February 7, 2015

Baptism, Experience and Faith

Sundre Baptism 2015.jpgSeveral people have asked me if I noticed the dramatic difference between my January (Anglican ) Sower article on the “Battle Belongs to the Lord” Conference at St. Peter’s, Okatokes; and the opposite facing article “Understanding Aspects of Christian Faith” (which questioned both sin and spiritual evil). I did, and believe this has given us an opportunity to reflect on how differences in our teaching and experiences of God can lead to very different interpretations of our Baptismal Faith. This points to a need to listen to those who have different experiences of spiritual life - as opposed to dismissing them as misguided. Allan Miller has done us a great service by raising basic questions about the Nature of God,  sin and evil and the meaning of Baptism which are on the minds of many modern people. It is not just theological ignorance, but differences in our personal experience of the spiritual dimension that affect our interpretation of Faith and understanding of Baptism.

  1. The Nature of God

The Good News is that God is not “best described” as a “mystery”. This is a fuzzing and deconstruction of  the supernatural worldview of the Bible that has been going on since the Enlightenment. God is best described in the 66 Books of the Bible which are a 3,000 year record of God revealing Himself to humanity through creation, personal experiences, poetry, prophecy and words of knowledge. While some of these books may sound mythical and contain minor factual errors; we can not dismiss the Bible as a reliable source of information about God. Contrary to liberal teaching the supernatural worldview of the Bible is ‘scientific’ and historical. Scientific because there is massive evidence that the  miraculous healings of Jesus have been repeated in our time. There is physical evidence for most of the Biblical stories. The problem is we are skeptical and need personal experience of the supernatural to really understand and believe.

In addition to the Bible text we have access to  a vast literature of Theology describing God as a Trinity of three persons in one united being. This is a simple but also sophisticated definition. It is simple in that each of the ‘persons’ can be thought of as teaching us about a cluster of the main attributes of God. In summary the Father attributes represent the holy, creative, authoritative, protective natures of God. The Son represents the physical, human, compassionate, loving and forgiving nature of God. The Holy Spirit is the spiritual person of God who comes and lives in the Baptized to help them understand God through words of knowledge and prophecy, conviction of sin and healing power.

The Baptism Promises include belief in God, as defined by the Apostles Creed. The Apostles Creed, distilled from and interpreted in the light of the Bible is our non-negotiable Faith, the minimum one must believe in to be Baptized as a Christian. If people do not agree with or ‘like’ this summary of Christian Faith, it is often because they have never read the whole Bible, been properly instructed or had a personal experience of the Holy Spirit. My experience is that in spite of baptism as an infant and some instruction at Confirmation; it was not until i read the whole Bible in my 30s that i became a serious believing Christian. Similarly I did not understand or really ‘believe in’ the Holy Spirit or Satan as a spiritual force of evil until I had personal experience of both healing and the demonic.

The ‘takeaway’ from the differences in the two Articles is that we have had a massive failure in Baptismal preparation and Christian formation in the Anglican Church. In contrast, my Nephew recently spent two years as an adult going through weekly Catechesis Classes to be Baptized in the Roman Catholic Church.

2. Sin,  Evil and Separation from God
the 1960s Pierre Burton criticized the Anglican Church for watering down its teaching on sin in his book “The comfortable pew” as a misguided attempt to make the Church more ‘relevant to the culture’. This was of course the opposite from ‘proclamation’ and an abandonment of ministry. This trend has continued with many more liberal clergy skipping the “Confession and Absolution” in the BAS - as is now permitted. The motive for all this was to avoid the destructiveness of clergy in using sin and guilt as a way of manipulating and controlling others. But we may have thrown the baby (Jesus) out with the bath water.

So what is sin? Many of us grew up with the unhelpful idea that sin was “missing the mark” - i.e. failure. As Allan so rightly says, many modern people find this offensive. Sin is technically anything we do that is a rebellion against the teachings or Commandments God has given us. These teachings or commandments “the Law of Moses” or the New Covenant of Jesus (i.e. love God, neighbour and self / the Lord’s Prayer / the Eucharistic prayers) are simple tests of love. If you love God you do not fail to observe the Sabbath. If you love your neighbour you do not steal from her. Small failures to love can become a pattern. The Pharisees in Jesus time worked so hard to keep the Law (pride) that some eventually began to hate the Law-giver (God). When these failures to love become destructive to others (i.e. deceit) they become destructive to our souls. Our soul becomes conflicted. Our mind, will and emotions want to do something that our personal spirit (the part of us connected to God) knows is wrong. Our soul becomes polluted. This can become a big problem because God is holy and can not be in the presence of un-holiness. It would burn up in the fire of His holiness.

The bad news is that we are not alone. The supernatural worldview of the Bible - from Genesis to Revelation includes spiritual beings called angels, archangels, principalities, powers, demons and of course Satan. It is so interesting that modern people flock to Dan Brown’s heretical movies about the human struggle with spiritual forces of evil but dismiss the Biblical explanation as pre-scientific mythology. Academics and philosophers have been trying to deconstruct the healing miracles and exorcisms of Jesus since the Enlightenment (actually endarkenment). The counter argument is that the Bible is neither unscientific or mythological because later Christians have experienced the same supernatural healing and freedom from demonic oppression in all places and at all times in history. The challenge is that most of us have to personally experience the supernatural spiritual battle to really believe in it. This is the main difference between the two Sower articles. The people speaking at the “Battle Belongs to the Lord” conference had personally experienced and had good teaching on the supernatural dimension that many people, including those talking to Allan Miller had not. The bad news is that what the Bible teaches is true - we do have a supernatural enemy who tempts us to sin - so we do need a Saviour.

3. What is the meaning of Baptism?
A few weeks ago the Lectionary Readings included a prophecy (Isaiah 61.11) which jumped out at me as a an answer to the overarching question of what God is trying to do in Baptism:
“For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow,
so the sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.”[

Baptism is defined as a sacrament which we used to explain as ‘an outward visible sign (washing) of an inward spiritual grace (forgiveness and inclusion in the Heavenly Kingdom). Allan is absolutely right that it is an affirmation of human preciousness, specialness and an introduction to the love of God. But it is also much more - and we need to go a much deeper. As former Archbishop Nazir-Ali noted, people do not just need inclusion and acceptance - they need conversion and transformation.

Conversion is what we see in the Baptism of John, which Jesus submitted to as we celebrate on the “Baptism of Jesus” (Jan. 11). This was not because Jesus needed purification, but because he needed to model the importance of repentance and washing away the past before entering a new, spiritual covenant relationship with God. This is the “new Covenant” of Jesus we mention in Eucharistic Prayer 3. This is the ‘acceptance’ and ‘inclusion’ part of Baptism. The historic canonical definition of being a Christian is one who is ‘a communicant’ - receiving Holy Communion (at least three times a year). Water baptism is based on the Hebrew custom of welcoming non-Jews into community fellowship - and separating them from a probably pagan background.

he ‘transformation’ part of Baptism is a lifelong process. In the Reading for Baptism of Jesus Sunday (Acts 19.1-7) the Apostle Paul is explaining that the Baptism of John was a Baptism of repentance and conversion that preceded the Baptism of Jesus - a baptism of spiritual transformation through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The sad thing is that many Anglicans are never taught about the Holy Spirit - the person of God who daily guides, strengthens, convicts and heals us. It breaks my heart to see young people searching for spiritual life and experiences of the supernatural in non-Christian religions when they could have had it all in their Baptism.

The point of all this is that we need to ‘up our teaching game’ in the Anglican Church and learn to listen to each other - particularly those who have had a different experience of the divine; if we are to grow and be spiritually transformed in our Baptism. This would also help us to stay together as one Anglican Church instead of the current move toward liberalism and separation.

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