“For congregational health and mission, the ‘family’ metaphor is a double-edged sword.” This thought was raised a few months ago at an event for emerging leaders in the Memphis & Tennessee Conferences in Dickson, Tennessee sponsored by the Turner Center. Why a “double-edged sword”? What could possibly be the downside in using the metaphor of ‘family’ when a church describes itself? After all, it can be a very uniting message if a congregation has recently been rent asunder by a scandal. It can be an image of healing for a church that has been devastated by a natural disaster. You practice, preach and sing ‘We Are Family’ in moments like this as a way of reestablishing trust and rebuilding toward a brighter future.

Even in moments of stable or exponential growth, churches can use familial language to welcome newcomers, outcasts, those rejected by others. But the other side, one of the potential downsides, is often delivered unintentionally (and unfortunately, sometimes intentionally). As it turns out, many times churches who use the ‘family’ metaphor end up envisioning a family more like Jack Byrnes’ ‘circle of trust’ in Meet the Parents than one that opens itself to embrace the stranger. Ever known or been part of a church that looks a little like this? (Disclaimer: Ben Stiller’s character is named Greg Focker, which is what DeNiro’s character says midway through this clip…)

Trying to become a member of such a ‘family’ is next to impossible. And even if you pay your dues (or tithes in our case), offer your services and bend over backwards, the ‘inner circle’ may never let you in. This is how the ‘family’ metaphor can end up causing a church to implode or at the very least slowly erode away into irrelevance.

So the growing edge for a church that wants to keep the family image is to continually and honestly ask, “Is our ‘family’ language and image enhancing or inhibiting our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ?” And it was this question that filled my preparation for preaching at Post Oak UMC’s homecoming a couple of weeks ago, because ‘family’ is a metaphor that I’ve heard used at Post Oak frequently and I’ve seen it used quite well here. Below are a few of the highlights from that message. The texts I chose for that Sunday were Genesis 1.26-28 & Matthew 28:18-20.

Genesis 1:26-28: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Matthew 28:18-20: And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Reflecting back over the course of the past year and my experience in this church has led me to conclude that my initial intuition about the character of this Post Oak community has been confirmed. That is that this church is in many ways a family. I saw it the day we moved in when there was a crowd gathered to help us unload the truck and get settled in. I heard it just a couple of weeks ago when I met with the visioning team someone made the observation about the closeness of the people in this church that reminded that person of a family unlike other churches they had been at prior to moving here. I witnessed it as over 40 from the church went out to Eva Beach last Sunday to take part and celebrate the baptisms of three of our youth. Even though it was a holiday weekend, they took time to support and welcome them outside “normal church hours.” These are things that family members do for one another.

The gift of family can bring with it some moments of tremendous joy and humor. Cherishing those memories and enjoying those times of fellowship are important parts of being in God’s family. But there’s something else that’s true about healthy families, and that is often measured by how the members of a family respond and relate to one another when the times get tough. When disaster strikes, when a financial hardship comes one’s way, when we lose a loved one, how do we respond? Jesus said to his disciples on the night he was betrayed, “This is how the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” That is, despite whatever differences may exist (and there certainly come times when there are differences among family members, right?), if you can at least learn to love one another and unite to serve then you will make the world of difference.

I’ve been reading the History of Post Oak Church over the last few weeks and have been truly inspired by the rich history that resides here. Did you know that in the roughly 180 year history of this church, there were at least two times when something occurred to damage the building and the people had to work together to rebuild? In 1912, there was a fire that destroyed the building one night after a revival service. Maybe the preacher said something someone didn’t like or something; I don’t know. Then there was a violent storm only 25 years later in 1937 that brought irreparable damage to the new building. At the end of both disasters, the history says this: “The members of the church began to construct another building donating their time, labor, and materials.” The one built after the 1937 incident was completed in 1938 and is the one we’re sitting in this very morning. A dedicated family will come together: when enemies attack, when the creation seems to wreak its own havoc, when a building collapses, when death makes its unwelcome visits.

But this week as I was preparing to talk about this notion of ‘family’ I thought I would try to think biblically about the purpose of the family. And that is what led me to these two passages this morning, because in these two passages we have two different sorts of families. And the similarities between these two passages begin to unfold as we take a deeper look at them.

In Genesis, humans are given authority or dominion over the earth.
In Matthew, Jesus says that all authority in heaven and earth are his.
In Genesis, in light of this authority and the grace given to humans as being made in God’s image we find the first commandment in the whole Bible: “Be fruitful and multiply…and fill the earth…” (The first commandment is not a “Thou shalt not…” but a positive one.)
In Matthew, in light of Jesus’ authority, he gives authority to the disciples a new commandment and commission: “Go, and make disciples…of all nations…”

My pastor back in Nicholasville helped me see this connection: when we compare how God created the world in Genesis with how God saved the world through the resurrection of Jesus, we will see that being a part of God’s family means that we are commissioned to re-produce what God has produced. God tells the first humans, “Be fruitful and multiply…and fill the earth!” Jesus tells his disciples, “Go and make disciples…of all nations…”

In other words for both biological and spiritual families, for our first parents as well as the disciples, we see that the commission is one and the same: “Go and make some more…” God gathers us and commissions the family of God to go and make some more.

(Again, be careful not to take this too far. We’re not called just to make more who outwardly ‘look like us’ or are ‘kin.’ Remember that we have been adopted into God’s family, a family who welcomes ‘people of all ages, nations, and races.’ But the point is if we are wholehearted followers of Jesus, then Jesus wants that replicated: “Go and make some more like yourselves!” Or as Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”)

If you think about it, this commission even rings true for other beings in creation as well, doesn’t it? Part of our church’s name bears that of a tree: an oak tree. Now, I suppose that the image of the tree may evoke in our minds the stability of a deep-rooted tree, and we may think of psalms and hymns like ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’: “Just like a tree that’s planted by the waters, Lord, I shall not be moved…” That image does give us a good picture of faithfulness and remaining true to our roots. But there’s something dangerous about just holding onto that side of the image of a tree if we ignore a tree’s purpose, which is the same as that of a family. If it doesn’t bear fruit, if it doesn’t re-produce what God produces, then that tree (be it an oak tree or a family tree) will stop right there and will gradually weaken and erode away.

We are commissioned to re-produce what God has produced. (Photo credit: forestry.about.com)

We are commissioned to re-produce what God has produced. (Photo credit: forestry.about.com)

On several occasions, Jesus had little patience for a fig tree that didn’t bear fruit because he saw how God’s people had become like those fruitless fig trees. To bear fruit, however, means we mature and live into Jesus’ commission to “Go and make some more.”

This morning I look out and see many people who are here to remember and to honor those who are our roots, whose lives have gone before us proclaiming the faithfulness of God. The monuments surrounding this building indicate the lives of those who were sure to bear fruit by re-producing the seeds of wisdom and faith that had been passed to them. They were intentional to grow their biological & spiritual families so that we could carry on that legacy that began long before them.

So our strength, brothers and sisters, will be twofold, so long as we follow their legacy: to remember and remain connected to our roots, that is to recognize that we are continuing a larger story than ourselves, a story of God’s loving faithfulness; but the second part is crucial for anything to remain alive and thrive. We must be fruitful and multiply; let us “Go and make some more.”

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Easter is not just a day, but a season of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The Gospel passage for the 2nd week of Easter (this past Sunday) was John 20:19-31, where Jesus mysteriously showed up twice through/behind a closed door to be with his disciples who were gathered together. The first time, they were all there except for Thomas. The second time, however, Thomas was there along with the rest.

A week (or so) separated the incidents, and I can’t help but imagine that that week must have felt like an eternity for Thomas, who wanted no less of an encounter with the risen Jesus than what the others were afforded, but was merely told it was true that Jesus was no longer dead. Underneath the surface, there is something quite wonderful, however, about that week and the relationship between Thomas and the other disciples. That is that despite Thomas’ struggles, his doubts, his defiance at demanding further proof, the others did not cast him out, condemn him, shame him, or beat it in his brains to “just believe!” No, they sat with him in his doubts, broke bread with him (surely more than once in the course of the week), allowed him to struggle and waited with him until the Lord graciously and peacefully returned in their midst. And sure enough, Jesus showed up again.

Though there’s no record of a meal with his disciples in these two gatherings when Jesus appeared, there is, nonetheless, something beautifully sacramental about what takes place and our senses and minds can be drawn to the holy mysteries of Jesus’ resurrection and the meal we celebrate as we await Christ’s return in final victory where we will feast at the heavenly banquet.

In those two encounters, Jesus’ presence was real in the midst of his followers, who were gathered together. He gave words of peace and reconciliation, and offered his body and the marks where he had bled to not just be seen, but even to be touched by those seeking the truth. And he breathed on them the Holy Spirit, sending them into the world as the Father had sent him. If you listen carefully to these parts of the story, you will notice that each of these aspects is integral to our understanding of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.

Jesus offers his scarred body to Thomas (credit: Joel J. Miller's blog on patheos.com)

Jesus offers his scarred body to Thomas (credit: Joel J. Miller’s blog on patheos.com)

Christ is really present in the shared meal when we are gathered together for Communion. In confessing where we had abandoned and/or failed in our design to faithfully follow Christ, we are forgiven our sins and hear the pardoning words in the name of Christ and then share words and signs of peace and reconciliation. Christ invites us and offers his body and blood to us, not just to see, but to touch (and in the sacrament, to partake). The Holy Spirit is poured out upon those gathered and the elements to make it so. We invoke the Holy Spirit to enable us to bear the scars and be the body of a crucified and risen Lord for the world around us. Even the final prayer reiterates this plea for the Holy Spirit’s empowerment for mission: “Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us. Grant that in the strength of your Spirit, we may give ourselves for others, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

“…As the Father has sent me, so I send you…”

I am picking up here where I left off in the “Infant Baptism and the Bible” series. For the first part, see this. Or for more, just click on the “baptism” tag on the right hand side of the page.

When Carrie and I lived in Wilmore, there was one Sunday morning that I turned on the TV and watched the first few minutes of a sermon given by a preacher in Lexington that was broadcast on a local channel. In a sermon on baptism, the preacher opined a great deal about how infants “don’t know what’s going on in a baptism like those who are able to make a conscious decision are” and how wrong infant baptism is. He even suggested that infant baptism had pagan roots and declared that it is a “heathen practice.” And as if his lack of doing serious homework about the history and tradition of infant baptism wasn’t enough, I suppose he hadn’t considered that what he was about to say next went directly against the logic that he was spewing. In the very next sentence he began to make a connection between the practices of circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New. He said, “just as circumcision was the outward sign of an inward change in the old covenant, so was baptism the sign of the same in the new covenant,” drawing on the connection Paul makes between the two practices in Colossians 2:11-12. (Ummmmm…Maybe he didn’t know about the practice of infant circumcision?)

Of course, opponents of infant baptism typically do not appeal to such a strong connection between these two practices, but the analogy between them is worth exploring and is part of the reasons why United Methodists baptize infants (see more in this official document of the UMC). The connecting point between them is that they are the distinguishing signs, or seals, of the covenant(s) God makes with God’s people. In making covenant, God initiates the relationship and agreement, through giving grace and making promises that would be unattainable through mere human effort or merit. Nonetheless, there are expectations of the covenant people to maintain their end of the covenant, which involves obedience to divine commands, living holy and loving lives in response to God’s gracious actions in claiming and redeeming the lost or enslaved people.

When God established covenant with Abram in Genesis 17 (and therein changes his name to Abraham), God says that circumcision will be the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham/his descendants. The commandment given to Abraham was that every male offspring from his line should be circumcised on the eighth day of his life. The covenant seal was to be given to males born in the lineage. Were the infants aware of the expectations they would be expected to meet when they were circumcised? Of course not. But they were taught from the beginning of their lives that they were an already graced and redeemed people in the midst of a dark and broken world. And that there were expectations of being the people of God for those who had been given this grace: expectations including continually turning to God and the ways of God, offering sacrifices for the ways in which they failed to live into their expectations of the covenant, as well as being a “light to the Gentiles.” For Abraham and Ishmael and for the uncircumcised Israelite men about to enter into Canaan (Joshua 5), the ritual signifying and sealing this was done (much to their pain) when they were adults or older youth, as they were about to embark upon the fulfilling of the promise. For every other male born into the lineage, the rite was to be done in infancy.

When God established the new covenant through the death and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus with those who identify as followers of the Christ, the sign and seal of the covenant is baptism. Baptism is the liturgical language used to describe Jesus’ death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-14, Mark 10:38-39 to name a couple). At the birth of the church (i.e., Pentecost), Peter urged the crowds to repent and be baptized that they might receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. His very next statement is that this promise is for the people who respond and for their children. By this, I see already the seeds of where the practice of infant baptism is congruent with this new covenant established by God in Christ. In baptism, we are washed in water and born of the Spirit and this, I read, is not just for adults but for children too. And much of what could be said above re: circumcision can be applied to this new covenant, sealed in baptism. That they (and we) are taught from the very beginning that we are an already graced and redeemed people in the midst of a dark and broken world. And there are expectations of being the people of God for us who have been given this grace in Christ: to live a life of continually turning to God and God’s ways through repentance and confirming or professing one’s faith to the community; receiving the grace of reconciliation and renewal offered through the body and blood of the Lord by partaking in the meal that celebrates the new covenant; and being the “light of the world” that stands in need of this grace.

There are a couple of differences worth mentioning, too. 1.) This sign of the covenant makes no distinction between ethnic distinction. When entering into the waters of baptism, there is no need to attempt to change your appearance, skin color, or ethnic identity. The good news is for all peoples. 2.) This sign of the covenant makes no distinction between genders. Whereas circumcision was a rite only done to males, baptism is for male and female, for in Christ there is no distinction (Galatians 3:28).

For the crowds gathered at Pentecost and for the world who was about to hear about the gospel of Jesus for the first time, the ritual signifying and sealing this was done (without the pain of circumcision) when they were adults as they were to receive the promised Spirit. For every other person born into a family of this faith, the rite could very well be done in infancy. “The promise is for you, and for your children…”

"All ages, nations, and races..." (photocredit: christiantheology.wordpress.com)

“…people of all ages, nations, and races…” (photocredit: christiantheology.wordpress.com)

Thanks for tuning in. More to come as we’ll look more at the book of Acts next time…but don’t let that stop you from commenting or or raising questions in the mean time! 🙂

Yes, you read that right. I have been on the receiving end of the sacrament of baptism on two different occasions. It is true that by faith and practice United Methodists do not re-baptize. It is also (unfortunately) true that many United Methodists do not adhere to the teaching that affirms on solid biblical grounds there is “one baptism” (see Ephesians 4:5).

On March 17, 1991 (I was ten years old), I went to the altar during the hymn of invitation at the end of the worship service at Oscar United Methodist Church. Having already discussed with my parents earlier in the morning the importance and necessity of claiming and professing my own faith in Christ as Lord and Savior, I took the short walk from the 3rd pew from the front…a short walk that seemed ever so long…as those gathered sang the lyrics, “Come every soul by sin oppressed; there’s mercy with the Lord; and He will surely give you rest by trusting in His word; Only trust Him, only trust Him, only trust Him now; He will save you, He will save you, He will save you now…” I spoke to the pastor in a voice slightly above a whisper so he could hear me, “I have put my trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and want to make that public today.” I hung around by the altar as the remainder of the hymn was sung and afterward the pastor announced my desire to publicly profess my faith. I did so and immediately thereafter, as was custom, we began making plans for my baptism the next Sunday.

I don’t remember all the details of the worship service the following week, but I do recall in vivid detail the expressions on the faces of my family (tear-filled with joy), the scenery, and my emotions as I was called forward and as water was poured over my head by the cupped hands of the pastor, invoking the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This experience was very heart-warming for me as is the recollection of it. And were it not my later happening upon a document from an earlier time, there would be no confusion mixed with my joy when asked, “When were you baptized?” or when told to “Remember your baptism, and be thankful.”

But as fate would have it, years later as I was sorting through some pictures and memorabilia from my infancy and childhood, I came upon a “certificate of baptism” that had my name on it and was dated back to when I was an infant. Not being aware such an event had occurred, I began inquiring about this. My parents responded saying that I was not baptized as an infant but that I was Christened. Infant baptism, you see, really wasn’t done much in my neck of the woods. (I would like to go into more detail defending the practice of infant baptism, but I will need to save that for another post as more space than is reasonable for this post would be required.)

Back to the language of “Christening”…Well as I would soon find out, United Methodists do not practice Christening, even though many (lay & clergy) mistakenly confuse it with or substitute this title for infant baptism. Therefore, I must readily admit that for all I know, the pastor at the time of my infancy informed my parents that the ceremony when I was an infant was a Christening. At the very least, there was miscommunication somehow as a certificate of baptism was given to my parents to later be given to me.

Now at this point you may be thinking one of several things: if you’re from certain denominations or faith communities you may be thinking, “You weren’t really baptized either time, because you weren’t immersed”; or maybe you’re wondering, “What was the first pastor thinking not being clear on what was going on?” or “What was the second pastor thinking not investigating to find out more?”; or you may be asking, “Who cares? What’s wrong with it if you were re-baptized?” or something else still. I’m not attempting to be exhaustive.

But how I process and work through my feelings and thoughts on the matter contains, as I said earlier, an element of confusion in the midst the real joy of remembering that I am united by baptism with Christ in his death and resurrection. For the confusion, I’m not sure where to determine what or who is “to blame” or even if blame should be cast. In no way whatsoever do I fault my parents, because they understood my infant baptism not to be a baptism at all but a Christening. I understand their perception of my experience is not a problem and I respect that this whole question may seem totally foreign to them. Mom & Dad, if you’re reading this, I want to say I love you and am forever grateful for the manner in which you raised me to teach me the importance of the new birth, of owning my own faith in Christ and learning to become a better disciple of His. In fact, it was my mother who would one day be the voice of reason and assurance when I was in a period of doubt and confusion, even though I was not able to perceive her wisdom at the time. But that also is another story for another day.

Regarding the question of my baptism, part of me is frustrated with the lack of clarity and/or communication on the part of the pastors who played a role in both ceremonies. The pastor who baptized me as an infant did not do a good enough job of explaining the event as a baptism (i.e., NOT a Christening). Again, for all I know, he may have said it was a Christening, but I’ve been told water was applied. As for the later pastor who “re-baptized” me after I professed my faith in Christ, he did not do enough digging to discover whether or not I had been baptized as an infant. Even if he had asked and was told, “Jeffrey was Christened,” that should’ve raised flags that would’ve led to uncovering the truth and the muddled waters could have been cleared. As it stands, I am at a sort of loss for words when asked, “When were you baptized?” because I don’t have a clear answer.

Perhaps I’m just searching for a scapegoat, but as I am positive that I’m not alone in having had these sorts of experiences, I’m pretty sure that the answer to my conundrum won’t be found in isolating the problem in one or two pastors who in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t do enough to proclaim clearly or search diligently to see if there may be a repeat that would one day cause unnecessary confusion. Perhaps one or both of them didn’t want to stir the pot too much on infant baptism or re-baptism or were uninformed themselves about the issue of Christening vs. infant baptism. But the issue, in my way of thinking, at the heart of this is either not having a clear understanding of the sacrament (which needs to be and can be answered) or of not communicating it clearly enough where people can “get” it. I hope that at least for me (and maybe for you reading this) some headway can be made on both fronts, even though this lengthy post won’t answer anywhere near all the questions that are or will be raised.

Now I will say that I believe the Christian faith can and should allow room for ambiguity and mystery for it is not as though we’re able to fully comprehend life itself, much less the God behind it all. Nonetheless, the acts of (1) our initiation into the life of God in baptism, and (2) our constant participation in the life of God in Holy Communion, are acts that shouldn’t leave us confused, even if the way in which God conveys grace through these means remains beyond our comprehension.

Baptism, as I read it put one way this week, is the sacrament of identity (h/t to Jason W. Jones, current pastor of Bethel & Brooks Chapel UMCs in Calloway County, Kentucky). And as such, it is a sacrament that shouldn’t cause confusion or be a source of identity crisis. We get enough of that already…right, United Methodists? 😉 And if we want our identity and waters more clear then that demands excellence in communication among us who are leaders in various capacities within the United Methodist Church, especially when it comes to these holy mysteries in which God unites us with Christ and each other.

The sacrament of baptism is “something God does!” as the former Lexington district superintendent, Paige Williams, said during one of her visits to Nicholasville UMC. And that is what came to mind as I read and re-read from Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism (3:21-22) in preparation for last week’s sermon. Of course we know that it was John the Baptist who applied water or immersed Jesus, but if you read Luke’s version, it’s almost as if John wasn’t even there. Luke had already narrated his imprisonment and didn’t explicitly name him as the baptizer of Jesus. It is as if Luke was wanting us to see that God is the one doing the action in Jesus’ baptism…and God is the one doing the action in ours too. So it’s not about the pastor, though he or she is ordained or licensed for the function of representing God in baptizing those being initiated into God’s kingdom. It’s not even primarily about the one being baptized, for each of us when baptized are not baptized into our own “Christian walk” or our own individual identities but into union with Christ in the baptism of his death and resurrection, which, by the way, occurred only once.

That’s why United Methodists, at least, don’t re-baptize. Jesus died and was raised again only once. And as baptism is the work/grace of God in uniting us with Christ in his death and resurrection, and is not the work of mortals, it is effective. We have no need to question whether the “first” time was good enough or if “it took.” If we have gone astray and want to be restored, we need only to remember our baptism, and be thankful for our union with Christ. And there are very good ways to do that without causing confusion.

I suppose I should address the whole issue of Christening and infant baptism, but to keep from rambling (if I’m not already), I’ll save that for another day. Thanks for bearing with me!

Two years ago during a brief research visit to Manchester, England, I was introduced to a litany for Epiphany that tugged at the strings of my heart & mind. It was shared by Dr. Peter Rae of Nazarene Theological College at the morning chapel. I am going to share the litany with you, but I also wanted to share some thoughts from Dr. Rae that morning that have come to mind on the occasions when the word “epiphany” has made its way into conversations and reading materials I’ve come across in the time since that morning. Of course, this day (January 6) is the Day of Epiphany. For the Churches in the western tradition (Roman Catholic and Protestant), Epiphany is the celebration in which we recall the visit of the Magi (or wise men) to the child Jesus. For most Christians in the eastern tradition, however, Epiphany is associated with the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God at his baptism by John in the Jordan River, which will draw the attention of many next Sunday in the first Sunday after Epiphany. And it was this account that Dr. Rae focused upon in his thoughts at chapel that morning.
Francesco Albani's painting of the Baptism of Christ. Photo credit: wikipedia.org

Francesco Albani’s painting of the Baptism of Christ. Photo credit: wikipedia.org

Dr. Rae pointed out that for many Christians in evangelical circles, “Epiphany” would show up in the working vocabulary of very few of them. His own first encounter with the term was not in church but in a literature class when a story was told of a man who came to a realization (“epiphany”) of his own identity and significance. Epiphany was that “aha!” or light bulb moment that altered the way that he viewed his place in the world. Epiphany for John the Baptist, on the other hand, was not a realization of his own identity and significance so much as it was the awareness of the significance and identity of Another. “I should be baptized by you…” he tells Jesus. And “I am not worthy to untie [Jesus’] sandals…” still more, “[Jesus] must increase, I must decrease.” These are the words of the one who has had a true Epiphany…an Epiphany of Our Lord, as the day is called. With that, I share with you the litany from that morning. (Since the time of first hearing this, I discovered it was published in a book called “The Wideness of God’s Mercy,” which you can find out more about here.)
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God, Alleluia!
Shout to the Lord, all the earth, Alleluia!
With joy let us pray to our Savior,
the Son of God who became one of us, saying:
The grace of God be with us all.
O Christ, let your gospel shine in every place
where the Word of life is not yet received.
Draw the whole creation to yourself
that your salvation may be known through all the earth.
The grace of God be with us all.
O Christ, Savior and Lord,
extend your church to every place.
Make it a place of welcome for people of every race and tongue.
The grace of God be with us all.
O Christ, Ruler of rulers,
direct the work and thoughts of the leaders of nations
that they may seek justice,
and further peace and freedom for all.
The grace of God be with us all.
O Christ, Master of all,
support of the weak and comfort of the afflicted,
strengthen the tempted and raise the fallen.
Watch over the lonely and those in danger.
Give hope to the despairing
and sustain the faith of the persecuted.
The grace of God be with us all. Amen.
O Christ, light that made manifest as the true light of God,
gladden our hearts on the joyful morning of your glory;
call us by our name on the great Day of your coming;
and give us grace to offer,
with all the hosts of heaven,
unending praise to God
in whom all things find their ending,
now and forever. Amen.

Although it often invites moments of being teased, one of my favorite things to do with family around Christmas is looking through old family photo albums to recall the precious, though sometimes embarrassing, memories from my childhood. When examining afresh the pictures from yesteryear, as a family we get to relive, in a sense, our past and remember and be thankful for God’s faithfulness in bringing us to this moment of our shared lives, even as we anticipate greater days to come. This is what I mean in this post’s title as ‘the art of remembrance.’ That remembrance is more than just recalling stories and ‘memories’ of old, but is an affirmation that when we tell these stories, we are being mysteriously transported into the past and experience it anew. It is our way of living into the story that began before we could grasp it all or before we were even aware there was a story.

Practicing the art of remembrance is more than this...

Practicing the art of remembrance is more than this…

On two different occasions, God’s family was given what we now call the Ten Commandments, and they are recorded in Exodus 20 & Deuteronomy 5. The commandment that should strike a chord as we think about ‘remembrance’ is the 4th one: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” But did you know that in the two renderings of the commandment, there is a difference in the reason given as to why to remember the sabbath? Read them anew…

Exodus 20:8-11 – “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…For in six days the Lord created heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 – “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Did you catch the difference? In Exodus they were called to remember the sabbath for its connection to the story of creation. In Deuteronomy they were called to remember the sabbath for its connection to the story of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Think about that: in Egypt they slaved seven days a week; God commanded them to remember they’re not enslaved anymore and to do so by taking a day off. (If there were ever a day when that message is needed, it would be now.) Remembering the sabbath was their (and our) way of living into the stories of God’s creation and redemption. Even as generations would come and go, remembrance was their way of looking back in gratitude because of God’s loving faithfulness in freely creating the heavens and the earth and in freely rescuing them from bondage.

Remembering is at the heart of who we are as Christians too: when we welcome new members into God’s family and renew our own covenant made in the past to God and the church; when we sit at meals and tell stories of the recent or distant past, recalling how God has got us through times of light and darkness; when we gather to grieve the loss of one of our own, yet remaining hopeful in the resurrection as we recall God’s faithfulness in the lives of those who have gone before us; and of course, when we break bread together and share the cup at the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” I believe he meant more than just “retell this story and recall to mind my sacrifice for you.” It’s more than that, for again, remembrance is more than recollection. Remembrance, in the sacramental sense, is a mysterious act in which we commune with the saints, and Christ is mysteriously but really present in our meal.

When we eat the bread and drink from the cup, our act of remembrance is our way of living into the story of Christ’s redeeming the world through his becoming human in being conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, remaining faithful to his Father, being betrayed, suffering, dying, and being resurrected. Each time we partake of the meal and we remember Christ, we relive our redemption and give thanks (Eucharist = give thanks) for God’s loving faithfulness in rescuing us from bondage to sin and death. I’ve seen it put this way before: “The Christian is one who remembers!” And as St. Paul reminds us, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Have you ever noticed that in the Apostles’ Creed, there are only five persons explicitly named? The Father, the Son Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and Pontius Pilate. At times, I’ve found myself wondering why it is so important to make mention of Pilate in the confession of our Christian faith. Certainly it makes sense that the Persons of the Trinity are highlighted as the Creed announces that at the heart of our belief as Christians is that the deity we worship, who is at work in the world is (three-) Personal. Hence the primary question is not so much “What is God?” but rather “Who is God and how do the Persons of the Godhead relate to creation and the course of history?” And it is certainly appropriate, even for non-Roman Catholic Christians, to draw attention to the blessed Virgin as she is the mother of our Lord, the one in whom Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. But why do we find it necessary to point out that it was under the governorship of Pontius Pilate that Jesus suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried?

[Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”), Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Pilate presenting a scourged Jesus to the people of Jerusalem. Per: wikipedia.org]

Here are a few reasons that come to mind:

1. In the statement, we affirm our belief that Jesus was (and is) a real human person and not a fictional character. Ancient historians other than the authors of what would later be canonized as Scripture also wrote about the leadership of Pilate as the Roman governor over Judea in the first century. Most notably, Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, wrote about Pilate’s cruel treatment of the Jews in and around Jerusalem. As the Creed is traced back to the end of the 2nd century (over 100 years prior to the adoption of the 27 books of the New Testament as canonical), including the reference to Pilate may have served to combat any notions or rival accounts of Jesus that had him as a mere character in a moral story (imaginary or otherwise) or thought that the Evangelists behind Matthew, Mark, Luke and John embellished some of the stories of the man’s life into legends of miracles, prophetic teaching, etc. of a figure who really wasn’t quite so radical as these “gospels” claimed him to be.

2. In the statement, we affirm the importance of Jesus’ location in the course of history during the Roman Empire. This is, of course, related to the first reason as it recognizes Pilate’s relationship between Rome and Judea, but more than that, it directs us to a theological point made by St. Paul in Ephesians 1 & Galatians 4 about what he called the “fullness of time” with regard to the Incarnation of God’s Son. This statement in the Creed makes it clear that the suffering and death which Jesus endured was during the time of and by the tortured means of a government whose empire had dominated the known world at the time. Those who make the confession that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate” hail and acknowledge Jesus as the true sovereign and make this bold claim to pronounce that their sole and complete allegiance belongs to King Jesus, whose “kingdom is not from this world.” As Jesus told Pilate at the trial, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

3. In the statement, we affirm that Jesus really did suffer, really did die, and as the rest of the Creed affirms, really did rise again bodily from the dead. Though this reason is less about Pilate himself, and more about the suffering, Pilate’s role in Jesus’ suffering cannot be denied. As the Creed was being drafted, various accounts and doctrines about Christ were being proliferated, including one idea that claimed that Christ was not actually human, but only “appeared” to be so. (See this article about “Docetism” for more info.) Among other reasons that some made this claim was their belief that the physical world, including the body, is evil and hence God could not really take on  human flesh. Much less could they come to terms with a God who would enter suffering to such a degree as to taste death. Against this sort of understanding lay the tradition handed down from the apostles to the days when the Creed was drafted and adopted and through the course of history to our present day that affirms that Christ was really and fully human and really suffered to the point of death on a Roman cross in Jerusalem, under the gubernatorial direction of Pontius Pilate.

4. In the statement, we affirm that the means by which Jesus saves the world is what the world would be least likely to expect. I really like the way N.T. Wright describes Pilate’s exchange with Jesus (as recorded in John 18:33-40) in John for Everyone:

Pilate, of course, can only see things from a this-worldly perspective. As far as he knows, the only place you get truth is out of the sheath of a sword (or, as we would say, out of the barrel of a gun). Political ‘truth’; my truth against your truth, my sword against your sword, with those two meaning much the same thing. And ultimately, for a Roman governor, my truth against your truth, my power against your weakness, my cross to hang your naked body on.

Ah, but that’s the truth. The truth that belongs with Passover. The truth that says that one man dies and the others go free. Barabbas, the brigand…faces the gallows as well…[but] the Truth stands there in person, taking the death that otherwise would have fallen on the brigand.

Pilate didn’t see it at the time…This is what the cross will mean. This is what the truth is and does. Truth is what Jesus is; and Jesus is dying for Barabbas, and for Israel, and for the world.

And for you and me.

The question in our court is that which was also implicitly asked in Pilate’s: how will we respond when faced with the Truth of a kingdom breaking into this world from another, but which bids us not to take up our swords, but to take up our crosses and be willing to suffer with our Lord in this world?