Monday, June 27, 2016

Archbishop 101: Being Christian
by Rowan Williams

Four talks delivered during Holy Week by then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams make a congenial two hour read in Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  The Archbishop gently emphasizes an idea not so congenial to the rugged individualists of America, that nothing about being Christian is a private matter.

[Photo:  Williams writes that icons of Jesus's baptism have long put "old river gods" and creatures at his feet in the water, a reminder of the new creation that Baptism represents.]

Baptism would seem to be a ritual cleansing to prepare the individual for church membership, but Williams makes it the opposite, an immersion into the messiness of the whole world.  Literally a "dipping," it's the word Jesus uses to speak of his impending death (Luke 12.50; cf. Romans 6.3).  Williams sees baptism as a ritual descent into death and chaos, a statement of "solidarity" with the rest of humanity.  As Jesus was "anointed" in baptism to be "prophet, priest, and king," we too must challenge the community as prophets, restore relationships as priests (who did that with ritual sacrifice in Jesus's day), and speak to God on behalf of the people, as Kings would do. 

From the start, some Christians have maintained that a truly baptized Christian cannot sin, but Williams reminds us how Paul's letters testify to the persistence of the old life as we live into the new one. 

Noting that most Christians and Jews before Gutenberg heard Scripture, Williams tells us to get beyond the image of a single reader in private study.  He asks us to hear Scripture as Jesus intended his audiences to hear his parables, that is, to ask, "Where am I in this story?"  To read the laws, chronicles, letters, sermons, visions, poems, and legends as if they're all "really" rules or history, he says, is to miss what God does want us to hear from the "whole":
This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me;  this is the gift I gave them;  this is the response they made.... Where are you in this? (27)
God wants us to hear in Daniel, not the details of Babylonian history, but how his people react when they are displaced, persecuted, and living under a hostile state (37).  Proving accuracy of details in the Bible, Williams says, is beside the point, as if disciples had interrupted Jesus to learn the Prodigal Son's name.

While the New Testament, written closer to the events described, is more historical, Williams does not think that the New supersedes the Old.  Re-read it all, relating "the bits" to the central motion towards Jesus.  Williams shows such motion even within the Hebrew Scriptures.  For example, Jehu's massacre of King Ahab's household is lauded as heroic in 2 Kings; in Hosea 1.4, it's recognized as a shameful act of violence (35).  We benefit from reading with others in community, as we learn from the identification of impoverished Latin American parishes with the Hebrews in the Exodus story.  "Hearing" the Scriptures at different times in our lives, with others' perspectives in mind, we will keep finding fresh understanding.

Gathering with friends and strangers at meals wasn't just "a pleasant extra" to Jesus's ministry, but his mode of operation. Spying Zacchaeus in a tree above the throng, Jesus stops and asks, "Aren't you going to invite me to dinner?"  He ate with others "indiscriminately." Meals shared after the Resurrection make clear that we, inheriting his ministry, should be about sharing meals, too. His voice in Revelation calls us, "Open the door; I will ... eat with you , and you with me" (Rev. 3.20).

Williams advises us to remember that the others partaking in Eucharist beside us and around the world are equally invited.

He also points out that we eat, "not because we are full, but because we are hungry," and we must acknowledge our hunger, i.e., the need for repentance, before we partake.

Williams cites Origen (d. 254) for his basic insight, that we pray "in" Jesus, not "to" Jesus.  Even the communal recitation of the Lord's Prayer before communion, Williams told us in the previous chapter, is a manifestation of the spirit in us.  Before we can pray in solitude, we must first be at peace with others. We let God work in us; the simple prayer, "O God make speed to save us" (Ps 40.13), familiar to me from Evensong, is a good instant prayer during daily activity.

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