Today we begin a series of reflections on Rowan Williams’s book, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.
My congregation celebrated its 180th anniversary yesterday. That’s quite a historical legacy. When I serve as interim pastor this winter, I’ve been thinking about doing some preaching and teaching that goes back to the basics of what it means to be a Christian and part of a Christian community. I think this book will provide a good place to start my preparation studies.
Rowan Williams is a Welsh Anglican bishop who served as the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002-2012. In this book, taken from a series of talks at Canterbury Cathedral, he discusses a “few simple and recognizable things that make you realize that you are part of a Christian community.” The four fundamental elements he talks about are baptism, the Bible, the Eucharist, and prayer.
We begin today with some beginning reflections about baptism.
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So baptism means being with Jesus ‘in the depths’: the depths of human need, including the depths of our own selves in their need – but also in the depths of God’s love; in the depths where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be. (p. 5)
Christians have always marked the beginning of the new life in Christ with the rite of baptism. Rowan Williams discusses some of the biblical background for this. The first Christians recalled Jesus speaking about the baptism he was to undergo at his death, and so baptism became associated with “going down into the darkness of Jesus’ suffering and death” (p. 2).
Furthermore, additional reflection saw links with the story of creation, when the Spirit hovered over the original watery chaos and brought forth order and life. Baptism = new creation, new life. Christians in the East portrayed the chaos in their icons by portraying Jesus in water filled with images of demonic river gods. Up and out of the chaos, Jesus is anointed by the Spirit and declared God’s beloved Son.
So it is not surprising that as the Church reflected on what baptism means, it came to view it as a kind of restoration of what it is to be truly human. To be baptized is to recover the humanity that God first intended. What did God intend? He intended that human beings should grow into such love for him and such confidence in him that they could rightly be called God’s sons and daughters. Human beings have let go of that identity, abandoned it, forgotten it or corrupted it. And when Jesus arrives on the scene he restores humanity to where it should be. But that in itself means that Jesus, as he restores humanity ‘from within’ (so to speak), has to come down into the chaos of our human world. Jesus has to come down fully to our level, to where things are shapeless and meaningless, in a state of vulnerability and unprotectedness, if real humanity is to come to birth. (pp. 3-4)
In his baptism, then, Jesus was immersed both into the world of deathly powers, but also into the affirming love and calling of God.
And so, Williams reasons, the person who is baptized takes his place with Jesus — deeply in touch with the chaos of the suffering world all around, and also awake to the chaos within his own heart. In a striking quote, Williams reminds us that being baptized does not separate us from the world around us, but plunges us more deeply into its need:
To be able to say, ‘I’m baptized’ is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the rest of the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people. (pp. 5-6)
Yes, in baptism we are washed and made new. But this happens by taking our place in the muddy waters where we identify with the chaos within and around us.
Yet this is but one side of the story. Jesus came up out of the water and heard the Father’s voice, saw the descending Holy Spirit, felt the embrace of divine love.
So what else do you expect to see in the baptized? An openness to human need, but also a corresponding openness to the Holy Spirit. In the life of baptized people, there is a constant rediscovering, re-enacting of the Father’s embrace of Jesus in the Holy Spirit. The baptized person is not only in the middle of human suffering and muddle but in the middle of the love and delight of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. (p. 7)
To be baptized, then, is to enter the depths of human life as it was meant to be: immersed in the world’s pain, embraced by God through his loving Spirit.