V Easter

Fr. Joseph Britton

3 May 2015, Christ Church

God’s love was revealed in this way: God sent his only Son into the world  so that we might live through him. (I John 4)

In preparation for today’s baptism, A.’s parents asked if I could recommend something for them to read by way of revisiting the essence of Christian faith. The first thing that popped into my mind was Rowan Williams’ little book, Tokens of Faith, in which the former Archbishop of Canterbury offers his own introduction to Christian belief.

Now for any of you who know Williams’ work, you know that he is never an easy read, even when he tries to be as transparent as he possible—as he did in this book of Christian apologetics, which was originally delivered as a series of Lenten lectures in Canterbury Cathedral. So it was no small task that G. and B. took on in reading it, and I want to commend them for their perseverance.

Their example encouraged me also to go back and have another look at Tokens of Trust myself, and what struck me most in rereading it is that when Williams tries to help us to understand who Jesus is, he doesn’t resort to any complicated metaphysical musings on how God could become human, or humanity divine. There are none of those words about which the early church had such terrible controversies: homo-ousios versus homoi-ousios, or anything like that.

Rather, Williams speaks more directly of how Jesus enacts for us God’s purposes in such a way, that we are able to catch sight through him of who God is, and what sort of life God intends for us to live. In the pattern of self-giving and self-offering that Jesus puts at the core of his life, we come to realize that this is what God is like too. Here is a human life so shot through with the purposes of God, so transparent to the action of God, that we come to speak of its as God’s life translated into our own. For Williams, this is what we mean by speaking of Jesus as God’s own son. God no longer exists remotely and abstractly, but immediately and immanently by sharing his life and love with us through the person of Jesus, so that we may in turn share them with one another. Perhaps this is what John meant by saying in today’s epistle, that “God’s love was revealed in this way: that God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him.”

But there is more: saying “yes” to the kind of life which Jesus models for us—one that is lived for others, and not turned inwardly upon ourselves—is to live in a new world that Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.” Through Jesus, we not only see what God is like, we also see what human life is like when it is ruled by the reign of God’s love. As Williams puts it, “Trust this … [and] you will be living in the everyday world in which many other powers claim to be ruling; but you will have become free of them, free to co-operate or not, depending on how far they allow you to be ruled by God. Your life will be a foretaste of God’s rule; and it will be directed … to resisting the powers (natural and supernatural) that work against God and seek to keep people in slavery.”

So this is the kind of life into which we today baptize A. It is a life in which we live in the new community founded by Jesus, the community we call the church, a community that trusts in the promises and the power of God to enable us to live life graciously, expectantly, generously, joyfully—without fear that we will be overwhelmed by the forces of darkness, death, and destruction.

So, what exactly does a life such as that look like? Well, Williams notes that Christians have used many images to try to describe what such a life looks like. One that he says he has found especially helpful is the performance of music. “When you see a great performer,” he writes, “a singer or instrumentalist, at work realizing a piece of music, you are looking at one human being at the limit of their skill and concentration. All their strength, their freedom, and you could even say their love is focused on bringing to life the work and vision of another person.” Christian life might be thought of in a similar way: when we commit ourselves to be followers of Jesus, we commit ourselves to offering a performance through our own life, of the kind of life which Jesus lived. We become his interpreters, as it were. Or as John put it in his epistle, “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

This is why, incidentally, the church has traditionally taken such an interest in marriage, and why from a Christian perspective, the arguments before the Supreme Court this last week rather missed the boat. Before the Court, the arguments were primarily about rights, and equal protection before the law, and indeed those are important issues. But those are arguments regarding civil society, and unlike civil society (which understands marriage primarily in terms of a social institution useful for the support of families—however that term might be understood), Christian marriage understood in a catholic/sacramental tradition like our own focuses upon the mystery of the relationship between two persons such that they are willing to give themselves to one another fully and without reserve, vowing to live not for themselves, but for one another. There is nothing greater that can be said between two people, than that phrase they say to each other as they exchange rings during a wedding ceremony: “with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you.” That in microcosm is an example of the kind of reconciliation that the church seeks among all people. 

So the reason marriage is important to the church, is that a married couple plays a sacramental, or iconic, role in making visible to all of us the spiritual grace of a life devoted to loving another to which our epistle calls us this morning. Traditionally, of course, this relationship has most often been thought of in terms of the relationship between a man and a woman. But in our own day, we find ourselves asking the question of whether that kind of self-offering to another person can be made in a variety of relationships, and increasingly we are able to say, well, yes, of course it can—and so we feel called upon to respond to those relationships in a spirit of welcome, blessing and encouragement (as we did here in this church in a wedding between two young men yesterday afternoon).

But back to baptism, which is the real subject for this morning. We are offering to A. here today the opportunity in her life to say “yes” to a life lived with Jesus. We are offering her a chance to respond to the love with which God first loved her; to “abide with him, as he abides with us” (as John put it in today’s gospel); to live her life in God’s kingdom, where Jesus has shown us there to be peace and reconciliation with God and one another. In Jesus, these things are not just made visible, but possible, for in the way in which he showed us the Father, he is the one who makes God supremely credible and trustworthy, the one in whom we can truly put our faith as we say, “I believe,” I trust, I have come home to God.

© Joseph Britton, 2015