Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Water Before Table? Or Not?

In a previous posting I raised the question of what baptism might look like, or at least be understood, in the context of the practice of the Open Table. If all are invited to the Lord’s Table, where does that leave baptism? As I’ve noted in previous essays I am part of a Believer Baptism tradition. It is a position that I have come to embrace. I believe that it has a strong biblical foundation, but I understand that the infant baptism tradition has a long pedigree.

I’m writing this essay on the afternoon of Pentecost Sunday. It is on the Day of Pentecost that the Spirit falls on the church leading to a display of the Spirit’s presence that leads to a sermon by Peter. People ask Peter about the steps needed to be taken to be saved, and Peter offers this formula – repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s a simple process that offers a strong foundation to the Christian experience. In Romans 6, Paul dives deeper into the meaning of baptism. He suggests that baptism connects us with Jesus. That is, we identify ourselves completely with Jesus’ own experience of death, burial, and resurrection. The actual process of immersion beautifully illustrates this act of identification. We experience and burial as we enter the water, and we experience Jesus’ resurrection as we come out of the water.

As we consider the meaning of baptism in the 21st century, especially when it involves adults who have decided to become part of the Christian community, baptism serves as a sign of union with Christ.  Church of Christ theologian John Mark Hicks offers this vision that I think is helpful.
Our union with Christ means that his experience becomes our own. We are not only baptized into his death, but die with him in that baptism as we are plunged into death itself. Our old humanity is crucified and buried with Christ just as Christ’s own Adamic humanity was crucified and buried. Jesus was raised as a new human, free from death itself. So, also, we are raised a new humanity free from the guilt and power of sin as well as from the dominion of death. Our union with the death of Christ is also our union with his resurrected life. We rise from the watery grave to live a new life. [Hicks, John Mark (2014-04-27). Enter the Water, Come to the Table (Kindle Locations 977-981). Abilene Christian University Press. Kindle Edition.]
Union with Christ means that Jesus’ life experiences (including death, burial, and resurrection) become our own. With him we become a new person.

Baptism, as I’ve noted before, has a variety of meanings and purposes, but ultimately it’s about union with Christ. Even becoming a church member through baptism involves in a sacramental way union with Christ. In baptism we become part of the Body of Christ. As Paul tells the Corinthians:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we are all made to drink one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).

Baptism is more than a rite of passage or the necessary first step to taking communion. In this new day communion will often come before baptism. We do experience union with Christ at the Table, but in baptism we consciously seek to unite ourselves with Christ. The Table is the first step toward union, which takes place as we enter the water and then rise again with Christ.  Baptism allows us the opportunity to make this choice to fully identify with the one who died, was buried, and was raised by God so that we might taste the blessings of union with Christ.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Living Under Authority - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 2C

Luke 7:1-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
7 After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.


                A Roman Centurion was a patron of the synagogue in Capernaum. I think we need to start there. Does this surprise you? After all, the centurion was an officer in an occupying army. You would think he was a hated figure in the community, and yet he seems to be rather beloved. What should we make of this? What message does it send? Maybe we need to take each person on their own, and recognize their humanity, whatever their background or position.

Monday, May 23, 2016

You Are What You Love (James K. A. Smith) -- Review

YOU ARE WHAT YOU LOVE:  The Spiritual Power of Habit. By James K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. Xii + 210 pages.

                “You are what you love.” That is, you will become that which you desire. You may want to be something different from your desires, but you can’t think your way to change. Without being in any way anti-intellectual, Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith suggests that to be transformed one must develop habits. To give an example. Although I know that I need to lose weight—something my doctor reminds me of and which my joints can attest—my desire for food and failure to engage in sufficient exercise means that I carry more weight than I probably should.

                So, how do we form habits that can spiritually form our lives. That is, how can we find a new love? If you’re like me, you live in a context that values being a consumer of goods. We are more likely to be formed by our culture than to form the culture. Smith offers this book as a guide to the development of “a spirituality for culture-makers, showing (I hope) why discipleship needs to be centered in and fueled by our immersion in the body of Christ” (p. xi). The key to the kind of discipleship that will form us in this way is worship. Christian discipleship, Smith argues is rooted in the way we answer the question of what do we want. Worship puts us in a position to find the answer to the question, but as one discovers in reading the book, not all forms of worship are equal when it comes to this work. Too often we fall into one of two camps. Either we focus on the mind with rationalist forms of worship and education or we give ourselves to what he calls an “expressivist” version, where we do all the acting and fail to put ourselves in a position where God can act on us. Thus, he suggests that we purse forms of worship that build in us habits of the heart.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

How Majestic Is Your Name! - Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Psalm 8

Homiletical theory suggests that the genre of a text should determine how it is preached. When it comes to the Psalms that bit of advice poses a problem for me.  Since I’m not a poet, trying to write a poetic sermon might not work all that well. But, even if you’re not a poet, it is good to regularly visit the Psalms. That’s because they speak powerfully about God and God’s creation. So, in the coming weeks most of my sermons will draw from the Psalms. However, I do want to put your minds at ease. I won’t be writing any bad poetry to share with you!  

The Sunday after Pentecost is known as Trinity Sunday. It’s on this day in the church year that we focus our attention on the nature of God. From a theological point of view, the doctrine of the Trinity is a good reminder that God transcends our attempts to define God’s nature. When we look to the Psalms for guidance on such matters there is a Latin phrase that captures the essence of this: Lex orandi, lex credendi. This translates in English to “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” 

The hymns and prayers that we find in the Book of Psalms can lift up our hearts to God in praise and thanksgiving. They also give us the words to share our laments and our complaints. Anyone who says that you can’t argue with God has never read the Psalms! 

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Theology of Popular Music, Arts and Culture -- Sightings (William C. Banfield)

What is the theological relevance of popular music? How does the blues and other forms of folk music speak to our spiritual lives? William Banfield takes up these questions and more in this reflection on the arts as a creative expression of spiritual life. I invite you to explore the concept with him, including the call to engage in activism on behalf of the world.

A Theology of Popular Music, Arts and Culture 
B. B. King. Africa, 1974.                                                                       Screen grab of YouTube video
One of the greatest achievements in terms of the expressive culture of modernity is popular music. Much of the music of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s (social protest/soul, funk, reggae, rock, rap and punk) was made by young musicians (Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Carole King), people who were using their music to respond to world challenges—and engaging transformative ideas.