Something for Sunday

Romans 6: 4

We were buried therefore with him by Baptism unto death so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the father we too might walk in newness of life.

Modern people have some very funny ideas about religion. They think that going to church is rather like going to a restaurant seeing the word steak on the menu and then eating the menu card on the assumption that that the card is the steak itself. Consequently they find worship rather indigestible and somewhat unsatisfying. And you hear them say “can’t see what people find in it. All those long words-must mean something to the chefs but as for me I’d rather have the real thing. Just put it in front of me and I’ll eat it.

This to confuse the symbol with the reality. When we go to the restaurant we are faced first with a symbol-sometimes it is written in a strange language-the reality comes later in the form of the food. Very often the more obscure the language the better the food turns out to be. So when I go to France or Italy I’m careful to pack my menu reader otherwise I won’t get the best out of the trip.

Worship in Church is rather like reading the menu. And what are printed on the menu are stories pointing us to the ways in which we might live our lives. We read about the great figures in the bible and we think: yes I could do that or yes I’ve been tempted that way, and when Jesus says to His disciples: Follow me we think. Well why not! Why should I go on living the selfish life I’ve always lived? I could do something better. Let’s go for it.

All of us find meaning in our lives through symbols. We hear stories; we see events on TV and sometimes they capture our imagination. Yes we think that’s how life is nowadays. Dreadful isn’t it! These things hold up a mirror to us in which we see ourselves. The Grenfell Tower fire was like that for a lot of people. They are the ways in which we find meaning in the events of our time.

The life of Jesus is the key symbol of the Christian faith. It’s what has captured our imagination as Christians. It’s not as if we are asked to live our lives exactly as he lived his-that’s impossible. Instead we are called to follow him. He lived a selfless life devoted to the kingdom of God-we could follow that-yes we really could! He suffered-we’re going to suffer too-oh yes we are! But we could suffer to some purpose just as he did. And remember God vindicated him-raised him up. So we might be raised up and renewed-we could walk in the light of the glory of God. Yes we really could.

The story of Jesus has been compared to one of the rings you see in a tree trunk when the tree is cut down. We only see the ring at the point where the tree was cut down but the ring actually runs right through the tree. The ring that we see corresponds to the life of Jesus that we read about in the New Testament. It’s the bit of God we saw. The symbol that stands for all the rest. For the life and reality of God is the same for every age and that reality can give meaning and purpose to our own humdrum existence.

I once had a colleague who wrote a book called “Cooking up Worship”. He thought worship was like a meal with a starter, a main course (for him the sermon) and a dessert. I think this is a misunderstanding. Worship is like reading the menu not eating the meal. Worship, like the menu card, always points beyond itself to a new life lived in the power of the spirit.

Now in the passage from Romans Paul discusses the meaning of what is perhaps the key Christian symbol: baptism.

Baptism is about deciding to follow Jesus. Hearing the good news, renouncing evil, dying with Jesus and rising with him. The whole thing is a kind of re-presentation of Easter. We die with Christ, we rise with him. The water used is not a symbol of cleansing or washing-it’s a symbol of dying-death by drowning. Sprinkling a few drops of water over the baby’s head does not really make that clear. The idea of the death of our sinful bodies is also problematic for many when applied to babe in arms.

This brings us up against a Christian idea-that of original sin-the idea that humanity is fallen and that sin is universal. That consequently all of us stand in need of the grace of God-given through baptism. It’s an idea at variance with our sentimental notions about childhood innocence. I say our sentimental notions but personally I have no such notions myself. You see in me a true believer in original sin. I am completely at one with St Augustine who describes the selfishness of infants in some famous passages, which were obviously inspired by direct observation.

Baptism then is a kind of picture of the Christian life. A bit like the pictures of meals you sometimes see on menu cards. The picture always looks good, the reality on the plate in front of us may often be rather disappointing. That’s life.

In the end though the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In the restaurant the promise is in the menu and the reality is the food on plate-which may or may not live up to the promise. In the Christian life the symbols are what we share in this building but the reality is what is lived beyond this building in the community. Orthodox Christians –the Christians of Greece and Russia call this the worship beyond the worship. When this service is ended the real communion begins-the feeding of the hungry-the seeking of the lost and the lonely-the work for justice and peace. Here we see only the symbols-there we meet reality face to face.

Holy Communion services in the Easter season take up this point in the way they point us forward at the end.

Alleluia!

Go in joy and peace to love and serve the lord.

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