Baptism, mission and human geography (thanks ++Rowan).

I like Rowan Williams!

I think that in his time as ABC he was frequently given an unbelievably hard time by some of the secular atheists. I remember Polly Toynbee writing about him with the most astonishing lack of grace, confident that the object of her ‘critique’ would never answer back, or complain about the unfairness of the vitriol in such attacks.

Equally, Rowan (in my opinion) seldom received the love and loyalty he might have expected from fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I am not saying he was perfect, far from it, but I am saying he was and remains fully human, and therefore deserving of respect, dignity and grace. And, so I was delighted to read his book ‘Being Christian.’ It is brilliant. I thought that some of his comments on what it means to be a baptised Christian are well worth reflecting on. But, just one thought from me:

Williams clearly understands two of Christianity’s  most important motifs; solidarity and community. The question is do we? Baptism requires us to help build, shape and restore (Christian) community, we are able to do so because baptism invites us to stand in solidarity with each and every person. Solidarity and community are two of the hoped for manifestations of grace bestowed on us, through the sacrament of baptism.

So here are six short quotes from Chapter 1 of Being Christian:

‘It means that you might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy. Christians will be found in the neighbourhood of Jesus – but Jesus is found in the neighbourhood of human confusion and suffering, defencelessly alongside those in need. If being baptised is lead to being where Jesus is, then being baptised is being led towards the chaos and neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own identity.’

C.T. Stubbs is reputed to have said that geographically speaking:‘True mission takes place a yard from the gates of hell.’ I am sure Rowan would agree.

‘The baptised life is characterised by solidarity with those in need, and sharing with all others who believe. And, it is characterised by a prayerfulness that keeps courageously going, even when things are difficult and unpromising and unrewarding, simply because you cannot stop the urge to pray. Something keeps coming alive in you never mind the results.’

Williams uses three biblical motifs to illustrate the ‘baptised identity,’ which he also calls the ‘new humanity:’ prophet, priest and king.

Prophet:

‘The prophet, therefore is someone whose role is always to be challenging the community to be what it is meant to be – to live out the gift that God has given to it. And so the baptised person, reflecting the prophetic role of Jesus Christ, is a person who needs to be critical, who needs to be a questioner. The baptised person looks at the Church and may be quite often prompted to say: ‘Have you forgotten what you are here for.’

Priest:

‘Baptised people are drawn into the priestliness of Jesus; they are called upon to mend shattered relationships between God and the world, through the power of Christ and His Spirit. As baptised people we are in the business of building bridges. We are in the business, once again, of seeing situations where there is breakage, damage and disorder, and bringing into these situations the power of God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to rebuild something.’

 King:

‘And, that ‘royal’ calling is about how we shape our lives and our human environment in the direction of God’s justice, showing in our relationships and our engagement in the world something of God’s own freedom, God’s own liberty to heal and restore.’

Finally, ++Rowan reminds us that we are called on to fulfil the destiny ‘offered’ to us through the sacrament of baptism whilst ‘still sinners’ and, that this is possible because through the work of the Spirit we are empowered to: ‘be somewhere near, somewhere in touch with, the chaos in our own lives – because we all live not just with a chaos outside ourselves but with quite a lot of inhumanity and muddle inside us. A baptised Christian ought to be someone who is not afraid of looking with honesty at the chaos inside, as well as being where humanity is at risk, outside.’ Does this characterise your life, individually and communally, in Christ?

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Leaky theology

So how do we, can we, react in the face of  the appalling atrocities committed by ISIS?

On first sight it seems to me we have a series of ‘human’ choices ranging from passive stoicism to demonisation of all who representatives of other faiths and world views, irrespective of their own participation, or non participation, in fostering the escalation of violence and hatred.

These are the easy options, they allow us to trade on our own emotions, ‘sanctifying’ either the alpha or beta stereotypes. They don’t help and they are spiritually unhealthy. They permit the widening of unhealthy spiritual space between ourselves and others. They create the security (and spiritual superiority) of in groups at the expense of the outsider. They add to the pile of captives and refugees; the very people who Christ came to set free. Jesus came from the Jews but as we declare each time we sing evensong he was also a light to the gentiles (and that means you and me!).

Jesus is a porous and leaky saviour.

The genius of passive stoicism and demonisation, by contrast, is that they both remove the requirement to be ‘agents of grace.’

For Christians neither of these extremes carries biblical warrant for, we are called upon to be active agents of grace, mercy and peace – as the opening lines of the Church of England liturgy reminds us each week. Okay, but how does this help you might ask?

Well, the one thing we can do is commit to the widening of spiritual space in the communities where we are graced to live and serve. We can commit to allowing the Spirit, through our attitudes and behaviour, to shape communities characterised by grace, mercy and peace.

This will mean allowing our communities to be constantly re-shaped by those who we perceive as different, perhaps even as less worthy (is there too much Pharisee and not enough tax collector / publican in most of us?)

The implication is that we must allow the Spirit to constantly challenge that which we hold to be true, whilst trusting that the Spirit will also continually strengthen in us the real truths of faith.

Jesus frequently urged those who he had touched to stay put and reflect on the grace they had directly experienced. I suspect his (divine) hope was that, in time, such geographically located followers would lead vibrant Christian communities, ones with leaky and porous boundaries, communities characterised by the divine attributes of ‘grace, mercy and peace.’ Communities where the outsider, captive and refugee experience the hospitality of Christ and, so enthused, say to others:

‘Come this is a place of real acceptance and love.’

How committed are we to creating vibrant and leaky Christian communities?  

Mary, Nicodemus and Andrew – my magnets.

One way of engaging with Scripture is to look into the Bible for characters with whom, for whatever reason, we seem to identify.

In the Gospel stories I find a real point of touch with Andrew (my name!), Nicodemus and, Mary. They act as theological magnets. They draw me into a much larger narrative; maybe this is one of the roles assigned to the ‘communion of saints?’

If we  start with the blessed Andrew we find that there is not much material to work with, and this in itself  is food for thought .In the synoptic Gospels Andrew is presented solely as Peter’s sidekick – his biological brother. John’s gospel ‘bigs’ Andrew up! John only gives us two insights into Andrew, but what insights they are.

In John Chapter 1 verse 4 Andrew makes Jesus wait until he has found his brother Peter, and persuaded him to become a disciple. In the second ‘our hero’ is the disciple who naively believes that Jesus can make something out of a few scraps of fish and a couple of loaves of bread (John 6 verse 8)! Andrew seems to be saying to us ‘look what Jesus can do with seemingly insignificant people and things if you just give them to him for blessing?’  Can we rise to Andrew’s challenge?

Nicodemus might stand as a motif for our times. The intellectual, refined, establishment, public, figure comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness. It is easy to criticise Nicodemus, but perhaps the important point is that Jesus provides the space that allows Nicodemus to approach him ‘under the cover of darkness,’ (John 3 verse 2). Do we – should we- provide potential Nicodemus’ with the cover of darkness? 

Finally Mary, whose birth the Church of England commemorates today. I think in Protestant circles there is a tendency to downplay Mary,to see her merely as the means and not as a person with whom we can identify, or a teacher in her own right. David O’Malley (a Salesian Priest) in Prayers to End the Day provides three ways through which we can identify with, and learn from, Mary.

For those who, in sadness, feel deserted by God – May they find hope through Mary at the foot of the cross.

For those who cannot cope with change – May they find strength in the confusion of Mary at the Annunciation.

For those who have come close to death – May Mary who saw her Son die, give them hope of Resurrection.

I am not suggesting we worship Mary but, I do think we should identify with her and her journey, finding hope in it and learning to trust in Him through it.

One final thought: Mary’s most basic job was to give birth to the Living God, so is ours. Mary is not simply the means, she is the blessed reminder of our most important job as Christians; to give birth to Jesus in this generation.