as the child’s true and ultimate home. Tell me, what would you think of parents who would do such a thing with their child?

And another thing. To mark this transition from the biological family to this new family, this couple arranged for a special occasion – but what an odd occasion it was. For one thing, it took place on a Sunday morning, when most other folk were still in bed, and in a rather odd building. For another thing, there was no booze (fancy a special occasion without any booze!). And then there were the guests: many of the people at this occasion the parents didn’t even know, or didn’t know very well. In fact, it was precisely these people, many of them quite old, and a few even a bit doddery, who turned out to be their child’s new parents and siblings. Again, what would you think of such parents?

And a final thing, perhaps the most outrageous thing of all. At this occasion there was a man wearing a sombre black gown, as if he were taking a funeral. In fact, that is precisely what the man said was happening: that his parents were bringing their child to this occasion to mark his death, his death to the world from which he was brought, but which (so the man in the black gown declared) is a world that is itself passing away, yet a world that spends most of its time and energy pretending it will go on forever, thereby entangling itself all the more inescapably in the cords of its own extinction. For is that not the nature of the world we live in? Do we not live in fear and denial of death, compulsively seeking longevity, security, the ultimate risk-free environment, which, however, a moment’s clarity exposes as the sheerest fantasy? On this occasion, however, (so the man in the black gown declared) we get real and deny this denial of death, as the child, in the ritual of the occasion, dies and is buried, with everyone present acting as celebrants of his funeral.

Again, for the last time, what would you think of such parents? Let’s be honest: bringing their child to be handed over for shared parenting is outrageous enough, but bringing the child to his own funeral, what kind of parents would do such a macabre thing? You might think that, at best, they were being irresponsible, at worst, abusive, and that they should be reported to the police and social services. In fact, if you are not a Christian, you are bound to think this way. In fact, many Christians themselves think this way. Which just goes to show how domesticated and sentimentalised baptism – because, of course, that is what we are talking about here, baptism – it just goes to show how domesticated and sentimentalised baptism has become, and how the church itself has colluded in “watering-down” the meaning of its sacrament of initiation. Indeed it goes to show how close the church is coming to losing its identity, and in losing its identity, losing its very soul.

Hear again Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Rome, which go straight to the point: “Surely you know that when were baptised into union with Christ Jesus, we were baptised into union with his death. By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death …” (Rom 6:3-4a).

There it is in the Bible (I’m not making it up!): to be baptised is to die – but it is a certain kind of death: it is to die with Christ. And it is a certain kind of funeral: it is to be buried with Christ. But if that is so, it means that, appearances notwithstanding, in baptism our deaths are now behind us. Which, in turn, means, that we are released from our obsession with death, our fear of death, our denial of death, all of which speaks of our enslavement to death – from which baptism frees us. For not only is death now behind us, above all life is now ahead of us. But again, a very specific kind of life: it is life in Christ. For as Paul continues: “By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from death by the glorious power of the Father, so also we might live a new life” (6:4).

We are all gong to die. One day Adam is going to die too. But today we proclaim that, in fact, Adam’s death is now behind him and that life, the life of Christ – a new life of love, joy, and peace – is Adam’s future, and indeed is there now for the taking – or rather the receiving – through his union with Christ.

And that’s where we come to Adam’s “new family”. For in being baptised into union with Christ, Adam becomes a son and brother of everyone else who has been baptised into union with Christ. He has been born anew, of water and Spirit (John 3:5), born, that is, into a new family, with new siblings and new parents (including the doddery ones!). Fellow Christians are now, in fact, Adam’s closest relations. “Blood is thicker than water,” people say. Not so, Christians say: “Water is thicker than blood.”

I am under no illusions of just how mind-blowing all this is. And not only because baptism is, ultimately, supernatural, but also because (as I have tried to suggest) it is quite unnatural, and a quite unnatural way of life follows from it, a way of life that contradicts the way the world and his wife go about their business. For if we are introducing Adam to the new way of life of Jesus, we will try to teach him not to become an earning, shopping, and consuming machine, ever agitated and restless, or someone who wants to be “famous”, but a human being who is happy in his own skin and, above all, grateful just to be. We will also try to teach him not to become a cunning climber and schemer, ever out for Number One, but a human being whose Yes is Yes and No is No, who doesn’t deceive or discard other people but puts them first. And, finally, we will also try to teach him not to become an eye-for-an-eye kind of guy but a turn-the-cheek kind of geek, who is kind to everyone, who takes a punch rather than gives one, who prays for those who wish him ill, who lives at peace even with his enemies.

Yes, all this is so radically counter-cultural, for it clearly involves living an exposed and vulnerable life, a life at considerable risk, a life on which the “health and safety” bureaucrats might like to slap a restraining order, a life that might incur suffering in some contexts, even if only ridicule, for its eccentricity, in our own.

That’s why bringing your child for baptism – some may think it’s sweet; in fact, it is quite heroic. If you want a life of ease, pleasure, and success, a gated and protected life among your own, then the last thing you want to be is baptised. If, however, you want a life full of real meaning and lasting purpose, the kind of life God wants us to live, the kind of life, in Jesus, God shows us how to live; if you want a life that is not ephemeral but eternal, a life not just for now but forever, life as it is going to be when God completes his work in progress, life that begins even now, in the sacrament of baptism that proclaims the old world going and a new world coming, and calls us to live tomorrow’s life today – then you’ve come to just the right pace, you’re taking part in just the right occasion, you’re watching a sneak preview of the end of time as we know it, and the beginning of time as you couldn’t imagine it in your wildest dreams.

Today, the Lord says, “Adam, welcome to my world!” Indeed God’s invitation is always open to everyone to enter this strange new household of the church, and this strange new world of being a Christian.

Kim Fabricius, 'Welcome to My World: A Baptismal Sermon', July 2010 (originally posted here)