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Posts Tagged ‘community of the baptized’

In the Christian calendar, this Sunday is a feast day called “the baptism of our Lord”. Jesus began his public ministry by showing up at the Jordan River and being baptized by his cousin, John the Baptizer. The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord used to be a more important celebration than Christmas. A surprising number of icons painted by the early church depict Jesus’ baptism.

For early Christians, baptism was a life-defining act. If you decided you wanted to become a follower of Jesus, you presented yourself to a local congregation. They would question you. Then, you would embark on a programme of preparation of baptism that would last two years.

During those two years you would learn the stories of Jesus and participate in the worshipping community. Mentors would teach you to pray. They would help you examine your life and learn to live the odd, peculiar ways of Jesus’ community.

Being baptized was neither automatic nor easy. It was also dangerous. For much of the first three centuries of the church’s existence, Christians were a persecuted minority. You made a very intentional decision. It changed who you were. It gave you a new identity, a new life. You became different from others around you.

Then, all that changed. One night, the Roman Emperor, Constantine, had a dream, or a vision, of a cross in the sky. He heard a voice that said, “By this sing you shall conquer.” When he woke up, he decided that everyone in the Roman Empire was going to be a Christian. Roman soldiers would come to a village, herd everyone into a lake and everyone would emerge baptized.

The soldiers themselves had to be baptized. They did not know much about being a follower of Jesus, but they did know that it means renouncing violence. They knew Jesus had said, “Turn the other cheek.” This created a problem for soldiers. How could they be baptized as followers of Jesus and still fulfill their duties to the Emperor?

Some of them came up with a solution: as a soldier was being immersed in the waters of baptism, he would hold his sword arm out of the waters. That meant that the soldier had been baptized — all of him except the hand which held his sword. With that arm he could serve the Emperor.

We all do it. We all hold some portion of our lives out of the waters of our baptism. God can be Lord of our lives on Sunday but, when we get to work on Monday, we operate by a different set of rules. We can let Jesus comfort us when we are troubled or suffering but, in those times when we are strong and feel like we are in control of our lives, we figure we do not need to refer to him.

In the 1940’s, Clarence Jordan founded a community in Americus, Georgia. In the deep south of the United States, he founded a community that was to be a living sign of and witness to the Kingdom of heaven which Jesus had inaugurated. It was a community where everyone was welcome — blacks and whites, rich and poor.

People ridiculed them. They found themselves embroiled in a number of legal battles because it was against the law for blacks and whites to share meals together, much less raise their children together.

Clarence’s brother was Robert. At the time he was just a country lawyer, but he would eventually become a state senator and a justice in the Georgia Supreme Court. Clarence asked Robert for help with a legal battle. Robert replied, “I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. If I represented you, I might lose everything.”

Clarence replied, “We might lose everything too. Why is this so different? When we were boys, we joined church on the same Sunday.”

Robert said, “I follow Jesus up to a point.”

“Would that point by any chance be the cross?”
“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not going to get crucified.”

“Well, Robert,”  said Clarence, “I don’t think you are a disciple of Jesus. I think you are an admirer of Jesus. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to and tell them that you are an admirer of Jesus, not a disciple.” (Stanley HauerwasMatthew, p.57)

We are not used to making such a harsh distinction. Our traditions around baptism were shaped largely by a time when everyone was baptized as a matter of social custom. We tend to think of it as a ritual that mostly involves babies and little children.

If you ask the parents who still seek baptism for their children, “Why do you want your child baptized?”, they are, for the most part, unclear about it. They are unsure not only about why they are asking for baptism but also about what baptism means.

That might be true for most of us. That can be partly explained because the cultural understanding of what baptism is, is changing. It is no longer something everybody just does as  matter of course. As the church moves back to being on the margins of society, we are becoming more like the early church. Baptism is again taking a more central role in the identity and mission of the church. Once more, it is becoming the gateway into a community of people whose lives are shaped by commitments and convictions that are different from much of the rest of the culture. We are a community that becomes different from the world as we participate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Baptism is not just something that happened to us when we were babies. It initiated us into a way of living where we are continually turning, or orienting, our lives toward to God who is revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth. It happens once but it takes a whole life to live into it. It shapes our spirituality. It forms our identity. We are a baptized and baptizing community of faith.

Martin Luther lived in the sixteenth century and was a leader in the Protestant Reformation. The spirituality that was shaped by his baptism led him to confront the abuses and corruption of the church in his day. He was often in trouble. He was often troubled. When he was troubled, he would trace the sign of the cross that had been marked on his forehead in his baptism. He would say to himself, “I am a baptized person.”

He didn’t say, “I was baptized.” He said, “I am a baptized person.” It reminded him that God had called him to speak truth to power. It reminded him that the Holy Spirit surrounded him and kept him in the midst of trouble.

A few years ago, I led a study group that looked at the meanings of baptism. I invited the participants to go through the week saying, “I am a baptized person” and to trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads, either literally or simply in their minds.

They came back the next week and many of them reported how amazed they were at the difference it had made in their lives. One woman said, “I was in situations where I was tempted to be petty or mean — to join in office politics and gossip. I would visualize the sign of the cross and say to myself, “I am a baptized person”. That enabled me to turn away from all of the meanness and to live into a the better standard that I cherish for myself.”

Another person found the ritual enormously comforting. It reminded her that nothing that happened to her could take her outside the realm of God’s redeeming power and gracious love.

Baptism is a gateway into a way of life that is shaped by God’s claim upon us. This is both wonderful and rightening.

It is wonderful because God has a good and holy purpose for our lives — a purpose that lifts us up and gives dignity and hope and meaning. In baptism God gives the Holy Spirit to empower us for all that that entails.

It is wonderful because, when we learn constantly to turn our lives toward Jesus Christ, we experience the presence of God in amazing and life-giving ways.

It is frightening because we are often afraid that God may demand more of us than we are ready to give. God may ask us to make changes that we do not want to make. We may be afraid that God will judge us for not measuring up, not being good enough, not doing enough.

Both the wonder and the fear are gathered into the waters of our baptism. As you live into that powerful event, you rise again and again to hear more and more deeply the words first spoken to Jesus, “You are my Beloved. You are my delight.” (Matthew 3: 13-17)

That is who you truly are. It is a gift that will see you through all your days. It is a gift you get to offer to others.  We are a community called to flood the world with the love we have received. This week, whenever anyone or anything makes you feel small or insignificant or alone, remember your baptism. Live into your high and holy calling. It is the gift of God’s grace for you. Thanks be to God.

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Something new is being created in various places across the United Church of Canada. A new congregational culture is taking shape, albeit often in tentative and fragile forms. Congregations and other faith communities are finding their way forward. Based on the conversations I have been having, some trends seem to be emerging.

There is a congregational culture emerging that is focused on the ministry of all the baptized, not primarily on the ministry of the ordered ministry personnel. Clergy-centred solo pastoral ministry is giving way to participatory leadership teams in all aspects of congregational life. Authority is being distributed among the people based on gifts, relational influence, and areas of mission; power is seen as something that is to be given away to others. Clergy are recognizing that it is not their role to ‘be the minister’ but to equip the ministers of the congregation and to cultivate a congregational culture where creativity and permission-giving and risk-taking are the norm. There is an expectation that people will be engaged in deepening discipleship throughout their whole lives since the work in which they are engaged cannot be done in one’s own strength and wisdom. What ‘deepening discipleship’ looks like is localized, depending on each different context and the gifts and passions of the people involved and driven by the missionary situation in which people find themselves.

A congregational culture is emerging that prioritizes the deepening of the ministry of all the people over the continuance of the institutional structure or the building. Organizations get the results for which they are structured. That which is given attention is what grows. Churches are changing what they are paying attention to. This includes changing the way the church measures what it is doing. Rather than measuring how many people are on the membership roll or how many dollars are being raised and spent, churches are beginning to measure the people’s depth of involvement in ministry and mission in the world. Rather than paying attention to who is serving on what committee, worship services and annual reports are providing opportunities for people to witness and testify to the ways in which the Holy Spirit is working in and through their lives in their neighbourhoods, places of work and leisure times. The conversation is about ‘sightings’ of the reign of God, not the needs of the institution.

The emerging congregational culture is finding ways to attend to the pastoral care and spiritual needs of its members (often through small groups) but the dominant conversations are not about getting one’s needs met but about discerning what God is doing and what God is calling the church to be in the world. The focus is not on programmes and membership privileges but on following Jesus as a way of life. People are learning ways of listening to others outside the church. They are learning not to approach situations as ‘fixers’, with their well-intentioned agendas; rather, they are recognizing that they are often on the receiving end of the hospitality and gifts of ‘the other’. There is a humility and openness in their relationships — and a recognition that it is about building relationships rather than fixing problems.

Not every renewing congregation or developing faith community exhibits all those characteristics. However, these trends keep emerging in the conversations I have been having. What is also apparent is that congregations often are finding their way forward in isolation from others. They need to be in networks with other faith communities that are finding their way. What another church does is probably not directly transferrable to another church. ‘Cookie cutter’ solutions will not work in the diverse situations in which congregations find themselves. We live out our faith incarnationally, which means its expression is shaped by the local context. However, what is working for one church may provide inspiration for a creative initiative in another congregation. Besides, we all need companions on the journey, especially on this journey where we have no maps but only Jesus who is himself the Way.

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Conversations about equipping the baptized for their ministries turn quickly to matters of spiritual formation and discipleship. What Christian practices need to be embraced? What does evangelism and witness look like in our context? What enables people to discern not only where the Holy Spirit is at work but also what their call is in that work?

What is apparent is that behind those questions lie more foundational questions about the nature of our congregations. What does spiritual formation and discipleship look like in a church culture where that has not been a priority? It is difficult for people to discern where the Holy Spirit is already at work when they are unpracticed in such elemental disciplines as prayer, standing under the scriptures, and talking about faith together. Exciting new initiatives lose steam when those who participate in them are not deeply grounded in the Source of Life. As Elizabeth O’Connor articulated the wisdom of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., “If you do not attend to the journey inward, you will burn out on the journey outward.” Frank Viola has warned, “You cannot raise the bar on discipleship without raising the bar on the ekklesia—the living experience of the body of Christ—the native habitat in which true disciple-making and transformation take place” (Discipleship in Crisis, e-book).

What is needed is not simply a matter of offering more courses and seminars on discipleship or evangelism. What is needed is a shift in the culture of congregations. A new imagination for what it means to be the church needs to be cultivated. A different set of symbols, metaphors and narratives need to shape the ethos of the United Church of Canada.

Chris Pullenayegem, New Ministries Animator for EDGE, outlines the process of change as a matter of asking some basic questions:

*What has to remain?

*How do we do it more efficiently so that resources are freed up for new experiments?

*What do we need to let go of in order to create space for something new?

*What new things do we need to do in order to make this new thing happen?

Andy Crouch, in Culture Making, advises that “the only way to change culture is to create more of it. . . . If culture is to change, it will be because some new tangible (or audible or visible or olfactory) thing is presented to a wide enough public that it begins to reshape their world . . . if we seek to change culture, we will have to create something new, something that will persuade our neighbors to set aside some existing set of cultural goods for our new proposal” (p. 67).

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The Triune God is already at work among us, making a new creation. We know from the scriptures that, if we are to see that work of God, we need to pay attention to what is happening at the margins, at the edges of what is ‘mainstream’. At the margins of the United Church of Canada, new patterns of being ‘church’, new patterns of leadership, and new patterns of ministry are taking shape. Many of them have been ‘flying under the radar’, quietly but courageously finding a way forward into God’s new creation. Sometimes they are at the margins because the realities of these faith communities do not fit the current structures and policies of the United Church. Sometimes not much attention is paid to them because they don’t look successful the way that we often measure success (numbers of people in the pews and dollars in the bank).

These faith communities at the margins are taking many forms: collaborative or regional ministries, house churches, lay-led congregations, base communities, fresh expressions, pub churches, congregations sharing technology and worship, intentional communities. In almost all of them, there is a turn toward reclaiming the ministry of all the baptized, although it may not always be expressed or experienced in such terms.

As new communities of faith emerge with a focus on being missional, there will be a need for other such experiments that are aimed at giving both individuals and local churches a new imagination and capacity to engage their neighbourhoods.

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Today’s post is the second of three that look at some of the changing assumptions about what ‘church’ is — assumptions that have influenced the kinds of leaders congregations need. Yesterday’s post looked at the assumption that churches provide stability.

Christendom churches were also seen as being responsible: responsible to the culture in providing moral leadership and its social conscience. Membership in a church was considered part of being a good, responsible citizen. Parents brought their children to Sunday School so that they could learn good moral values. Communities looked to church leaders to provide guidance on social issues. That close alliance between church and society no longer exists. The assumptions upon which the alliance was based no longer hold.

The culture is not looking to the churches to form the morals of its citizens or to underwrite its social and political agendas. The churches can no longer count on the culture to help them form Christians. They now need to be intentional about doing that. There is a renewed interest in ‘discipleship’, but what is entailed in being a disciple of Jesus has also shifted.

Increasingly, the surrounding culture is not just indifferent to what the church is; in many places, it is actually hostile. Christians are rediscovering the counter-cultural nature of the gospel. The risen Christ is active in the world confronting and challenging the forces that diminish people’s dignity and wound their souls, the systems that degrade the social and natural environment and keep communities from flourishing, and the structures that perpetuate violence and injustice. The God of suffering love sends followers of Jesus into the suffering world to participate in God’s transformation and healing of God’s beloved creation. The community of the baptized is a counter-cultural community, living and acting in the world as a sign, witness and foretaste of the reign of God.

If you take following Jesus seriously, you will have trouble with the world. Disciples need resources for speaking truth to power, for challenging evil, and for courageously resisting what the New Testament calls the ‘powers and principalities’. Although some segments of the church already understood that to be their mission, the new dimension to the work is that Christians are no longer the dominant voice in the conversation.

Leaders are finding themselves in unfamiliar territory. They are guiding disciples who are trying to be faithful as they live on the fringes of the culture: as a minority in a culture that does not share many of their convictions about life. God’s people have often been in the minority. Many of the stories of God’s people come from similar marginal situations. Ancient metaphors that speak of the Church as being a cultural minority are being reclaimed: “resident aliens”, “a colony of heaven”, “exilic community”. They point to the hopes that formed the community of faith into a genuine alternative to the surrounding culture.

Jesus described the community of the baptized, his ‘little flock’, as salt and yeast and light — small things that change their surroundings in large ways. His disciples learn what it means to live faithfully as they journey with him ‘on the way’. They hear the stories he tells. They watch him encountering ‘the other’. They share meals with strangers. They both receive and give in mutual hospitality. In the world, in their ordinary, every-day living, they encounter God who is present in unexpected places and among unexpected people. In all of that, they are being formed to participate in God’s mission. Leaders for such communities do not function as experts. They themselves are followers on the Way, helping the community of the baptized hear questions God is asking and discerning with them ways to answer faithfully.

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