I’m taking a break from blogging and reading blogs for Advent. I will, however, still be keeping in touch with people through Facebook. Have a blessed Advent, everyone, and I’ll talk to you again after Christmas.
I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie The American President, with Michael Douglas and Anette Bening. In one scene from the movie – a scene that seems almost prophetic now – Douglas’ character, President Andy Shepherd, has to respond to a terrorist attack on American troops by retaliating against a Libyan command building. He’s obviously uncomfortable with this action, and one of his aides reassures him that this will be very good for him because he’ll be seen to be ‘acting presidentially’. Shepherd then comments on the tragedy of the fact that ordering a strike that will kill innocent janitors and deprive their families of husbands and fathers is seen as ‘acting presidentially’.
The question behind our Gospel for today is not about ‘acting like a president’ but ‘acting like a king’. How does a King act? In this Gospel reading Jesus is referred to four times in kingly language – and we need to remember that the words ‘King’, ‘Messiah’ and ‘Christ’ all mean essentially the same thing. Three of these references have a question mark beside them; the speaker is questioning whether Jesus is in fact a king after all. In verse 35 the leaders scoff and say “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one”. In verse 37 the Roman soldiers mock Jesus: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself”. And in verse 39 one of the criminals crucified with Jesus joins in: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us”. But in the fourth reference to Jesus as King the penitent criminal expresses his faith in Jesus’ kingship: “Jesus, remember me when (not if) you come into your kingdom” (v.42).
How can a man hanging on a cross be God’s Messiah, the chosen king of God’s people Israel? After all, the model for the Messiah was David, the great warrior king who defeated the Philistines and established Israel as a great power. During the reign of David Israel finally got some respect from her neighbours! David was ruthless toward his enemies; we’re told that on one occasion he lined up the Moabite men and put to death every third one of them, just to put the fear of Israel into them. On the ‘David’ model, the victories of the King are signs that God is with him, but only a false Messiah would be executed!
But there was another voice in the scriptures of Israel, and the leaders allude to it in today’s reading when they speak about ‘the Messiah of God, his chosen one’. This is a reference to Isaiah chapter 42: ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights’. This is the first of four so-called ‘Servant Songs’ in Isaiah in which we read about a mysterious figure who not only acts as God’s messenger to the nations but also willingly goes through suffering and offers his life on their behalf. In chapter 50 the Servant says ‘I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting’. And in a famous verse from chapter 53 Isaiah says of the Servant ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed’.
This is the model that Jesus accepted for his ministry. He is a King who willingly goes through suffering, rather than inflicting it on God’s enemies, and he gives his life on behalf of his people. This has major implications for followers of Jesus. Not only does the King suffer for us; he also offers us a pattern of faithfulness in suffering.
Read the rest here.
Of all the changes that have been made in our Anglican worship in the last three or four decades, the one I like the best is the bringing of baptism into the centre of the Sunday worshipping life of the congregation.
When I was growing up in the Church of England I rarely saw a baptism. Baptisms (or ‘Christenings’, as they were usually called) were usually done at a separate service in the middle of Sunday afternoon, and very few regular churchgoers attended. Most of the families bringing children for baptism were not regular churchgoers and had no intention of becoming such; they mouthed promises about bringing their children to church regularly even though everyone knew they had no intention of keeping them, water was splashed on their babies’ heads, and that was the last we saw of them until the next time they had a child to be ‘done’ (or perhaps until Christmas or Easter).
Not any more. Nowadays, in most Anglican churches in Canada, baptisms are performed at the main service on Sunday – often on Sundays of the year when the theme is particularly appropriate for baptism, such as the Baptism of the Lord, or Easter, or Pentecost, or All Saints’ Day. This means that the baptismal families get to interact with the regular worshipping congregation. Also, ‘drive-by baptisms’ are becoming less and less common; nowadays, perhaps the majority of those who bring children for baptism are fully intending to become part of the worshipping community (if they aren’t already part of it), and adult baptisms are more and more common, too.
All of that is good, but that’s not my favourite part. My favourite part is that the members of the whole congregation get reminded of their own baptism by participating in the service on a regular basis. And there are two sides to this.
First we get reminded of the grace of God and the miracle of new birth. Baptism is all about grace. Baptism reminds us that as Jesus heard the voice of God saying ‘You are my beloved Son; in you I take delight’ (Mark 1:11 REB), so God in his love adopts each of us into his family, long before we have done anything to deserve this honour, and God looks on us with delight as his beloved sons and daughters. And as the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism, so the Spirit also brings us to new birth in the family of God and takes up residence in each of us, marking us as God’s own and giving us the power to live as the sons and daughters of God.
Thus baptism reminds us of all that God has done for us, and as we participate regularly in baptism services we have the opportunity to reflect on God’s love and respond with thankfulness and joy.
The other side of the story, though, is that in baptism we take obligations on ourselves – or, in the case of those of us who were baptized as infants, our parents take obligations for us, which we accept for ourselves at our confirmation. Baptism, in fact, is the beginning of a life of discipleship, as Jesus points out in Matthew 28:19-20:
‘Go therefore to all nations and make them my disciples; baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (REB).
The baptized person has become a disciple of Jesus, and as a disciple is committed to a life of learning to put the teaching of Jesus into practice in their daily life.
We remind ourselves of this commitment at every B.A.S. baptism service in the Anglican Church of Canada, when we are invited to ‘join with those who are committing themselves to Christ and renew our own baptismal covenant’. The covenant as set out in the B.A.S. has two parts, which might be headed ‘What Christians believe’ and ‘What Christian do’. The first part simply sets out the Apostles’ Creed in question and answer format, thus:
Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He 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, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
I believe in God the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
The second part contains five promises which seem to me to represent the heart of what we Christians commit ourselves to when we become followers of Jesus:
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God’s help.
At least three times a year, our congregation gets to hear again the good news of God’s love proclaimed in baptism. At least three times a year, we get to renew the promises that represent our joyful response to this Gospel. And in our church, as in many other Anglican churches I know, it is the custom that after the baptism the water remains in the font (which has been brought to the front for the service), so that later on, as people are making their way forward for communion, they can use the water of baptism to sign themselves with the Cross in token that they too are baptized followers of Jesus and that they want to recommit themselves to their discipleship.
Baptism speaks to us of God’s grace and of our adoption into God’s family. Baptism is the beginning of a life of following Jesus and learning to put his teaching and example into practice. Regular participation in baptismal services keeps these things on our minds. That’s one of the things I love about the Anglican way of following Jesus.
It was in the Diocese of Chelmsford that I gave my life to Christ, and I had some pretty formative experiences of God’s presence at St. Peter’s Chapel, which appears in the first part of this little video. Essex is still the part of England that feels most like home to me, despite the fact that I was born in the Midlands.
I was delighted when I heard that Stephen Cottrell had been appointed as the new Bishop of my home diocese of Chelmsford, and I warmed to his words in this video about the gospel and our call to share it.
(h/t to Sam at Elizaphanian).
I’m not a great fan of liturgical processions (and we’ve done our best to cut them down to a bare minimum at St. Margaret’s), but they do share one interesting and instructive characteristic with formal state processions: the principle that the most prestigious position is at the back of the line. The highest-ranking dignitary – in the case of a liturgical procession, the highest-ranking bishop present – comes last, and all who come before serve to prepare the way for him or her
That being the case, there’s surely an intentional dignity about the place of the reading of the Gospels in Anglican Sunday morning worship. We read huge chunks of Holy Scripture on a regular basis in the Anglican tradition: every Sunday morning (if the whole lectionary provision is used) a reading from the Old Testament, a psalm or portion of a psalm, a reading from the New Testament, and finally, at the end, in the place of highest dignity, a reading from the Gospels. This is intentional: the story of Jesus is the main event, and all that is read before it serves to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.
We underline the special place of the Gospel reading in various ways. We sit to listen to the other Scripture readings, but when the Gospel is announced, we stand out of respect for Jesus and his life and teaching. In some Anglican churches, the gospel reader moves down from the front of the church to the centre – a symbol of God coming among us in Jesus in the Incarnation – and everyone in the church turns to face the Gospel book.
None of this is intended to disparage other parts of the Bible (not that this disparagement is not present in some segments of contemporary Anglicanism, but it is not supported by the mainstream tradition); rather, it is to see them in the classical Christian manner as pointing to Jesus. In the words of the anonymous New Testament letter to the Hebrews:
‘When in times past God spoke to our forefathers, he spoke in many and various ways through the prophets. But in this the final age he has spoken to us in his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things; and through him he created the universe. He is the radiance of God’s glory, the stamp of God’s very being, and he sustains the universe by his word of power. When he had brought about purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of God’s majesty on high, raised as far above the angels as the title he has inherited is superior to theirs’ (Hebrews 1:1-4 REB).
Somewhere in one of his books Philip Yancey calls the letters of Paul ‘the dirty part of the Bible’, meaning that in evangelical churches they tend to be the most-read portion of scripture and therefore have the most dirt on the edges of their pages. This is a natural development to the Reformation rediscovery of Paul and his doctrine of justification by faith, which became the central emphasis of some of the Reformation churches.
To us in the Anglican churches, however, the Gospels are ‘the dirty part of the Bible’, because the life and teaching of Jesus are the central part of our faith. And this is one of the things I love about our tradition. I haven’t done any sort of scientific survey, but I would bet real money that the sermon in the average Anglican church is far more likely to start from the Gospel than from any of the other readings. And if to be a Christian is to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and to follow him as a disciple, then surely this is as it should be.
Not that we’ve always lived consistently with this emphasis on the Jesus of the Gospels, of course. In fact, an outside observer would probably be struck by the disconnect between the huge amount of money and energy spent on church architecture, ornate robes and elaborate liturgy, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the teachings of the one they are all supposed to be honouring. Like all Christians, we could do a much better job of actually living out the teachings of the one we call our Lord and Master. Nevertheless, our liturgical practice calls us each week to remember that this story – the story of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus – is the central story of our salvation, and that our discipleship consists in living into this story, in putting this teaching and example into practice in our daily lives. And for that, I am grateful and glad to be a practitioner of the Anglican way of following Jesus.