The Way of Christ: Episode One

Baptism

Our life in faith begins in baptism. The church has taught for two millennia that an ontological change happens in our baptism, that we are no longer a creature separated from God, but through death and rebirth in Christ we are made new, and so is the world that we live in.

This teaching is no longer cool, because we believe strongly in the goodness of people who are not baptized, even who are not Christian. We also know of terrible people who have been baptized! So how can we still make this claim with any seriousness?

First off, baptism is our outward and visible sign of the death and birth as a new creation into Christ. But, even at that, it is still an act of new birth. We must "grow into the full stature of Christ." We are not born fully grown physically or spiritually.

Secondly, once we are baptized, we have citizenship in the Rule of God, but we may still choose to live in God's will or way. We may also continue to sin willfully, but that does not negate the power of baptism, only our refusal of the grace of new life.

We must grow up as little Christ's. As the church, we must bring up Christians in our life of worship, study, and recreation of the world. We see this clearly in bringing up children, but even for adults we may hide our immaturity, but we still desperately need to grow into life in Christ and his community.

The primary tools of our tradition are liturgical worship centered on the sacraments and daily offices, personal prayer, Bible study, and acts of charity and justice. The emphasis placed in each of these areas will vary from other Christian traditions, and these areas listed do not exhaust the tools of God or the church. Some other tools of formation may include rules of life, meditation or contemplation, ecstatic prayer, fasting, poverty, pilgrimage. In my life, I would add parenting and marriage as tools that God has used in my own maturing process.

But these tools are just the ways we live out our life as baptized members of the Body of Christ. Baptism is our birth and identity; from it and its promises flow our vocations and ministries in life and the church.

Sin

We are not born under the law. We are born into the world without the benefit of law, unless our parents bring us intentionally into the Rule (Kingdom) of God. That is the real mark of infant baptism, that the parents and godparents and community of the church are promising to bring a child up within the church and kingdom of God. That is why we don't rush that commitment.

But whether we are born in the wilds or in the house of God, we all learn quickly how to live in a world of sin. We sin, that is we miss the mark of living into the purpose and desire of God for us. Often people wince at saying that children sin, but no one has to be taught how to hit or be selfish.

We are creatures who must be born of flesh and of water as Jesus told Nicodemus in John's Gospel. We sin, but we are able through the Spirit of God to return to our original purpose of living as God's image in the world (Genesis 2) and God's sons and daughters (John 1).

When we fail to live into that fullness of purpose, we are sinning. We have the law to guide us when we are young, and it is not done away with in Christ, as he said in Matthew 5, but rather it is fulfilled, and as we mature we no longer need it. This is just as it is in life. When we are young we are taught not to steal, but as we mature we no longer need to be told, rather our life moves to easy compliance with the law and then past that to generative creative giving. We no longer feel even desire to steal but rather we freely give to others knowing that as God's children we have all our needs fulfilled in Christ.

Our sins should, legally speaking, disqualify us from life in God because we have rejected and left God's purpose and desire for us. The news bears witness to our state as humanity, as a nation, as people. Our hearts bear witness to our own failures. If they do not, our families and communities can surely name our sins for us! We have not loved God or our neighbors as ourselves. We have done wrong and left good undone.

But God did not abandon us, but rather sent his Son a person of his own essence to bear our sins and death sentence and offer to us his own Rule of Life, new life and creation through his death and resurrection. We are made new in him. We join ourselves to him in baptism, being reborn. The consequences of our sin and our sins then is washed away. We are made free (redeemed) to choose to live in this new life and mature into the full stature of Christ.

This is where it begins. We weekly (or more) reenact our oneness in Christ in consuming his body and blood in the Eucharist, the thanksgiving meal and remembrance of passion and new life. We are made one again weekly in the Lord's Supper, Mass, Communion. But our entrance is the waters of baptism.

God in Christ

Fundamental to our claim as Christians is that we know God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of God. God is as Jesus revealed him through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. God is as Jesus revealed him in his very being.

This is important. Jesus reveals God as a loving Father, who is pleased in Christ, and who is redeeming the world from sin and separation in Christ. God is not some terrible tyrant or impersonal force. God is love, self-sacrificial, self-giving, merciful, forgiving, and making new love. Jesus tells us that God intends for us to be like God in these ways. We are not merely to "believe in" God or Jesus.

We are meant to join our lives to God in Jesus, through baptism and eucharist, love and forgiveness, prayer and charity.

The Problem of Talking about God

All of our speech about God is analogical, which any good book on theology (the formal study of thoughts about God) would point out. We have nothing to compare to God because God is uncreated and does not exist within the limits of the created order. So we have no pure language about God, we have only analogies. We have to use symbols and symbolic language to describe what we experience and come to know about God. And no image or symbol is perfect, which is why we are told to not make an image of God in the Ten Commandments.

As we come together this week, let's agree that we are joining in a conversation that is several thousand years old, and that our language is shaped by that long conversation and formed by the teachings and language of Jesus Christ. We trust his language first, but we can allow some breath too.

Let's be light with our conversation partners. Give each other permission to explore and listen carefully but with grace as we stretch to find expression for our own experiences and knowledge of God. Be kind and listen with a heart full of compassion. Don't try to correct each other, but just listen. Ask gentle questions, if questions arise, and trust the Holy Spirit to work in the process and in us.

Reading for the First Sunday in Lent, 8 March: Matthew 4:1-11

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Reading for the Second Sunday in Lent, 15 March: John 3:1-17

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”


-daniel+