Paul Fiddes on being Baptist

This past week, Whitley College has played host to Professor Paul Fiddes who has been our guest speaker at the annual School of Ministry. He has been speaking on the theme of Baptist identity. It really has been a rich time in so many ways. For those who were unable to be there, or who might like a little summary of what it was all about, here is a precis of the various addresses:

Die Taufe ist kein Sakrament. Einsichten aus Karl Barths Sakramentsverständnis

WeinrichIt is a most humanising thing, gratitude. For it is not only the confession of our being-in-dependence, but it is also an expression of our remarkable freedom. We, in the Reformed tradition, do not talk nearly enough about freedom. And perhaps no one has brought this truth home to me more than my friend Michael Weinrich, to whom I am most grateful. I was delighted to learn that Michael recently gave a lecture on Karl Barth (a subject with which he is most familiar) and the sacraments, a lecture in which the promise and gift of freedom featured greatly. The lecture will, in due course, be published by Theologischen Verlag Zürich, but a summary/report is already available. It reads:

„Jesus Christus ist das eine Sakrament“. So versteht Karl Barth das Sakrament in der Kirchlichen Dogmatik (KD). Wie kommt Barth zu diesem Verständnis? Was sagt es über menschliche Freiheit und Gottes souveränes Gott-Sein? Seine Antworten und Thesen hat Michael Weinrich, Professor für Ökumenik und Systematik, auf dem Barth Symposion Anfang Mai vorgetragen.


Als Sakrament, sprich als Übersetzung des griechischen mysterion, bezeichnete Barth Taufe und Abendmahl in der KD nicht. Stattdessen sprach er von einem „Tatbekenntnis“ bzw. einer „freien menschlichen Tatantwort“ auf Gottes in Christus „vollzogene göttliche Wendung“ (KD IV/4, 81.IX.99).

Damit unterstreiche Barth, dass nicht nur ein „Gesinnungswechsel“, sondern eine neue „Lebensrichtung“ zur Debatte stehe, so Weinrich.

Ist die Wassertaufe menschliche Antwort auf das Sakrament der Geschichte Jesu Christi, handelt der Mensch als Subjekt. Er gibt, selbst frei, also als von Gott Befreiter, eine Antwort auf Gottes Anrede. Der Mensch entspricht Gottes Verheißung. Weinrich: „Erst in der dann vom Menschen frei gegebenen Antwort kommt die Anrede Gottes zu ihrem Ziel, in dem das ‚Es ist vollbracht!‘ auch zu der ihm entsprechenden Anerkennung findet.“


Das „christologisch orientierte Sakramentsverständnis in der KD“ sei eine Konsequenz, so Weinrichs These zugespitzt formuliert, von Barths Verankerung der Versöhnungslehre in der Bundestheologie. In dem Bund Gottes mit dem Menschen begegnen sich „der freie Gott“ und „der freie Mensch“ als Partner, als zwei Subjekte. Weinrich: „Der Bund ist essenziell auf die freie Antwort des Bundespartners ausgerichtet, die als solche eben auch eine ganz und gar menschliche Antwort zu sein hat ohne eine permanente Inanspruchnahme der Assistenz Gottes“.


Die „Entsakramentalisierung der Sakramente“ bei Barth sei „die Konsequenz einer bundestheologischen Vertiefung seiner Ekklesiologie“, so Weinrich. In dieser müsse Gott Gott bleiben können und der Mensch Mensch. Hier wird der „schmale Grat der Freiheit“ betreten, der menschlichen Freiheit im Bund mit Gott.

Taufe und Abendmahl seien so verstanden keine „geheimnisvollen Rituale“, sondern „gemeinschaftlich eingebundene freie menschliche Antworten des von Gott angesprochenen und auf Gott hörenden Menschen“.

Dabei verweise die Taufe auf die im Geist vermittelte „Begründung“ des christlichen Lebens in Christus und das Abendmahl auf seine allein von Christus zu erwartende „Erneuerung“ (vgl. KD IV/4,72f.).


Diese bundestheologische Auslegung von Taufe und Abendmahl wirft einen kritischen Blick auf die Sakramentalisierung der Kirche. Weinrich gibt – mit Barth – zu bedenken:

„Die weithin in den Kirchen vollzogene Sakramentalisierung der Taufe ebenso wie des Abendmahls bedeuten keine Aufwertung beider, sondern deren Doketisierung [Zuschreibung eines Scheinleibes Christi, bs] zu ‚einem sonderbar konkurrierenden Duplikat der Geschichte Jesu Christi‘ (KD IV/4, 112), die sie ihrer spezifischen Würde als freies Tatbekenntnis berauben, indem sie nun selbst als Gnaden-mittel (Sakrament) ausgegeben werden.

Anstatt Sakramente als Zeichen von Gottes Handeln in Konkurrenz zur Geschichte Gottes mit Jesus Christus aufzubauen, gelte es, das Mysterium der Offenbarung in Jesus Christus zu respektieren, so Barth (vgl. KD IV/4, 168).

Als Sakrament „im Sinne von Heilsoffenbarung oder Heilswerk, Sündenreinigung, Gnadeneingießung oder Wiedergeburt“ schwäche die Taufe „einerseits die entscheidende Deutlichkeit des Christusgeschehens“ (KD IV/4, 233) und gefährde „anderseits die sich hier erschließende Perspektive auf die freie Beteiligung des Menschen in dem erfüllten Bund.“

Fazit: Die Würde der Taufe glänzt „in der befreiten Umkehr zu Gott als das Humanste, was ein Mensch zu tun vermag“ (vgl. KD IV/4, 157), sie besteht nicht in der Zuschreibung eines sakramentalen Sinns.

On the anniversary of our baptisms


Religious rituals are important because by them truths (and not only truths) are inscribed in us, because by them we have opportunity to rehearse those things that matter deeply to us and to do so with others, and because it is among such rituals that the loose and sometimes deeply painful and paradoxical strands of our life are held, and that in ways that take our location seriously and which are, one hopes, intentionally faithful to a broader and deeper narrative into which our lives have been taken up, the old old story by which we live and move and are measured. So understood, it’s little wonder that C.S. Lewis, in A Preface to Paradise Lost, spoke of ‘the proper pleasure of ritual’. Of course, not all rituals could properly be defined as ‘acts of pleasure’. Nor are all handmaidens of an overtly religious imagination. Monday afternoon netball, or pre-bed activities of endless calls for ‘toilet, teeth, and pajamas’, or story time, or a wee dram of aqua vitae, for example, readily come to mind. And while these latter types of activity seem to be no less important for our formation, and while they are common enough, they are not what we might call ‘catholic’ in nature.

I mention this because one of the most important things one can do as a public citizen is to remind catholic bodies that the local situation is where the real action is. It is equally important that the correspondent reality is manifest; namely, to remind the local clan that its raisons d’être are most faithfully conceived in light of a – or the – catholic story. And we need rituals that perform both tasks, that celebrate both realities.

To return to the matter of more overtly ‘religious’ rituals, my most local tribe – which consists of my partner and I and our three begats (1, 2 and 7) – practices a number of such and that with, it must be said, modulating degrees of regularity and intentionality. However, one of the ‘rituals’ that we celebrate with particular enthusiasm and without fail is the various anniversaries of our baptisms (this week it was mine). So, five times a year, usually after dinner – or between main course and dessert, depending on where clan members are on the sanity-ometer at that particular moment – we clear the table, light a candle, put out a small bowl of water and recite the following liturgy together (drawn, with some modification, from the excellent Uniting in Worship 2, a liturgical resource produced by the Uniting Church in Australia. I intend, at some stage, to write an entirely new liturgy but at the moment this is what we use), rotating the leader from occasion to occasion. The words in bold are said by all.


Brothers and sisters,
in our baptism, we died and were buried with Christ,
so that we might rise with him to new life.
We were initiated into Christ’s holy Church
and brought to life through water and the Spirit.
God’s mighty acts of salvation for us and all people
are gracious gifts, freely given.
Today we come to reaffirm our baptism,
declaring our allegiance to the risen Christ
and seeking to be obedient to his will.


Do you repent of your sins?
I repent of my sins.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ
who has defeated the power of sin and death
and brought us new life?
I turn to Christ.

Do you commit yourself to God,
trusting in Jesus Christ as Saviour
and in the Holy Spirit as God’s power and presence along the way?
I commit myself to God.


And now I ask you to confess the faith
into which you were baptised,
and in which you continue to live and grow.

Do you believe in God?

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ?

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

This is the faith of God’s baptised people.

We are not ashamed to confess it
in Christ our Lord.


I ask you now to pledge yourselves
to Christ’s ministry in the world.

Will you continue in the community of faith,
the apostles’ teaching,
the breaking of bread and the prayers?

With God’s help, we will.

Will you proclaim by word and example
the good news of God in Christ?

With God’s help, we will.

Will you seek Christ in all people,
and love your neighbour as yourself?

With God’s help, we will.

Will you strive for justice and peace,
and respect the dignity of every human being?

With God’s help, we will.

May almighty God,
who has given us new birth by water and the Holy Spirit,
keep us steadfast in the faith,
and bring us to eternal life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.



The leader pours water into the bowl, saying:

Come, Lord Jesus,
refresh the lives of all your faithful people.

The leader places her/his hand into the bowl and then sprinkles the rest of the family three times saying:

Sisters and brothers:

Always remember you are baptised,
and praise the Holy Spirit.


Today we remember that, from the time of our baptism,
the sign of the cross has been upon us.
I invite you now to join me
in tracing the sign of the cross upon your forehead,
saying: I belong to Christ. Amen.

Everyone places their fingers into the bowl and then marks themselves with the sign of the cross, saying:

I belong to Christ. Amen.

You are now invited to trace the sign of the cross
on those around you,
saying: You belong to Christ. Amen.

Everyone places their fingers into the bowl and then marks each other person at the table with the sign of the cross, saying:

You belong to Christ. Amen.


Let us pray for all the baptised everywhere
and for ourselves in this congregation of God’s people.

That our redemption from evil
and our rescue from the way of sin and death
may be evident in our daily living.
Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

That the Holy Spirit may continue
to open our hearts and lives
to the grace and truth we find in Jesus our Lord.
Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

That we may be kept in the faith and communion
of the holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

That we may be sent into the world
to witness to the love of Christ.
Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

That we may be brought to the fulness
of God’s peace and glory.
Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

Other prayers are offered here for other people/situations that lay heavy on our hearts.

Then to conclude the prayers, we say together:

Praise be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits
you have won for us,
for all the pains and insults
you have borne for us.
O most merciful Redeemer,
friend and brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day. Amen.


We are the body of Christ.
In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body.
Let us then pursue all that makes for peace
and builds up our common life.

Rowan Williams on the oddness of the open Table

‘[The Church’s] complete sharing of baptismal and eucharistic life does not happen rapidly or easily, and the problem remains of how the Church is to show its openness without simply abandoning its explicit commitment to the one focal interpretative story of Jesus. To share eucharistic communion with someone unbaptized, or committed to another story or system, is odd – not because the sacrament is “profaned”, or because grace cannot be given to those outside the household, but because the symbolic integrity of the Eucharist depends upon its being celebrated by those who both commit themselves to the paradigm of Jesus’ death and resurrection and acknowledge that their violence is violence offered to Jesus. All their betrayals are to be understood as betrayals of him; and through that understanding comes forgiveness and hope. Those who do not so understand themselves and their sin or their loss will not make the same identification of their victims with Jesus, nor will they necessarily understand their hope or their vocation in relation to him and his community. Their participation is thus anomalous: it is hard to see the meaning of what is being done’.

– Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982), 68.

On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XII

In my previous post, I spoke of baptism as ordination to ministry, seeking to bear witness to the reality that baptism speaks God’s word of life and God’s summons to a life of discipleship. All that follows – such as the practice in my own tradition of calling some to the ordered or ‘specific ministries’ of the church, what we call ‘ordination’ – is essentially functional. So Joseph Small in his fine essay ‘Ordination and Authority’: ‘Ordination to one of the church’s ordered ministries is not the simple recognition that a person possesses “gifts for ministry” or that a particular office suits a person’s abilities. Nor does ordination follow naturally from a person’s “sense of call.” Ordination is certainly not about access to position, influence, and power in the church. Instead, ordination is the church’s act of recognizing the movement of the Holy Spirit in the interactions among the church’s ordering of ministries, its standards for these ministries, and its current needs, together with prayerful discernment by persons, congregations, and presbyteries’.

Ordination means that ministers ought to take their primary ‘job description’ not from some local contract that he or she may have entered into but from their ordination vows, vows which are themselves grounded in baptism, that act of the Church which is grounded in the gospel. So there is something of a trajectory from the divine economy to local ordination (even though it is a trajectory that the Church and its ministers has very often misread and abused in the grab for power). This means that here in New Zealand, Presbyterian ministers must do the following:

  • Confess Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord;
  • Believe that they are called by God and the Church to the ministry of Word and Sacrament;
  • Receive the witness of the Bible as the supreme rule of faith and life, and undertake to preach from the Bible in order to make Jesus Christ known;
  • Celebrate the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion with the people of God;
  • Accept that the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds witness to the core faith of the holy catholic Church, and accept the Westminster documents and the Kupu Whakapono and its accompanying Commentary as witnesses to the Reformed tradition of faith;
  • Relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, commit oneself to the study of the Bible, to model one’s life and ministry on Christ, and to be faithful in prayer;
  • Share in the life and work of the Presbytery and the courts of the Church to uphold the doctrine, worship, government and discipline of the Church, and at all times seek its unity and peace;
  • Accept the call to minister to a particular parish and congregation.

Such vows provide shape and direction to – and place much-needed boundaries around – the task of pastoral ministry. Clearly there is nothing here about the need for ministers to be doing everything! So Brad Greenberg: ‘The big problem clergy have is the ability to say no … it’s only gotten harder in a world where pastors friend their flock on Facebook and are always reachable by cell call or text’.

In a recent sermon on Temptations and Triumphs of Ministry, Kenneth L. Carder properly recalled:

‘Baptism defines who we are, who our family is and what our ministry entails … Our primary calling, then, is to accept and live our baptismal identity! That is a ministry we share as laity and clergy. Ordination does not supersede baptism. Rather, it derives from baptism. And the bedrock calling of the ordained and commissioned is to support the baptized in living their identity in the world. There is no higher calling than our baptismal calling. Baptism has to do with our being as beloved daughters and sons of God: it is who we are. The glorious, triumphant news is that it is all a gift. We cannot earn our worth and relationship as God’s son or daughter any more than we earned our right to be born. Baptism is God’s affirmation, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). Therefore, our worth lies in the One to whom we belong, and nothing can take that from us, not even death itself! And the glorious good news is that it is all a gift. We call it grace. Our basic identity and worth are not the triumph of our efforts. They are the free gift of God. In the words of the Epistle of First John: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. … Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (3:1–2)’.

He continues:

‘Ordained and commissioned ministry is especially susceptible to trying to prove and earn our worth [i.e. to reject our baptisms and to embrace a self-constituted existence]. One means is by what one of my faculty colleagues at Duke calls “being a quivering mass of availability” – meeting people’s expectations and superficial desires rather than identifying the hungers that cannot be satisfied with bread. Or using the pastoral role to ingratiate ourselves to the masses so they will applaud us, validate our importance, and fill our need for praise and affirmation. The consequences can be catastrophic boundary violations and traumatic abuse of the pastoral relationship; and [this shadow] is often manifested in using congregations as steppingstones in career advancement, which is fleecing the sheep rather than shepherding them. A prayer that I have prayed almost every day of my 50 years of ministry is “Oh God, do not let me be unduly distracted today by either criticism or praise.”

The ministry offers numerous substitutes for baptism as our identity and ministry – size of church, titles, ecclesial positions. We are part of a culture that values worth on the basis of what we know, how we look, what we own, what we produce. Our appointments, salaries, attendance, budgets, ranking on the “work sheet,” political clout and awards become our identity. What we do replaces who we are; being is replaced with doing. Such proofs of our identity are like trying to fill our deep hunger to be somebody with bread made from stone.

Another deadly temptation is the abuse of power inherent in being called by God, confusing political and institutional power with love. Or, rather than being formed by the power of love, we are shaped by the love of power. The tempter showed Jesus the kingdoms of this world and said, “If you … will worship me, it will all be yours.”

Henri Nouwen reminds us that “one of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power – political power, military power, economic power, or moral and spiritual power.” He adds that “power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life”’.

As I have written elsewhere (in a reflection on 2 Corinthians 11.16–12.10):

Here is grace’s way – of Israel’s birth through a barren womb. Here is grace’s way – of the champion from Gath killed by Jesse’s youngest son. Here is grace’s way – of the Word taking on fallen flesh and stubbornly refusing to be fallen in it. Here is grace’s way – of ostracised women being commissioned as proclaimers of God’s good news. Here is grace’s way – that the deepest revelations of God are not given to the wise and understanding but to infants. Here is grace’s way – that God has a deliberate policy of positive discrimination towards nobodies, that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and that the earth will be inherited by the meek. Here is grace’s way – love your enemies and bless those who make life hell for you. Here is grace’s way – of God making foolish and weak the wisdom and power of the world. Here is grace’s way – of God putting his treasure into jars of clay in order to show that God’s all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. Here is grace’s way – that only in humiliation do we find God exalting us, only in dying do we find God making us alive, only in throwing our lives away do we find God giving life back to us. Here is grace’s way – of power being brought to an end in weakness. Here is grace’s way – that we might actually be more use to God with our thorns than without them. Only when I am weak, am I strong.

There is something else that is important to include at this point in this series of posts; namely, that the justification of the Church and of its ministry is not the work the minister. If and when justification is made, it will be the free act of God. At the very least, this truth should divert the Church away from the temptation to engage in those attempts which foster self-righteousness, smugness, and fact-denying illusion. So Richard John Neuhaus warns that pastoral ministry is not the Church’s office of public relations: ‘Our job is not to project a more positive “image” of the Church, as that term is used in the communications media. Our task is to take seriously the biblical images or models of the Church that illuminate the Church’s full mission as the sign of humanity’s future. As we take this biblical understanding of the Church seriously, there is ever so much in the empirical Church of which we must be relentlessly critical’. And Neuhaus proceeds to offer an ever-timely warning about collapsing the Church and the Kingdom of God:

‘Whatever else we may be guilty of, we are not guilty of the fact that the Church is not the historical consummation of the Kingdom of God. Far from our being embarrassed by the limitations of the existent Church, it is among our chief responsibilities to underscore the truth that the Church is not to be confused with the Kingdom of God. The Christian community points toward that Kingdom. In some important respects it anticipates that Kingdom. But the Church is as far in time from the Kingdom as is the whole creation of which the Kingdom is the universal future. The disappointment, discontent, and frustration that the world feels over its distance from perfection is also our disappointment, discontent, and frustration. In this sense, the Church is emphatically part of the world; indeed, as Paul describes it in Romans 8, the Church is the most restlessly yearning part of the whole creation. The difference is that we know the reason for the hope of perfection that is within us (1 Pet. 3). That reason is the preview or proleptic appearance of our hope vindicated in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Living in communion with him, we not only share but articulate and intensify the world’s discontent. Our gospel is not the gospel of optimism, which is, after all, simply a different way of looking at things. It is not simply an angle of vision but a new datum that we proclaim to the world. That datum, which is the message and life of Jesus, is the reason for the hope that is within us and, if only they knew it, the foundation and rationale of hope within all people. And so, because we do not pretend that the Church is the Kingdom of God, we offer no excuses for its not being the Kingdom of God. There will be no satisfactory Church, no Church that can be embraced without ambiguity, until the world of which the Church is part is satisfactorily ordered in the consummation of God’s rule. In short, we cannot get it all together until God has gotten it all together in the establishment of the Messianic Age’. – Richard John Neuhaus, Freedom for Ministry (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992), 23–4.


Other posts in this series:

On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XI

I made the claim earlier that the crisis in ministerial and churchly identity is a crisis that finds it genesis in a defunct christology. This ought to be no surprise, for the Church is the body of Christ. And I drew attention to T.F. Torrance’s claim that everything for the Church depends on Christ’s humanity and substitutionary work. I have spoken a little of the implications of Christ’s humanity. Now let me press a little more on the church’s dependence upon Christ’s substitutionary work, and that by way of offering an essential clarification.

History leaves us with little question about the fact that when the substitutionary elements in Christ’s work are emphasised at the expense of the participatory elements – when, for example, salvation is reduced to an application of Christ’s merits as some sort of external transaction and the grace of union with Christ (of which Calvin was so fond) all but abandoned – then this inevitably sponsors the notion of the Church as a mere institution. [For an antidote, see Mike Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology, and Todd Billings’ Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ, and Braaten’s & Jenson’s Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther]. It is this element of participation that I have been trying to emphasise here precisely because the implications of such a doctrine for pastoral practice and identity are so radically fruitful and liberating.

But lest we distort or impose limits upon the richness of Christ’s person and undermine his call to discipleship, we might also highlight the sense in which service is also a response to the love of God in Christ. But here again, the reality and form of this service is grounded in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (see T.F. Torrance’s article on ‘Service in Jesus Christ’ published in Theological Foundations for Ministry). In other words, the response of the creature is constituted in and made possible by participation with Christ. To confess that service is the response to the love of God, therefore, is to confess that service is determined by the relationship established with and maintained by God, and not by any outcomes. Put differently, Christian service is, from first to last, about grace. Service, therefore, cannot stand on its own outside of the God-human relation (which itself in constituted in the hypostatic union). Little wonder then that service for service’s sake finally results in boredom and despair, and that preachers that seek to ‘whip-up’ the faithful by throwing them back upon their own resources participate in murder rather than resurrection. This reminds us too that service is not about servitude, but about freedom and the movement of love. It also recalls God’s provision of powers for service, and that Christ’s servants ought not assume authority for the service they undertake nor are they responsible for any results that arise. They must look for no reward beyond the joy of the relation itself.

This is only possible because in the incarnation of the Word God has undertaken to wear our humanity, to heal our brokenness and to put to death the idolatry that reigns from within the depths of human existence. Only in the humanity of God, therefore, lies the creative ground and source of true diakonia. And it is at this point that we finally come to where we might have begun: with baptism, and to the stunning truth that baptism is ordination to ministry. Indeed, baptism reminds us – among other things – of the fact that ministry is what the whole people of God is called to. The ‘Book of Order’ of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand puts it thus: ‘Baptism invites us to share in God’s mission through our own vocation and commitment to God’s new and coming world. This vocation and commitment take shape in a range of occupations and activities in society’

Eugene Peterson once wrote:

‘The biblical fact is there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades’. – Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), 2.

So the need to keep recalling the truth proclaimed in baptism, including the truth that the tools for Christian ministry are to be found underwater. Learning to breathe underwater, then, is the challenge of being Church.


Other posts in this series:

[Image: Time]

Around: ‘Love seeketh not itself to please’

‘The Clod and the Pebble’

‘Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.’

So sung a little clod of clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

‘Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.’

Where is Jesus?

‘Jesus is in the neighbourhood of God the Father and so when we stand where Jesus is we too are in that neighbourhood and we learn his language of his relation to God the Father.  But the incarnate Jesus is also in the neighbourhood of the chaos and the suffering of the world – a world he has entered to transform.  It’s a dimension of baptism vividly captured in the visual and verbal imagery of the Orthodox Church which sees the descent of Jesus into the baptismal water of Jordan as a descent into the chaos, into the unformed reality which swills around just below the surface of the ordinary world.  To speak in those terms is really to paraphrase the epigram which I think originates with the great Irish Benedictine, Columba Marmion.  He spoke about Christ being simultaneously in sinu Patris and in sinu peccatoris: in the bosom of the Father and in the bosom of the sinner.  Christ is simultaneously in the neighbourhood of the Father and in the neighbourhood of the sinner, the formlessness, the shapelessness and dissolution, the dis-integrity of creation.  He is in the heart of both realities, simultaneously.  And that, of course, suggests that when we as baptized persons come to be in the neighbourhood of Jesus, that same dual proximity is what we have to get used to.  We are in the neighbourhood of God the Father indeed, and pray the prayer that the Spirit enables: Abba, Father.  But we are also in proximity to the world into which Jesus descended; in proximity to the chaos and the formlessness of fallen creation.

And it is of course that two-sided dimension of baptism which stops the baptismal identity simply being static or exclusive, ‘religious’ in all the worst possible senses.  It means that we can only be confident of our proximity to God the Father in Jesus if we’re also alert and awake to the proximity of chaos.  Our baptismal solidarity with Jesus Christ means that we are in solidarity with all the fellow Christians we never chose to be in fellowship with (always one of the most difficult bits of Christian identity) but it also means that we’re in solidarity with an unlimited variety of human experience that relates to the darkness and the chaos into which Jesus descends in his incarnation.  We are in the neighbourhood of a darkness inside and outside the Church, inside and outside our own hearts.  In sinu peccatoris: in the bosom—the heart—of what sin means.

So the identity of the baptized is not first and foremost a matter of some exclusive relationship to God that keeps us safe, as opposed to the rest of the vulnerable and unlucky world.  It is at one and the same time living both in the neighbourhood of the Father and in the neighbourhood of darkness.  That is why we speak of being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, not simply baptized as a mark of our affinity or alignment with Jesus in a general way, not baptized as an external sign that we more or less agree with what Jesus says.  Our baptism is a stepping-into Jesus’ place with all that that entails.  And it means that Christian baptismal identity is—again at one and the same time—both a depth of human experience that brings us into at least the potential of intense, transfiguring love, the Trinitarian love in which Jesus himself lives, and a continuing experience of expectation, humility, penitence and hope.  The experience of the baptized is not the experience of endings, but of repeated new beginnings.  We don’t simply acquire a relationship with God the Father which then requires us to do nothing more.  On the contrary, to be baptized is to be constantly re-awakening our expectation, our penitence, our protest, our awareness that the chaos and darkness of the world is not what God wills; our awareness that we are colluding with that state of chaos which God does not will.  So as baptized persons we look constantly into ourselves, rediscovering over and over again the hope that comes out of true repentance.

That, I suggest, is somewhere near the heart of what the identity of the baptized is.  And lest you should think that’s just a twenty-first-century perspective, I refer you to (among many other texts) what St Augustine had to say about baptism in some of his great treatises and letters on the subject.  St Augustine, confronted with people who seemed to be inclined to regard baptism as a badge of having ‘arrived’, would refer back to the fact that baptized people say the Lord’s Prayer.  That is in fact one of the most distinctive things that baptized people do, because they call God ‘Father’.  And in that baptismal prayer that Jesus gave us, we say, ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’.  Why do we bother to say this (says Augustine) if baptism is simply the badge of having arrived?  When we meet a Christian who is inclined to treat baptism in that way, just remind them of the Lord’s Prayer.  In slightly different terms you can say baptism is the beginning of a ‘baptismal narrative’, a story of discovering and rediscovering through failure and restoration, just what it is to live in the place where Jesus lives.’ — Rowan Williams, ‘”The Fellowship of the Baptized”- The John Coventry Memorial Address’.

Markus Barth on ‘Baptism in the New Testament and Today’

In 1970, Markus Barth gave a series of lectures at Pittsburgh University on ‘Baptism in the New Testament and Today’. Here’s the links to the audios:

[HT: Matthew Montonini]

Thinking with Calvin about the relationship between pulpit, font and table

I’ve just finished giving some lectures on Calvin, part of which consisted of some reflections on Calvin’s understanding of the relationship between pulpit, font and table. I recalled how when Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541, he sought to make the Lord’s Supper the defining centre of community life. His Catechism of the Church of Geneva, penned in 1545 (the year before Luther died), outlines Calvin’s notion that the institution of the signs of water, bread and wine was fashioned by God’s desire to communicate to us, and that God does this by ‘making himself ours’. The signs testify to divine accommodation, to God ‘teaching us in a more familiar manner that he is not only food to our souls, but drink also, so that we are not to seek any part of spiritual life anywhere else than in him alone’. But the signs are not only God’s. They are also human actions, faith’s testimony to the Church’s cruciform identity in the world, to its belonging, its ontology. Moreover, font and table remain places of privilege where believers expect to see, taste, hear and touch the Word’s carnality in ways not expected elsewhere. The drama performed around font and table constitutes the activity of the Church which, together with its pulpit, ‘proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes’. The sacraments ‘derive their virtue from the word when it is preached intelligently’. In his Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, written while in Strasbourg but with an eye on Geneva (where it was printed), Calvin further expanded themes introduced in his Strasbourg liturgy, notably a more christologically-determined epistemology and doctrine of assurance, and the claim that the ‘substance of the sacraments is the Lord Jesus’ himself:

Jesus Christ is the only food by which our souls are nourished; but as it is distributed to us by the word of the Lord, which he has appointed an instrument for that purpose, that word is also called bread and water. Now what is said of the word applies as well to the sacrament of the Supper, by means of which the Lord leads us to communion with Jesus Christ. For seeing we are so weak that we cannot receive him with true heartfelt trust, when he is presented to us by simple doctrine and preaching, the Father of mercy, disdaining not to condescend in this matter to our infirmity, has been pleased to add to his word a visible sign, by which he might represent the substance of his promises, to confirm and fortify us by delivering us from all doubt and uncertainty.

Calvin contended that ‘the singular consolation which we derive from the Supper’ is that it ‘directs and leads us’ to Christ, attesting to the truth that ‘having been made partakers of the death and passion of Jesus Christ, we have everything that is useful and salutary to us’. So in the 1536 edition of the Institutes, Calvin defines sacrament as ‘an outward sign’ which testifies to God’s grace, and which ‘never lacks a preceding promise but is rather joined to it by way of appendix, to confirm and seal the promise itself, and to make it as it were more evident to us’.

Calvin begins his Summary of Doctrine concerning the Ministry of the Word and the Sacraments with the statement that ‘The end of the whole Gospel ministry is that God, the fountain of all felicity, communicate Christ to us who are disunited by sin and hence ruined, that we may from him enjoy eternal life’. And Calvin proceeds to outline that this communication of Christ – which is both ‘incomprehensible to human reason’ and ‘effected by the Holy Spirit’ – is made possible because of God’s desire to ‘communicate himself to us’ through the same Spirit, and involves us being joined to Christ our Head, ‘not in an imaginary way, but most powerfully and truly, so that we become flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone’. This union is effected by the Spirit who, in Calvin’s words, ‘uses a double instrument, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments’. Moreover, Calvin imagines that the union of believers with Christ involves ‘two ministers, who have distinct offices’. There is (i) the ‘external minister’ who ‘administers the vocal word’ which is ‘received by the ears’ and ‘the sacred signs which are external, earthly and fallible’, and (ii) there is the ‘internal minister’, the Holy Spirit who ‘freely works internally’ to truly communicate ‘the thing proclaimed through the Word, that is Christ’.

Implicit here is the weight which Calvin places on the event of the Supper as a whole, and not just on the sacramental hosts. So Trevor Hart:

It is the ‘ceremony’ as such which constitutes the wider ‘sign’ within which the particular signifying power of bread and wine is located. And the ceremony is, of course, a synthesis in which objects, actions and words are juxtaposed and related to one another. So, while Calvin insists that the material signs are vital, he also refuses to detach their meaning from the accompanying immaterial symbolics of narrative. The bread and wine are ‘seals’ and ‘confirmations’ of a promise already given, and make sense only when faith apprehends them as such. There must therefore always be some preaching or form of words which interprets the ‘bare signs’ and enables us to make sense of them, and the ‘faith’ which apprehends them, while not mere intellectual assent, has nonetheless a vital cognitive dimension (Inst. IV.xvii.39) … This does not, it should be noted, reduce the elements to dispensable visual aids, as if the essential meaning of the Supper could be conveyed equally well in their absence. Calvin’s choice of similes is helpful here. Certain sorts of images (in our day we might cite photographic as well as painted images) may well require some verbal context before we can make appropriate sense of them, yet when viewed in this context they undoubtedly possess a power or force of their own which transcends the limits of meaning to which words alone may take us.

Clearly, for Calvin, the sacraments are essentially another form of the word. They are, after Augustine, the verbum visibile (‘a visible word’), ‘God’s promises as painted in a picture’ and set before our sight. They confer neither more nor less than the Word, and they have the same function as the Word preached and written: to offer and present Christ to us. They are, just as preaching is, the ‘vehicle of Christ’s self-communication … the signs are nothing less than pledges of the real presence [of Christ]; indeed, they are the media through which Christ effects his presence to his people’. And they constitute – no less than preaching – the Church’s ministry of the Word.

The separation of pulpit, font and table, and the prioritising of ‘words’ over the proclamation activities of baptism and eucharist, betray a failure to understand how these three particular activities might inform – and be informed by – theories of semiotics, ritual, dramaturgy and the sociology of knowledge. It is also, and more urgently, a failure to understand the nature and witness of Word in the Church’s ‘two marks’, and of the way the Spirit functions to create faith is us and to make us ‘living members of Christ’. And this has, consequently, sponsored both disproportion between word and sacrament, and a tendency towards binitarianism, both to the detriment of Reformed worship and ecclesiology. Certainly, preaching and the proclamation activities of font and table constitute two parts of the one action. A ‘low’ view of one results in a ‘low’ view of the other. As Joseph Small has noted: ‘If word and sacraments together are the heart of the church’s true and faithful life, neglect of one leads inexorably to deformation of the other, for when either word or sacrament exists alone it soon becomes a parody of itself … Reformed neglect of the sacraments has led to a church of the word alone, a church always in danger of degenerating into a church of mere words’. Why a community claiming to be concerned with the proclamation of God’s good news would neglect to taste the Word in the Supper each time it gathers to hear the Word expounded in human speech truly is an oddity.

While Calvin argued that ‘it would be well to require that the Communion of the Holy Supper of Jesus Christ be held every Sunday at least as a rule’, forlornly, many Reformed churches have propagated a situation wherein the pulpit and its associated wordiness have eclipsed the sacraments, sponsoring an arid intellectualism which has turned the worshipping community into ‘a class of glum schoolchildren’. It is not uncommon to witness Baptism’s reduction to little more than a welcoming ceremony, for the Supper to be celebrated infrequently, and even for fonts and tables to be discarded in favour of a pulpit which stands unbefriended in the centre of the chancel. In more appalling cases, the pulpit has joined font and table as relics on the sidelines, casualties of modernity’s techno gods.

Calvin, conversely, placed sacrament and word together at the heart of the community’s life not because he was a dreary traditionalist or obstructionist but because he ‘regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace’. In other words, pulpit, font, scripture and table function alike as witness to the Word who is the life of the world: (i) proclaiming in bold relief the gospel of Christ in whom we have true knowledge of God, and (ii) communicating Christ’s real presence to us, uniting us to Christ in the power of the Spirit ‘who makes us partakers in Christ’. So Calvin: ‘I say that Christ is the matter or (if you prefer) the substance of all the sacraments; for in him they have all their firmness, and they do not promise anything apart from him’.

I could have gone on (and on, and on) about Calvin, and to recall words from others too who further echo Calvin’s heart on these matters, but even lectures on Calvin must come to an end. Anyway, had I gone on, I may have invited reflection on these two passages:

‘[We understand] the sacraments as pieces of earthly stuff that are meeting places with this [triune] God who exists in ecstatic movements of love. They are doors into the dance of perichoresis in God. [They are a means] of God’s gracious coming and dwelling with us. They are signs which enable us to participate in the drama of death and resurrection which is happening in the heart of God. We share in death as we share in the broken body of the bread and the extravagantly poured out wine, and as we are covered with a threat of hostile waters. We share in life as we come out from under the waters … to take our place in the new community of the body of Christ, and to be filled with the new wine of the Spirit. – Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2000), 281.

‘Both sacraments [Baptism and the Lord’s Supper] declare the gospel of participation in the perfect worship of the Son, who has accomplished what we could not accomplish. When we receive the bread and wine at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we echo the cry of Jesus on the cross: ‘It is finished!’ Christ has done what I could never do … But we do more than engage in a memorial service! The word anamnesis, which translates into remembrance, has rich meaning…[conveying] a sense of re-living the past as if it were real today … Not only do we participate in shared and thankful remembrance of Christ’s perfect self-offering on our behalf, but we also participate in Christ’s continuing self-offering of himself on our behalf. We do not remember just the Christ of history – we remember the living Christ today, and the Christ who carries us into the future … The sacrament powerfully draws past, present, and future together in the life of the faith-community’. – Graham Buxton, Dancing in the Dark: The Privilege of Participating in the Ministry of Christ (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001), 137–8.

A Script to Live (and to Die) By: 19 Theses by Walter Brueggemann

These 19 theses by Walter Brueggemann are the most interesting thing I’ve read all day [to be sure, it’s been a bit of an admin marathon today], an encouraging invitation to those of us striving to live by, and to train others to live by, what Brueggemann calls ‘the alternative script’:

1.        Everybody lives by a script. The script may be implicit or explicit. It may be recognised or unrecognised, but everybody has a script.

2.        We get scripted. All of us get scripted through the process of nurture and formation and socialisation, and it happens to us without our knowing it.

3.         The dominant scripting in our society is a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socialises us all, liberal and conservative.

4.        That script (technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism) enacted through advertising and propaganda and ideology, especially on the liturgies of television, promises to make us safe and to make us happy.

5.        That script has failed. That script of military consumerism cannot make us safe and it cannot make us happy. We may be the unhappiest society in the world.

6.        Health for our society depends upon disengagement from and relinquishment of that script of military consumerism. This is a disengagement and relinquishment that we mostly resist and about which we are profoundly ambiguous.

7.        It is the task of ministry to de-script that script among us. That is, to enable persons to relinquish a world that no longer exists and indeed never did exist.

8.        The task of descripting, relinquishment and disengagement is accomplished by a steady, patient, intentional articulation of an alternative script that we say can make us happy and make us safe.

9.        The alternative script is rooted in the Bible and is enacted through the tradition of the Church. It is an offer of a counter-narrative, counter to the script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism.

10.    That alternative script has as its most distinctive feature – its key character – the God of the Bible whom we name as Father, Son, and Spirit.

11.    That script is not monolithic, one dimensional or seamless. It is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent. Partly it is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because it has been crafted over time by many committees. But it is also ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because the key character is illusive and irascible in freedom and in sovereignty and in hiddenness, and, I’m embarrassed to say, in violence – [a] huge problem for us.

12.    The ragged, disjunctive, and incoherent quality of the counter-script to which we testify cannot be smoothed or made seamless because when we do that the script gets flattened and domesticated and it becomes a weak echo of the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism. Whereas the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism is all about certitude, privilege, and entitlement this counter-script is not about certitude, privilege, and entitlement. Thus care must be taken to let this script be what it is, which entails letting God be God’s irascible self.

13.    The ragged, disjunctive character of the counter-script to which we testify invites its adherents to quarrel among themselves – liberals and conservatives – in ways that detract from the main claims of the script and so to debilitate the focus of the script.

14.    The entry point into the counter-script is baptism. Whereby we say in the old liturgies, “do you renounce the dominant script?

15.    The nurture, formation, and socialisation into the counter-script with this illusive, irascible character is the work of ministry. We do that work of nurture, formation, and socialisation by the practices of preaching, liturgy, education, social action, spirituality, and neighbouring of all kinds.

16.    Most of us are ambiguous about the script; those with whom we minister and I dare say, those of us who minister. Most of us are not at the deepest places wanting to choose between the dominant script and the counter-script. Most of us in the deep places are vacillating and mumbling in ambivalence.

17.    This ambivalence between scripts is precisely the primary venue for the Spirit, so that ministry is to name and enhance the ambivalence that liberals and conservatives have in common that puts people in crisis and consequently that invokes resistance and hostility.

18.    Ministry is to manage that ambivalence that is crucially present among liberals and conservatives in generative faithful ways in order to permit relinquishment of [the] old script and embrace of the new script.

19.    The work of ministry is crucial and pivotal and indispensable in our society precisely because there is no one except the church and the synagogue to name and evoke the ambivalence and to manage a way through it. I think often I see the mundane day-to-day stuff ministers have to do and I think, my God, what would happen if you took all the ministers out. The role of ministry then is as urgent as it is wondrous and difficult.

[These theses were presented at the Emergent Theological Conversation, September 13-15, 2004, All Souls Fellowship, Decatur, GA., USA]

Thinking baptism

Since the birth of his daughter Aurora, Byron Smith has been posting some great little reflections on baptism, on whether to dunk, dip, douse or dribble?, and his latest on timing and why parents should not wait:

… when it comes to baptism, church family trumps blood family. No waiting until great aunt Gertrude can make it up from the farm; the child is welcomed immediately by and into the congregational family at their next major gathering. And this makes good sense. If children are to be welcomed into the household of God so that they are always raised within the Christian faith (as the practice of baptising infant baptism implies), then to be consistent, this baptismal welcome should occur as soon as possible …

Therefore, resolve to make your arrangements for a baptismal celebration prior to the birth. Expectant parents often spend hours researching prams and selecting nursery colours. Why not also (instead?) put some time into making preparations for the child’s spiritual growth? Settle your conscience on the good gift of infant baptism. Meet with your priest or minister to discuss any concerns and to ensure you understand what baptism means and how it will work. Think about godparents early (and remember, godparenting is not primarily a chance to honour your closest friends, but a responsibility for those who will be faithful in prayer and example, taking the lead in discharging the duty and privilege of the whole church family in raising a new child in the faith and love of Christ). Check your church has a font or pool large enough for the infant to be dipped into. Have your child baptised at the first service available after their birth. And read your prayer book.

Great stuff Byron.

Weekly wanderings

Lindis Pass

Thomas Long on Christian funerals

Accompany Them with SingingThere is a genuine sense in which every act of worship is a funeral, entailing acts of judgement and the declaration of God’s hope for humanity in Jesus Christ. That said, it’s really not easy finding good books about funerals (though I am always open to suggestions). And that’s why I’m encouraged by the appearance of Thomas Long‘s new book Accompany Them with Singing. I ordered my copy today, but while I’m waiting for it to arrive, here’s a few tasters:

Accompany them with singing

In a funeral, what is true about all worship, namely, that the gospel story is reenacted in dramatic form, comes to particular focus around the occasion of a death. The major theme of a funeral is the gospel story, and the life story of the person who has died is a motif running through this larger theme; perhaps more precisely, a funeral is about the intertwining of these two narratives. At a funeral, the faithful community gathers to enact the promises of the gospel and the convictions of the Christian faith about life and death, as they are refracted through the prism of the life of the one who has died.

To say that a funeral is a gospel liturgical drama seems simple and true, but this is precisely one of the aspects of the Christian funeral most obscured and crusted over by so many contemporary funeral customs. When it is clear that the funeral is a dramatic reenactment of the gospel, this shines a bright light on what a funeral is not. Despite popular misconceptions, a funeral is not primarily a quiet time when people gather to reflect on the legacy of the deceased, a devotional service dealing with grief, a show of community support for the mourning family, or even a “celebration of life.” Good funerals, in fact, do all of these things – console the grief-stricken, remember and honor the deceased, display community care, and give thanks for all the joys and graces experienced in the life of the one who has died. But these are some of the consequences of a good funeral, not its central meaning or purpose.

The funeral as drama

While it is true that the gospel is proclaimed in the words of the funeral, it is also true that the gospel is proclaimed in the actions of the funeral. The whole funeral, as an act of drama growing out of baptism, proclaims the gospel.

When a Christian dies, the church gathers to act out the story of what this death means in the light of the gospel, but it is a story that began long before the person died. It is a story that began at baptism. Since a funeral is built on the foundation of baptism, we cannot fully grasp the dramatic aspects of a funeral without seeing them in baptism as well, and it is there that we must begin.

On the banks of Louisiana’s Ouachita River, the congregation of St. Paul’s Baptist Church, an African American congregation, gathers every year, after several days of fervent prayer meetings and vigorous revival preaching, to baptize new converts to the Christian faith. The older members of the church call this spot on the river “the old burying ground,” because of what Paul said about baptism: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Here, in the flowing currents of the Ouachita, sinners are plunged beneath the waters symbolically to die with Christ, to be washed clean, and to be raised up to a new way of life.

On those days when the congregation of St. Paul’s gathers for baptism, the Ouachita River is, of course just the Ouachita, but in the drama of baptism it becomes much more. It is the Red Sea, the waters through which the children of Israel passed on their way to freedom and to the promised land. On baptism day, the Ouachita is also the Jordan River, the place of Jesus’ baptism, and it is the “river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev. 22:1) through the heavenly city. “We gather here on this old river that drifts into the sea,” said the pastor of St. Paul’s, standing hipdeep in the water one baptismal day, “because we have come back here. Things may have changed uptown; banks may have gone out; shopping centers may have closed, but this old river just keeps on. So we thought the church would come back here and tell the Lord, we thank him for this old river.”

The candidates for baptism, wearing cotton robes sewn especially for them by the older women in the congregation, “the mothers of the church,” stand on the riverbank waiting. At the beckoning of the pastor, the deacons take each of them by the hand, one by one, and lead them down into the river, as the congregation sings old hymns and spirituals like “Take me to the water; take me to the water; take me to the water to be baptized.”

When those baptized come out of the river, they are taken to an improvised dressing room, from which they emerge dressed in dazzling white “Sunday clothes,” and they go back to the river to sing and pray while others are baptized. Then the whole congregation goes back to the church building for a festive ceremony in which these new Christians are “fellowshipped into the church.”

Notice that the Baptists of St. Paul’s Church don’t just talk about their convictions concerning baptism; they act them out in a dramatic piece of what could be called Christian community theater there on the river. Baptism is about dying and rising with Christ. Baptism is about being washed clean from sin. Baptism is about being welcomed into a community of the faithful as a brother or sister in Christ. Baptism is about responding to a holy call and setting out on an adventure of faith. Every one of these claims about baptism, and more, is acted out in the drama of the baptismal service.

The same is true whenever and wherever baptism is performed. Whether it is the Baptists assembled on the banks of the muddy Ouachita or a Lutheran congregation around the font in a candle-lit church in Wisconsin or an assembly of Catholics observing the sacrament of baptism in a Texas cathedral, though the details may differ, the essential baptismal drama is the same. In the waters of baptism — river, lake, pool, or font — Christians “die” to the old self, and emerge from the waters to set out on a journey of new life. One of the earliest names for the Christian movement was “the Way” (Acts 9:2), because the faith was not understood as a set of ideas or intellectual beliefs, but as a journey down a road, a way of life. Just as Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters of the Jordan River and set out on the road to the cross, just so, Christians pass through the waters of baptism and begin to travel, following in the path of Jesus. Christians do not take this road alone, but, as the baptismal drama makes plain, they travel in the company of the saints. Those being baptized are visibly and audibly surrounded by the faithful, who pray and sing these new Christians along their baptismal way. The prayer for the baptismal journey in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer points toward the road: “Send them into the world in witness to your love,” and then names the destination, “Bring them to the fullness of your peace and glory.” The church promises in the words of the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, “to guide and nurture [them] by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ.”

A Christian funeral is a continuation and elaboration of the baptismal service. If baptism is a form of worshipful drama performed at the beginning of the Christian life, a funeral is — or should be — an equally dramatic, and symmetrical, performance of worship performed at the end of life. When Christians traveling along the baptismal path die, the company of the faithful who were there to guide them at the beginning are also there to carry them at the end. In baptism, new Christians are “buried with Christ by baptism into death,” and they come up from the waters raised to “walk in newness of life.” In funerals, these same Christians, having traveled the pilgrim way, are once again buried with Christ in death in the sure confidence that they will be raised to new life. In baptism, the faithful sang them into this new way of life; now they gather around to sing them to God in death. Just as they washed the new Christian in the waters of baptism, they now lovingly wash the body of the deceased. Just as they adorned the newly baptized Christian with the garments of Christ, they now adorn the deceased in clothes fitting to meet God and perhaps place a pall, a symbol of the garments of baptism, over the coffin. As the church has been traveling with the baptized saint along the road of faith, the church now walks with the deceased on “the last mile of the way” to the place of farewell.

The funeral, then, is not just a collection of inspiring words said on the occasion of someone’s death. It is, rather, a dramatic event in which the church acts out what it believes to be happening from the perspective of faith. In this sense, a Christian funeral is a piece of theater, but it has more in common with ancient forms of religious drama than with popular theater. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum once contrasted ancient Greek drama with more contemporary Broadway style theater. Today, observed Nussbaum, a playgoing audience sits quietly in a darkened theater, “in the illusion of splendid isolation,” and watches the actors perform on a stage “bathed in artificial light, as if it were a separate world of fantasy and mystery.” Not so in ancient Greece. Greek plays “took place during a solemn civic/religious festival, whose trappings made spectators conscious that the values of the community were being examined and communicated.” Also, the plays were performed in broad daylight and “in the round,” that is, in the midst of the community. People could look across the stage and see the faces of their neighbors and fellow citizens on the other side. “To respond to these events,” says Nussbaum, “was to acknowledge and participate in a way of life.” Greek drama, like other forms of art, “was thought to be practical, aesthetic interest a practical interest—an interest in the good life and in communal self-understanding. To respond in a certain way was to move already toward this greater understanding.”

Just so, at a funeral the congregation does not gather as an audience to hear and see a production performed “on stage” at the front of the church or funeral home chapel. In fact, the congregation at a funeral is not an “audience” at all; they are the actors, and they are themselves on stage, moving and gesturing at the right times; singing, speaking, and praying their lines in the great drama of death and life. “[A]ll Christians are performers,” claims [theologian Shannon] Craigo-Snell, “and the entire Christian life is a performance in which we attempt to enact and create the events called for by the script/Scripture. Those who sit in the rear pew on Sunday mornings are no less actors than the clergy up front.” Even those neighbors, friends, and family members who are not a part of the church but who have come for this funeral are welcomed with the hospitality of God and invited to take up powerful roles in this drama.

[HT: Faith and Leadership]


Baptism, ordination and God’s calling forth of faith

ServantBen’s recent post on Baptism and ordination reminded me of some stuff that Ray Anderson once prepared on the relationship between the two. Anderson cautioned that we understand ‘ordination’ not only in relation to baptism, but also in relation to God’s work of calling forth faith, God’s work of guiding and enabling the whole community of faith, God’s care for all people. Ordination must be seen in the light of this broader movement of the divine will – that is, in the context of God’s good purposes for creation. So, the ministry to which a pastor is ordained is deeply and inherently about a life in God, and it means participation in that life. This means that ordination makes no sense not merely apart from baptism but – and more fundamentally – apart from Jesus Christ, and apart from his service to the Father on behalf of the world. So T.F. Torrance (who is not a particularly great friend of Ben’s):

Christ was Himself the diakonos par excellence whose office it was not only to prompt the people of God in their response to the divine mercy and to be merciful themselves, not only to stand out as the perfect model or example of compassionate service to the needy and distressed, but to provide in Himself and in His own deeds of mercy the creative ground and source of all such diakonia. He was able to do that because in Him God Himself condescended to share with men their misery and distress, absorbed the sharpness of their hurt and suffering into Himself, and poured Himself out in infinite love to relieve their need, and He remains able to do that because He is Himself the outgoing of the innermost Being of God toward men in active sympathy and compassion, the boundless mercy of God at work in human existence, unlimited in His capacity to deliver them out of all their troubles. – Thomas F. Torrance, ‘Service in Jesus Christ’ in Theological Foundations for Ministry: Selected Readings for a Theology of the Church in Ministry (ed. Ray S. Anderson; Edinburgh/Grand Rapids: T&T Clark/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), 718.

Ben’s post, and the comments that follow (particularly those from the Revd Bruce Hamill who laments ordination ‘to a kind of generic “leadership” which covers all the bases of being a “professional Christian”), reminded me of a powerful essay that I read just last week by Dietrich Bonhoeffer wherein he warns against leadership becoming vested in the concept of the Leader (der Führer), where the humanity of the leader becomes concealed in a role:

Where there is community there is leadership … The group is the womb of the Leader. It gives him everything, even his authority. It is his person to which all the authority, all the honour and all the glory of the group is transferred. The Leader holds no office independent of the group. The group expects the Leader who derives from the group in this way to be the bodily incorporation of its ideal. This task, impossible in itself, is made easier for the Leader by the fact that the group which produced him now sees him already bathed completely in the light of its ideals. It sees him, not in his reality but in his vocation. It is essential for the image of the Leader that the group does not see the face of the one who goes before, but sees him only from behind as the figure stepping out ahead. His humanity is veiled in his Leader’s form … The Leader is what no other person can be, an individual, a personality. The relationship between those led and their leader is that the former transfer their own rights to him. It is this one form of collectivism which turns into intensified individualism. For that reason, the true concept of community, which rests on responsibility, on the recognition that individuals belong responsibly one to another, finds no fulfillment here. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘The Nazi Rise to Power’ in No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes from the Collected Works (ed. John Bowden; London: Collins, 1970), 191, 192, 195.

Now I really need to get back to my reading on Celtic Christianity … some of us have lectures to prepare.

Thinking baptism … and formation

underwater-sculpture-parkToday, Halden (pbuh) had me thinking about baptism. I had this – or at least something like it – to contribute:

Baptism is both God’s sign to humanity that we have been redeemed by Christ, and humanity’s sign to God that we are willing partners in God’s work of reconciliation. Baptism, in other words, finds its basis in the hypostatic union through which God draws near to humanity and humanity draws near to God. Jesus Christ is the one mediator between God and humanity. It is the prius of the divine ecomony in the incarnation that baptism testifies chiefly to, and not to any subjective attainment of our confession, which might change. To put it another way, baptism is nothing less than our participation in the full and vicarious humanity of the Son of God.

This then got me thinking about the relationship between baptism and formation, at which point I recalled Bonhoeffer’s words:

Formation comes only by being drawn into the life of Jesus Christ. It comes only as formation in His likeness, as conformation with the unique form of Him who was made man, was crucified and rose again. This is not achieved by dint of efforts ‘to become like Jesus’ … It is achieved only when the form of Jesus Christ himself works upon us in such a manner that moulds our form in its own likeness (Gal 4.19). It is not Christian men who shape the world with their ideas, but it is Christ who shapes men in conformity with Himself. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (ed. Eberhard Bethge; trans. N.H. Smith; London: SCM, 1955), 18.

[Image: Jason deCaires Taylor]

Baptism: An Evangelical Sacrament – A Series

Here is a list of posts on my series Baptism: An Evangelical Sacrament.

The decay of a real belief in baptism

‘The decay of a real belief in Baptism, the vogue of mere dedication services, and such-like decencies, which can be made family festivals, and are no part of a Church’s confession, is a chief reason why the Churches are listless in the care of the child, and why they leave it haphazard to those who are fond of that kind of thing.’ P. T. Forsyth, ‘The Church and the Children.’ Letter. British Weekly, 15 May 1913, 169.

Baptism – an Evangelical Sacrament Part 7 (final)

I began this 7-part series by quoting a portion of Scripture from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and I have tried to show in this paper how that one baptism in this Pauline passage, points directly to Jesus Christ as the one Lord of the Church, for it was through his vicarious activity in life, death and resurrection that the Church came into being. Thus the Church can, and does, baptise, as it is in Christ. Christ himself was both the ontological ground and unifying core of the Church which he appropriated to himself as his own peculiar possession, and identified with himself as his own Body. Hence baptism in his name signified incorporation of the baptised in Christ as members of his body.One the other hand, one baptism pointed to the one Sprit, for it is one Spirit as well as through Christ that the Church has access to the Father. Furthermore, “the Holy Spirit is not only the bond of unity between the three divine Persons in the one being of God, but the bond of unity between God and human beings as they are baptised into the one Lord and are united with him and one another in one faith.”

It would be amiss of me if I did not also speak of the evangelical content of that one baptism, namely, ‘the remission of sins, the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’ (Nicene Creed). The forgiveness of sins was associated with baptism from the very beginning. In baptism we are united to Christ through the Holy Spirit in such a way that we partake of the whole substance of the Gospel, for all grace and truth are embodied in him. In other words, saving grace is not something detached from Christ which can be dispensed at will, but is identical with Christ in the unity of his Person, Word and Act. It is through the one baptism which we have in common with Christ, or rather which he has in common with us, that we share in all that God has in store for us. Because baptism is one (the baptism with which Christ was baptised for our sakes, and the baptism in which we are given to share in all he was, is and will be) to be baptised is much more than to be initiated into the sphere where forgiveness is proclaimed and dispensed in the Church. It is to be ‘delivered from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins’. It is to have our frail transient existence taken up into Christ himself in such a way that, without any loss to our creaturely reality but rather with its perfecting through his Spirit, it is united to God and established in union with his eternal reality.

‘The remission of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come’, belong together to the very core of this mystery, for they are the saving benefits that flow from union with Christ through one baptism and one Spirit, and are enjoyed in one Body. They are not benefits that we may have outside of Christ but only in Christ, and so they may not be experienced in separation from one another for they cohere indivisibly in him. Nor may they be enjoyed in the experience of separated individuals, but only as individuals share together in the one baptism of Christ and his Spirit. People are certainly baptised one by one, yet only in such a way that they are made members of the one Body of Christ, share in his benefits as a whole, and share in them together with all other members of Christ’s Body.

To be united to the crucified and risen Christ through the baptism of his Spirit, necessarily carries with it sharing with him in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Through his incarnation the Son of God took up into himself our physical existence enslaved to sin, thereby making our corruption, death and judgement his own and offering himself as a substitute for us, so that through the atoning sacrifice of his own life, he might destroy the power that corruption and death have over us. And through the resurrection of our physical human nature in himself Christ has set us upon an altogether different basis in relation to God in which there is no longer any place for corruption and death. Thus the central focus of Christian belief is upon the incarnate, crucified and risen Saviour, who is himself the ‘evangelical sacrament’ in whom we participate, for he has penetrated and destroyed the bands of death and brought ‘life and immortality to light’ – that is the forgiveness of sins and resurrection from the dead into which we are once for all baptised by the Holy Spirit. So, far from being just a promise for the future, baptism is an evangelical declaration of what has already taken place in Christ, and in him continues as a permanent triumphant reality throughout the whole course of time to its consummation, when Christ will return with glory in judgement, and to unveil the great regeneration which he has accomplished for the whole creation.

So here and now in the ongoing life of the Church we live in the midst of the advent-presence of Christ, already partaking of this regeneration and sharing in its blessings with one another. Because the Church is the Body of the risen, ascended, and coming, Christ, all that is said about the one baptism is proleptically conditioned by the future. Hence due to its union with Christ through one baptism and one Spirit the Church cannot but look through its participation in the saving death of Christ to its participation in his resurrection from the dead, and thus look forward in expectation to the general resurrection at the return of its risen Lord and Saviour when its whole existence will be transformed and it will enjoy to the full the sanctity and eternal life of God himself. So Paul writes: ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish’.

Baptism – an Evangelical Sacrament Part 6

Here in this penultimate post on baptism, I explore the idea of …

(iii) Baptism as obedience and hope.

There is a place for a truly human response in salvation, objectively made possible by the human response (obedience) of Jesus, and subjectively made possible by the baptism of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:12-13). Thus, baptism carries an imperative, a command of God, to be conformed to the death of Christ and to his Resurrection (Rom. 12:1ff.). To ignore this imperative is to forfeit the place given to our humanity by the work of reconciliation accomplished in Christ. So then it is proper, with Barth, to link baptism with conversion in three ways: (i) as a concrete visible act, by which conversion becomes a matter of public knowledge; (ii) as a social communal act, by which the church as the community of Christ attests to its sanctification and cleansing by the Word and Spirit; and (iii) as a free, obedient act, by which the true beginning of a human decision is directed to its proper goal – Jesus Christ. Thus Barth, rightly, concludes that baptism involves both renunciation and pledge, by which the human act of obedience follows justification and sanctification as the objective grounds for salvation.

But baptism is also a sign of hope. There is a goal announced in baptism that is the eshcaton – the reality sealed by the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The goal of baptism does not lie in its administration in a teleological sense, as though one could produce or determine a ‘result. Rather, the goal is eschatological; baptism directs us to baptism of the Holy Spirit which, as both source and goal, is transcendent and yet present. For as Barth commented,

Now it would obviously be strange if Christian baptism were different from that of John, which Jesus sought and received like all the rest, and after which He was manifested, acknowledged and confirmed from heaven to be the Baptiser with the Holy Ghost and the Son of God. It would be strange if Christian baptism were plainly better and stronger than that of Jesus in the sense that it had its goal somehow within itself, in the faith of the community, in that of the candidates, in an efficacy proper to the act because somehow imparted to it, in a sanctification of those who give baptism by their commission or of those who receive it by a cleansing, endowment or change which they undergo in, with and under the baptismal water. Christian baptism, like John’s, is in no sense a self-sufficient act which is in some way divinely fulfilled or self-fulfilling within itself. Its goal does not lie in its administration. As its genuine goal, its truly divine goal, this goal lies before it, beyond the participants and their action and means if action. Christian baptism, as a human creaturely action, is directed to seek its divine, creative fulfillment in that which it cannot be or achieve or bring about or mediate of itself, but which it can only seek and intend and hasten towards. Baptism with water is a promise entrusted to and enjoined upon the community and those whom it baptises. As such it points forward, away from itself and beyond itself, to its fulfillment in the future baptism with the Holy Spirit. The baptising community and those baptised by it neither can nor should seek in the administration of baptism a present which is somehow enclosed or anticipated in this administration. It must strictly and exclusively intend, affirm and seek only that which is beyond the administration and future to it. When in an action on this side the community baptises, or the candidates are baptised, in prospect of and in orientation to that which is beyond them and their action, and future to them, then baptism corresponds to its institutions, it is done in obedience to the baptismal command, and it is well done; it is Christian baptism, not a Jewish or pagan baptism, both of which seek to be and do more than this, and for this very reason are and so less.

Thus baptism is the foundation of the Christian life from below, in correspondence with its goal as already achieved in the event of redemptive history – God’s act of judgement and grace, of salvation and revelation, through Jesus Christ. The ‘evangelical truth of baptism, therefore, is none other than the God who has acted, and continues to act, in Christ, through whose baptism we are baptised into his Body. It is only in the environment of this baptism that we can speak of the unity of the Community. This is because the function of this baptism is not found primarily in the incorporation of the individual into the corpus ecclesiae, but in the establishment of this unity itself. To ask what I get out of baptism is to ask the wrong question. I am involved, of course, but by virtue of baptism I am destined for membership, for integration into the building of the Community, to renounce my isolation, and to turn to the One who makes me a partner of his covenant in the Community.