Word/Sacrament

Baptism, Blood, and Battle

Baptism, Blood, and Battle

Many people struggle with the concept of biblical continuity. They impose unnecessary breaks in the Bible. They put commas when God has put a period. The same takes place in matters of sacramental importance. The Bible becomes a place full of rituals and rites. These rituals and rites have a purpose in the Scriptures. They shape the humanity of the Israel of God. Israel becomes a people because they participate in these important initiatory experiences. We are all shaped by experiences. These experiences in the context of the Church make us who we are. They identify us with a certain community. In ancient Israel, the Hebrews were identified by their bloody signs. These signs connected us with a bloody religion; the religion of our forefathers.

These signs were to be identity-markers. As God’s people transitioned in leadership these signs remained. As God’s people went through periods of obedience and disobedience, these rituals remained. As God’s people were organically joined with the Gentiles, becoming one flesh–like husband and wife–these rituals remained. Now, it is not that the rituals remained unaffected in every detail. In fact, they changed drastically. The once bloody identity markers were replaced with cleansing markers. There is lots of cleansing taking place in the New Covenant. This happens because Jesus’ humanity changes the world.  Jesus’ humanity humanifies the world. The presence of Messiah in word and deed pushes back the dirt and corruption and darkness and incompleteness of the Old Covenant rituals. There is a temporary nature to particular rituals, but the rituals themselves continue to a thousand generations.

The issue of continuity is a fundamental aspect to this ritual-laden world. The rituals continue, changed by times and places, but the object of these rituals never decrease, they only increase. In other words, every male boy at eight days old was to be circumcised (Gen. 17). There is no reference of explicit female circumcision, though there are indications that females should be spiritually set apart as the boys. But in the New Creation, entire households are brought forth for this cleansing ritual called baptism. Every Gentile and Jews, male and female are made explicit recipients and are called to partake of this new sign.

The New Covenant is a covenant of abundant life, and abundant life means blessings to the nations. Baptism saves to the uttermost because Christ saves to the uttermost. You cannot separate the abundant life Christ gives with the abundant life of the means Christ provides for His own.

The individualized language of modern sacramental and evangelical theology is a departure from the type of language the Bible has trained us to use when referring to rituals. Rituals have always been communal activities. The glory of the many in the Old Creation is not substituted by the radical commitment of the one in the New Covenant. Jesus is always and perpetually connected to a body in His ascension work. To divorce Christ from the body is an act of covenantal treason. Continuity is key to understanding this process. It is not as some assume that the sacrament of baptism needs to depart from the Old Creation. The sacrament of baptism is so inextricably tied to the bloody rites of the Old Creation that it cannot be divorced from it in any way, shape, or form. Blood makes room for water. Bloody-martyr-servants make room for cleansed-martyred servants. Still, One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Baptism is a welcome party for martyrs. In baptism, the noble army of God is equipped to serve and battle. They do not begin anew, but they continue the ancient battle begun in Genesis. They add their powerful voices and armors to the battle. They are consecrated in water, their swords are sharpened, and their helmets are strengthened. In the heat of the battle while the enemies find no place to call home, Yahweh prepares a table in the presence of His enemies.

Baptism is preparation for a life-long war. Christ leads the baptized saints. He washed them with great care and equipped them to do the work. This community of faith directs their love to the One who adopted them in love. Baptism is loyalty to Messiah. Baptism cleanses, restores, and adorns those who undergo the great cleansing. To deny a continuity of rituals is to deny the war on the serpent. All God’s children need to be ritualized, so they can war.

Proportionality in Worship as Model for Life

Proportionality in Worship as Model for Life

Christian worship offers us a sense of proportionality. Perhaps in your Christian walk you may have asked, “How much time should I give to confession, how much time to rejoicing, how much time to meditating on my sins, how much time to meditating on the victory of Jesus over my sin? Questions like these demonstrate that we long to orchestrate life in a faithful way, so that we do not over-stress one element over the other. We don’t want to over-do one area, while neglecting the other.

This is why Covenant Renewal Worship is helpful. It gives us a sense of proportion. While certain worship paradigms provide for us a wholly sin-confession oriented service, the pattern of the Bible indicates that worship and life need to be carefully structured.  If you spend too much time focusing on your sins, you will neglect the resurrection’s message of forgiveness from your sins. On the other hand, you may become too triumphalistic, therefore neglecting the importance of repentance and confession of sins.

In worship there is time for confession proper; that is, a set-aside time to kneel and repent of your sins corporately and individually. This is done so that we may cleanse our hearts and minds before God anoints us with Word and Sacrament. That is confession proper; formal confession of sins.

Children know this well in their day to day affair. They need to be cleansed before they can enjoy a meal. But if they spend most of their time cleansing themselves, or if they spend the same amount of time cleansing than they do enjoying or learning, we would say that this is a disproportionate use of their time. Washing oneself is crucial and cannot be absent, but we wash so we may learn and live life with joy.

Does that mean then that I can no longer confess my sins throughout the service? Absolutely not. If something hits you with great force during a sermon, confess then. But what you must understand is that after our confession of sins corporately, we move into a time of corporate celebration. It is a time when God builds us up through His divine Word and the elements of bread and wine. And this takes considerably more time in our worship than confession. This is the case because the celebration of Messiah’s victory over death has a more prominent role in the worship of God.

We can say then, that while Christ has called us to confess our sins for a short time, we ought not to dwell there for most of the time. We are living under the empty tomb era of human history. We ought not to be triumphalistic, but we are to be triumphant Christians knowing that our Lord has conquered death and hell, and has established a people and a kingdom where righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit are abundant.

So, on this day, confess well, but then rejoice greatly for the God of our salvation calls us into this presence.

 

Little Priests

Little Priests

The Heidelberg Catechism states that “by baptism, the sign of the covenant, infants should be incorporated into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers.” In Exodus 19, God said that Israel was to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. They were to be set apart from the nations to be a dedicated people to God and God alone.

God’s people always have always been known by and through their signs and symbols. The symbol, then, that affirmed this set-apart status, was the ritual of circumcision in the Old Covenant. To be a royal priest meant receiving a royal sign. This visible sign would incorporate the child into the covenant body and distinguish him from the children of unbelievers. In the Old Covenant, undergoing this ritual meant inclusion in a new nation, a new people.

This is precisely what baptism does: it activates the royal priesthood of the one being baptized. To be baptized is to be in the priesthood of this royal nation called the Church. This is the grammar of incorporation.

When a little child is marked with the Triune sign, he then begins his journey into maturing in his priesthood. And we as a church have this calling to add our voices, our love, and example to the least of these. Little priests imitate big priests.

 

Identity and Self-Esteem

Identity and Self-Esteem

Models of self-esteem have crippled a generation of children. “Our children need a certain positive identity,” they say. And to enhance their mental and spiritual health, we must teach them that Everybody must win in every game.  No wonder grocery stores are filled with rotten kids who torture their moms when they do not get what they want.  The reality is everybody must lose, in order to understand that life is filled with inexplicable moments of pain. There is, however, a form of self-identity that is biblical, and this is the identity that needs to be stressed again and again. Our identity is in Christ. His baptism is our baptism. His death is our death. His life is our life. The baptismal font, to quote Vander Zee, “becomes our coffin.” And, I might add, our empty tomb. Our identity needs to be christened. We need more death and resurrection, and less self-esteem pep talks.

James Jordan on Paedocommunion

James Jordan on Paedocommunion

Brian Moats went through the trouble of transcribing this long quote from James Jordan’s lectures on paedocommunion (well worth the read):

“”Think back to the garden. Adam and Eve…this time they don’t sin. They have a child. Does the child grow up knowing the Lord? Yes. The child, from the womb, is bonded in. Bonded to the mother and to God, just like John the Baptist who leaped for joy in the womb when he encountered Jesus. John as a fetus encounters Jesus as a fetus, and John LEAPS for joy….that’s a response of faith. People say, “do you believe children can have faith,” and I say, “Man I believe a FETUS can have faith!.” John the Baptist had faith in the womb. Now, I don’t know how much intellectual content it had, but he recognized Jesus. His heart had faith.

…back to Adam and Eve. The children would have grown up naturally knowing the Lord. They wouldn’t have to make a decision. Now, as they grow older they become more self-conscious in that relationship. Sin is what destroys this whole pattern of life…these bonds. If salvation means anything, if we are Trinitarian in our view, then I submit that to mean that these bonds [of father and son,community] are restored.
Our children do grow up knowing the Lord. Now, is that because we are MADE righteous and so our children are conceived without sin. NO. They are conceived in iniquity. They are born in sin, they are born dead. But the pattern of redemption follows the pattern of creation, and God baptizes our children and puts them in a relationship with himself. They may grow up to be an Esau and they may break this, but they start out inside by baptism. We don’t baptize our children because we presume they are regenerate. We baptize our children because we presume they are unregenerate… baptism is our claiming the promise.

Salvation, by implication, restores these relationships. It’s not just an individual thing. The Holy Spirit comes and we would expect then that God would put our children into a relationship with Himself just as if Adam and Eve had not sinned their children would have grown up in a relationship with God. And that’s what we find, of course. Have you ever known 4-6 year old children in Christian families who didn’t believe? If the parents went to church and brought their children along? And prayed [and discipled them]? Have you ever known small children who don’t believe? No. They do! They may get to be 13 or 14 [etc] and rebel, but when they are young they receive the faith of their parents. That’s God’s way. If God didn’t want it that way he wouldn’t have caused us to come into the world as little kids. There is nothing wrong with that [being a kid]. We think, somehow or other, there’s something wrong with that…for a child to believe what his parents tell him. That’s not wrong, that’s God’s way! If God didn’t want it that way children could pop into the world at the age of 20 who could make his own decision. Think about this. God’s way is for children to start out believing what their parents say, and then then begin to get to the point where they move away from their parents by degrees. First of all, there are terrible two’s where the child moves a little bit away. Then there’s terrible five’s, then there’s adolescence, and then eventually the child is out of the home. And each one of these defines a new stage and a new relationship with the parent. These stages are real. At each stage the child relates less to the father and the mother and more directly to God. That’s what we want. Children relate to God as Father. When they reach adolescence they begin to relate to God as husband. And that’s why they get involved in a passionate need to have a relationship with God the son that is like a spouse, for the same kinds of reason that they start to look for someone of the opposite sex. God puts them in a stage of life where they want a complementary relationship. Before that time they relate to God as a Father, they just climb into his lap. That’s not wrong. It’s just a different stage of life.”

Jesus’ Housewarming Gifts

Jesus’ Housewarming Gifts

Life is filled with deaths and resurrections. We like the idea of resurrection, but we like it as long as we can skip through the deaths. But life in Jesus is inescapably deadly. Like Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ wonderful Narnian stories, Jesus is not safe. When God intervenes in our lives and gives us His Son, we are entering into a dangerous journey. It is a fantastic journey, but not a safe one. Sometimes we will come near death like Epaphroditus. Sometimes we feel like death has conquered us. But in these moments God provides us a meal of thanksgiving; a weekly reminder that death is not here to stay; that hope and resurrection is not far from us, nor is it an impossible thing to contemplate. The reason why we obey Jesus in doing this often is because Jesus likes to intervene in our lives often, and when He does, He likes to bring us a housewarming gift. This is His gift to us and when we enjoy it we give him thanks. Let us receive his gifts and give Him thanks.

The Atomization and Individualization of the American Baptist Culture

The Atomization and Individualization of the American Baptist Culture

I know this is not the most friendly of titles. But there it is. The inspiration for the title came while re-reading a book edited in the 80’s by my theological mentor, James B. Jordan. The book is controversially entitled The Failure of the American Baptist Culture. a Though the title seems to put all baptists into one camp, the reality is that much of the evangelical landscape has changed in three decades. Today you will find baptist leaders declaring the glories of community life and the dangers of an isolated Christian experience. On the other hand, some modern Presbyterians have embraced this atomization in the Church. Some take this approach out of fear of sounding like post-modern clerics. So, they mistreat the corporate realities of the covenant and borrow baptistic vocabulary to do so, while claiming that they aren’t doing so.

Another way Presbyterians continue to pour gas into the individualist’s fire is by refusing to give communion to the least of these. Yes, I know that much–though not all–of the Reformation fell into this same trap and so I am the first to admit that my beloved tradition did not fully reform in every respect. Paedocommunion is not only a wonderful ecclesiastical response to the individualism that plagues the modern church, but it also affirms the covenantal promises of God to a thousand generations. It re-orients us to the unity that is inherent in the baptismal tradition of our forefathers.

In the book’s introduction Jordan wrote:

The failure of most of the Reformers to advocate paedocommunion, the development of the rite of confirmation, the rise of scholasticism, and later on the development of individualistic revivalism and anti-liturgism, all evince the strong nominalistic drift in all Christian thought in recent centuries.

What churches need to ask then is, “What practices force us to look beyond ourselves?,” or positively framed, “What ecclesiastical practices can help us restore this covenantal call issued by our Hebrew forefathers?”

The answer seems simple to me. But there are still several road-blocks to overcome in this process. Presbyterians have for far too long embraced the presupposition of our baptist brothers. Moving away from these presuppositions is the first step to avoiding the pitfalls of the individualized baptist culture. At the same time, I hasten to add that baptist theology today, especially in more reformational contexts, have become ripe for the type of language and practices I am advocating. While it is true they will never practice paedocommunion or paedobaptism, they are already using familiar corporate language that rings joyfully in any Calvinists’ ears.

The bottom line is we need to re-think these nominalist tendencies that may find a home in both circles. We need to see them and cut them out immediately. The individual cannot exist apart from a community. As Bonhoeffer observed in his classic Life Together, 

We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.

In this one-anothering, we find that isolationism is detrimental to the Christian experience. A wholistic Christian faith does not atomize, but incorporates. And in this incorporation, community finds its ultimate agenda fulfilled, the glorification of the kingdom culture.

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Self-Giving God at the Self-Giving Table

Self-Giving God at the Self-Giving Table

What does this table represent? It represents the blamelessness and innocence of Jesus Christ. To whom is this table given? It is given to the blameless and innocent community of Jesus Christ. In Christ, our lives are rescued and our lights shine brightly in a crooked and twisted generation. This is why the Supper is for us a renewal of our races. It is here where Christ reminds us that our race is not in vain and here where He reminds us that it took the pouring out of body and blood to get us in the race to begin with. It is this self-giving theme that dominates this table and it is this self-giving theme that unites us as a people.

Celebrating Communion by Myself

Celebrating Communion by Myself

There is a trend in the evangelical world today. It has gone for far too long unchallenged. It is the personalized and individualized practice of solo communion. As the words of the Eucharist are being said, evangelicals immediately curl up and enter into a mystical state of self-analysis. This continual introspection follows the common theme of most evangelical churches. It follows a form of worm theology. One feels “unworthy”–to use Paul’s words– of partaking of the Eucharist. a

This is manifested when the recipients contemplate their sins or manufacture images of the crucified Jesus in their mind during the passing of the elements. By interpreting Jesus’ words “remembering the Lord’s death” as a reference to silent meditation and contemplation of one’s sinfulness, evangelicals have by and large returned to 16th practice of private mass. As Jeff Meyers rightly observed:

But there’s another problem with the way modern Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper that might be labeled as “private mass” or maybe just “private communion.”  The word “communion” refers not only to our communion with the resurrected Jesus through the bread and wine at the Supper.  There’s also a horizontal dimension to the Table that flows from union with Jesus.  We are united with one another.  We commune with Jesus and with one another.  “Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17).

A proper evangelical liturgy will do well to include occasions for confession during the service, but the Lord’s Supper is not that place. If there is something that needs to be dealt with may it be done before the Supper or before the service (preferably). But do not let the Lord’s Supper become a time to catch up on your confessional account.

The Lord’s Supper, then, is to be a time of great enjoyment and relaxation. Jesus gives His Bride rest from her labors, so too we are to enjoy the rest given by our Lord. The Church needs to enjoy the company of one another; they need to one another one another with words of comfort and joy, rather than somber individualized contemplation.

The Table is for our enjoyment. The God of joy broke His Son, so that we might be one, and then He gave us His joy in wine that we might give thanks and embody that joy in the communion of saints. “Celebrating communion by myself” cannot exist in a community. Community exists so that we might esteem others better than ourselves. In the Lord’s Supper, introspection is not desired; rather, incarnational theology is lived out together.

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Baptismal Joy

Baptismal Joy

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