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The Fellowship of Baptism

 

Wall painting of Paul in Ephesus

“I saw the spirit descend and remaining upon him” – so speaks John the baptizer to his circle of followers about his baptism of Jesus. It is from this circle of John’s followers that Jesus drew his first disciples.

In our reading from the Book of Acts this morning, we hear of an encounter between the apostle Paul and some Christians in Ephesus. Paul asks them if they received the Holy Spirit. They don’t know anything about the Holy Spirit, they had only received John’s baptism. How they had received John’s baptism in Ephesus, when John had already been killed and had done all his baptizing in the Jordan? Perhaps some of John’s disciples who did not become disciples of Jesus had carried on the type of baptism that John had practiced? That’s the most likely explanation I can think of.

 

Paul instructs them that John’s baptism was only a baptism of repentance, only to prepare for the one who was coming. Just as John himself said, “After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.” Interesting here these words of John. He saw deeply into the mystery of Jesus Christ – “he was before me,” yet John was born 6 months before Jesus! Surely John is pointing to an origin beyond human birth. John himself acknowledged that he baptized only with water. Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit!

In Ephesus, Paul met some followers of Christ who had only received the water baptism of John.

This is what was missing in these Christians in Ephesus that Paul encountered. So Paul baptized them in the name of Jesus and the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied – which is what usually happened in those early days when people were baptized. And we must not confuse that with what Pentecostals claim today about speaking in tongues.

Ruins of Ephesus today

But here is today’s message. Baptism is incomplete without the Holy Spirit. Anyone can be baptized in water, in other religions also – but only the Holy Spirit makes a baptism truly a baptism into Christ, into the fullness of life that Jesus Christ brought into the world. This is why the Orthodox Church believes that the gift of the Holy Spirit should not be separated from baptism, but follows immediately after the baptism, even in the baptism of a baby. Our Orthodox practice is theologically and biblically correct; but it has its disadvantages, in that we have neglected to develop a rite of passage when a child or young person reaches the maturity to understand the faith into which he or she was baptised.

Have you ever noticed how the Holy Spirit is referred to in our Liturgy? This is a typical conclusion of a prayer addressed to God the Father: “Through the mercies of your only begotten Son with whom you are blessed, together with your all holy, good and life creating Spirit, now and forever…” Listen in the Liturgy for this and many similar prayers. Even when we give glory to Jesus, we say “together with your Father who is from everlasting and your all holy, good and life creating Spirit…” Life creating, life giving – ζωοποιόν. The Spirit gives life, creates life. When we kneel, we pray that God will send his Holy Spirit “upon us and upon the gifts here presented.” It’s not a magical transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, but a bestowal of life, the life of Christ onto the bread and wine! The Holy Spirit is always life-bestowing, life-creating.

And the fullest blessing in the Liturgy: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” κοινωνία του αγίου Πνεύματος. This is the climax, this is the ultimate gift of the Holy Spirit, and why baptism is incomplete without the Holy Spirit. Fellowship, communion – first with God through Jesus Christ, but also with each other. We are not baptized to be isolated from other believers in Christ. We are baptised into fellowship. We receive the life of Christ with each other and through each other. No one is saved alone! The challenge to every Christian congregation is to experience the fellowship that is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Mark, in his gospel account of the baptism of Jesus, wrote that “the heavens were torn apart” (σχιζομένους). The same verb is used in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 15:38; Matthew 27:51; Luke 23:45)  at the crucifixion of Christ when the veil of the temple was torn in two (εσχίσθη εις δύο).

This use of the same verb, σχίζω/εσχίσθη, is used in all three synoptic Gospels was not accidental, it was intentional in my opinion. First the heavens were torn open to break down the wall between God and humans. That was the beginning of Christ’s mission. Then, at the end of his mission on earth, the curtain in the Temple was torn to symbolise the tearing down of all walls that exist and will be built to separate people from each other and from our God-ordained destiny. I do not understand how any Christian can support the existence or construction of ANY walls, whether physical or mental.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ – the beauty, the χάρις of what Christ did to save us;

The love of God the Father – that sent Christ into the world to bring grace instead of the law;

And the fellowship of the Holy Spirit – the communion with God and with each other that should fill and renew our lives.

That is the blessing, and I greet the new year with that blessing. May it guide us as a community and every one of us as disciples of Christ. Amen.


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Which church will survive?

I came across a provocative article, A Church for Exiles, by Carl Trueman in the August issue of First Things, a periodical of conservative Christian thought. The author of this article sees Christianity overwhelmed by secularism and entering a period of “exile” in the United States. He asks the question as to which church (or Christian tradition) is best equipped to survive in this age of exile. He briefly surveys the situation for Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism (he doesn’t even bother with mainstream Protestantism and he shows no awareness of the Orthodox Church), and then presents the case for his own Reformed tradition. This is the type of Protestantism that originated with Calvin and other Protestant Reformers in the 16th century. This is the type of Christianity practiced by the Pilgrims who established the first colonies in what is today the United States.

According to Trueman, the Reformed Church “cultivates a practical simplicity: Church life centers on the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, prayer, and corporate praise.” I like the idea of “simplicity”; but I find his summary of what is most important to be severely limited. And what exactly does “administration of the sacraments” mean for a church where baptism has been intellectualized and watered down from its original rich cosmic mysticism, and where communion is just the sharing of ordinary bread and grape juice? That’s the answer this author has for the challenge facing Christianity in the 21st century? I find it pretty bland.

The author’s thought becomes even more alienating as he goes on to describe Reformed faith and worship. He offers the following thoughts in response to the question, What about Liturgy?

The Gospel according to the Reformed faith is straightforward: We are dead in sin and need to be united to Christ, the God-man, who lived and died and rose again for us and for our salvation. United with him, we look beyond the ephemera of this world to the eternity beyond.

Reformed worship places the Word at the center because the declaration of the truth of the Gospel is central. Ideally, this truth shapes the liturgical actions of the Reformed community. For example, in the church service, the minister reads the Decalogue and brings words of judgment down on God’s people, reminding them of their death in Adam. He leads them in a corporate confession of sin and then reads words from Scripture, pointing toward the promise in Christ of comfort, forgiveness, and the final ­resurrection to come. Fall, death, forgiveness, resurrection: The basic elements of the Christian message find concise and precise expression in Reformed liturgical practice.

The congregation, reminded of who they are—sinners who stand before God condemned for their ­unrighteousness and uncleanness—receive the promise in Christ that, grasped by faith, seals forgiveness upon their hearts and moves them to praise and thanksgiving.

This singular focus—the drama of sin and redemption inwardly known—is a great boon in times of exile. To retain an identity in the face of a hostile culture, one must belong to a vibrant community of people who know who they are. This is the New Testament pattern of Christianity. When we hear, in clear and unequivocal words, who we are declared to us in the sermon each week and when we participate in liturgical action embodying that identity, we are well prepared for the hostile liturgies and gospels of the world we encounter from Monday to Saturday.

This is the Reformed formula for surviving in this age of exile, to remind people at every service that they are sinners, condemned for all eternity? Isn’t this precisely the reason why so many people reject Christianity? Because of this constant emphasis on sin and sinners? Even the Orthodox Church is not immune to this obsession with sin. The most common way we refer to ourselves in Orthodox services is “us sinners,” “me a sinner,” “I a sinner,” etc. We sing the same Memorial service, with the same prayers for forgiveness of sins, even after the departed has been dead for 50 or 100, or 1,000 years! Don’t you think that at some point we should stop reminding the dead and the living that they are sinners?

Despite this weakness, however, the Orthodox Church does not present the same bleak view of humanity as the Reformed tradition, but instead unfolds a broader vision of Christian essence. Our Liturgy is much richer than what Trueman describes here. The Sermon is not the center of the Liturgy; it’s important, but it’s not the reason for the gathering on a Sunday or feast-day. The Eucharist is the center, the remembrance of Christ’s global significance, his offering of his body and blood not just for my salvation, which is the Reformed preoccupation, but for the salvation of the world! Trueman quotes the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the main summaries of Reformed faith:

What is your only comfort in life and death? That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour ­Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yes, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

It’s me, me, me all the way. Christ died for me. Nothing about the world, nothing about sanctification and transfiguration of the world. What about my neighbor? The Reformed person would answer, he can be saved too, if he accepts the same faith that I have. I find this to be extremely limited and narrow thinking. The Orthodox tradition has a healthier, fuller vision of the world – a world that is not just fallen, but also capable of transfiguration by the sanctifying and deifying presence of Christ and his people. Of course, this Orthodox understanding is often a well-kept secret in our churches, as we become more and more conformed to our own brand of American commercial Christianity. And this brings me to one troubling aspect of Orthodox history.

The Orthodox Church has had a very troubling tendency to accommodate itself to state power. We saw this in the Byzantine Empire, in Czarist Russia, and in all the national churches. In recent decades we’ve seen this in Greece and Serbia, and today we see the Russian Orthodox Church allying itself with the militaristic policies of the Putin government. The Moscow Patriarchate itself is practicing a dirty game of political maneuvering to become Number One in the Orthodox world. Does no one in Moscow ever read the words of Jesus in Luke 22:24-26?

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.

Quite frankly, does anyone in the Orthodox world think of these words when they jostle for rank and order and for proper titles? One would have expected that the Orthodox in America would resist the temptation of acquiescence to state power. After all, America has no tradition of a state church and there is a separation of church and state here – at least in theory and formal law. But here, too, Orthodox hanker for recognition from politicians and for a prominent place at all state functions. This has the effect of making Orthodoxy just another American religion instead of being the transformative message of God’s liberating power over all creation.

Trueman does have wonderful things to say about the Psalms. I can relate to this:

The Psalms’ many notes of lament, of longing for future rest, and of present discomfort and disillusion with the status quo… provides realistic horizons of expectation for this world—and for the next. It gives us a vocabulary with which to praise God in the midst of the contradictions of life… the very songs of David we sing speak of exile—and of hope for the better country we seek.

This recognition of exile and the hope we find in the Psalms… is not so obvious in other Christian traditions. For example, the worship of the American Evangelical Church of the last few decades has been marked by what one might call an aesthetic of power and triumph. Praise bands perform in churches often built to look more like concert venues than traditional places of worship. Rock riffs and power chords set the musical tone. Songs speak of tearing down enemy ­strongholds. Christianity does, of course, point to triumph, but it is the triumph of resurrection, and resurrection presupposes prior suffering and death. An emphasis on triumph, often to the exclusion of lament, will not prepare people for life this side of resurrection glory. It will not prepare us for a life of exile. I fear we are laying the foundations for disillusionment and despair.

These are good thoughts and they are not alien to me as an Orthodox Christian. The Psalms with their contrasting reactions to life in all its joys, sorrows and dangers, are a powerful means of living in this age of exile. One friend who is going through a major calamity in her life recently asked me to help her find expression for her feelings in the Psalms, especially number 119. And this is what the Psalms do: they heal by allowing us to voice even thoughts of hatred and revenge. They heal because they allow us to voice those negative thoughts in the presence of God. God does not consider any thought taboo, as long as it’s presented to God by an honest heart that is open to insight and transformation.

So what church will survive in this age of exile? Trueman thinks it’s his church, the Reformed Church. I don’t agree. Do I think it’s the Orthodox Church? I don’t worry about such things. The Orthodox Church will “survive” as long as God has use for it. In this country, we are small and still connected to the umbilical cords of our ethnic origins. But God can still use us for good, and it’s happening at many levels, if not always where it should be happening the most.

The problem with Trueman’s article is that it represents a remnant theology. Instead of casting his nets far and wide like Jesus did, Trueman wants to limit survival to one brand of currently existing Christianity. He sees no need for change in his Reformed Church; it will survive because it is what it is and it tells people who they are, namely sinners. Good luck with that. There are people like that in the Orthodox Church as well, who see the church as being perfect as it is, with no need to change anything. These people cannot separate the church from its Byzantine or Czarist past.

What the Orthodox Church has to offer – once we cut the ethnic umbilical cord – is a broader vision than the one Trueman presents, but which nevertheless is not complete for today’s world, and we can learn from our brothers and sisters. We can learn from the Catholic commitment to social justice. We can learn from the Reformed and Evangelical encounter with Scripture – though serious encounter for us does not mean fundamentalist. The Orthodox Church has a rich tradition of creativity. The creative way Scripture has been interpreted in our iconography and hymnography is a shining example of how the words of Scripture can be made understandable in a post-Christian society. And this is the key, with all due respect to Mr. Trueman.

In Christ’s vision of life, no one can survive or be saved on their own. Why should it be any different for a church? No matter how beautiful, how all-encompassing our Liturgy, our theology, our iconography, we must be willing to practice what we preach: a willingness to be transformed, to be transfigured – and transfiguration requires change and movement, not standing still – especially when that standing still is in a past that no longer exists. And change does not mean going with the flow of what is popular in society. Change should come from within our rich experience of faith; but above all change can only come from taking Jesus Christ seriously. And sometimes that means that we have to change or abandon something that contradicts the plain words of Jesus.

I know I’ve written some challenging things here that will upset some, and perhaps this article has been too long for some people to read, but if you want to talk about survival, don’t think small and exclusive. Think big and inclusive. Quite frankly, I don’t care to answer Trueman’s question. I don’t think survival is what Christ preached. Thriving is what Christ is all about. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The only reason why some of us even have to worry about survival is that we have ventured far outside the vision of Christ. To talk about survival is to make Jesus a liar.

So let’s forget about exile and survival in a post-Christian world. Let’s stop seeing the world as the enemy. There is enough enemy talk all around us, we don’t need to contribute to it. Present to the world the message of life; live that message of life. That’s all that God asks of us.

But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people the whole message of this life” (Acts 5:19-20)