Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Promise and Presence


This is an outstanding book on the nature of the Sacraments. God spoke in many ways to me through reading this book. It struck me through the reading of this book and subsequently a re-reading of Scripture, how powerfully God meets with us in and through the Sacraments.
A must read for all in my opinion.

A personal reflection on my own spiritual journey in the light of the Sacraments

As someone who was, day-by-day and week-by-week, actively involved in the modern day culture of binge-drinking and late night clubbing, a quick fix of good feeling was a regular ‘pot of gold’ that I searched for. Endless days and nights were spent in search of the best way to feel good for the longest time no matter the cost materially and emotionally. So when I encountered a form of Christianity that tapped into my feelings and delivered a ‘high’ that seemed to deliver this quick fix that I was constantly searching for, I was naturally intrigued. Soul Survivor was where I encountered this Christianity and it was here that I first ‘experienced’ God. Yet it would be some months later when I was baptised and this desire for ‘quick fixes’ would be taken from me. Four years later, as I now reflect on that time, it seems that until my baptism, not much changed in my attitude or actions after Soul Survivor when I first ‘experienced’ God. I certainly believed in God, certainly believed in Christ’s work on the cross, yet still believed in a quick fix of feelings, and now believed in a God who, along with alcohol, could supply me with this quick fix. Yet at my baptism I encountered God in a completely different way than before. At my baptism the things I had heard, the promises that I had read, and the forgiveness that I had been told about, seemed to finally make sense, they seemed to become real for the first time. What happened at my baptism that did not happen when I had my ‘experience’? It is from here that I want to reflect on my own spiritual journey in light of my baptism and subsequently in light of Communion.

John Colwell writes in Promise and Presence that ‘baptism…is not so much a first step on the pathway of discipleship and obedience as it is the means through which we are set on the pathway of discipleship and obedience in the first place.’ Certainly this rings true in my own experience of baptism, for it was after my baptism that any notions of living a life worthy of my calling came to pass. Indeed on the day of my baptism I was recovering from a night of heavy drinking and came to the church smelling of cigarette smoke. My perception of these acts was not of disobedience to this God I was now being baptised in the name of, nor did any doubts over my ‘suitability’ to be baptised enter my thinking, rather it was from this point that I sought baptism, and it was my hope that, from baptism I would begin walking on the right ‘pathway’. I came to baptism with the hope and expectation that I would meet with God in a way far above that which I had already encountered him. I was hoping for more than an ‘experience’ of a quick fix, but I was seeking something that would be the beginning of a process whereby I was made more like Christ. It was at baptism that my addiction to cigarettes and alcohol was taken from me, and it was at baptism that my desire for a ‘long fix’ became my focus, that is, I desired to know God and his ways. So what happened at my baptism that ‘cured’ me of my addictions and, more importantly, caused a real desire to cast off the old and walk in the new? It is here that I want to continue this reflection.

In Acts 2 Peter addresses the crowd after the Holy Spirit has been given to the disciples who had been ‘together in one place’. After Peter has addressed the crowd Holy Spirit moves among those listening and they are ‘cut to the heart.’ Subsequently they call out to Peter asking what they should do in response to this ‘cutting’. Peter declares that they are to be baptised for the forgiveness of their sins. He then goes on to tell them that they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, a promise not only for them but also for all who are far off. The Acts narrative then goes on to describe around three thousand of them responding and getting baptised. What is interesting in my own experience is that I too had a cutting of my heart prior to my baptism. I certainly had a conviction of my need for God and I responded, not with baptism, but with a prayer. This prayer was not led by anyone, it was not a ‘sinners prayer’, but a prayer I prayed quietly to myself after I had recognised my need for Christ. Yet it was at baptism that a very real sense of forgiveness and inclusiveness occurred and it was here that from my own experience, I believe I was given the Holy Spirit. So this promise that God has made through baptism came to be at my own baptism, not because I could manipulate God to fulfill his promise, but because God is a God of grace, and baptism is a means through which he administers his grace to us. The giving of the Spirit at my baptism resulted in a change of attitude and behaviour. A very real conviction over my lifestyle resulted after my baptism and things began to change, in thought, word and deed. However, if baptism and communion (of which we will look at shortly) are those means through which God has promised to meet with us and administer his grace, if these sacraments are the ‘signs and seals of a promise’, why do we seemingly seek God through other unmediated means? If at communion we participate in his body and his blood, why does there seem to be a desire to participate in Christ through other unmediated methods? If at baptism God has promised to give us his Spirit, why is it commonly only seen as a symbolic event pointing to a work that has already happened in the person’s life? In my own spiritual journey baptism was not presented to me in this way. The assistant Pastor of the church I attended told me that at my baptism I would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. He told me to expect much from the day and to be sure of God’s promise to meet with me in and through my baptism. The result was a day that, for me, defines my Christian walk and I believe was the moment when I stepped onto the ‘right path’. However, the view that baptism comes with a promise of God’s mediated presence is not, I believe, a common view within the life of the church. Indeed, moving onto communion, it seems that a common view of communion is that it is only an act of remembrance and that nothing happens in the partaking of the meal. Yet baptism and communion come with a promise of presence and action from God. These are the means through which God has promised to meet with us and act, yet it seems that we seek God’s action through other unmediated means. A recent event I attended seems to highlight this point.

It was a ‘youth event’ that I attended and the music group led the congregation in a time of music worship. This lasted for some twenty minutes and there was a continual ‘invitation’ for God to come and join us. While the music was good and while I have no problem with music worship and see it as a valuable gift from God, this is not the means through which God has promised to meet with us. Over and over the leader was singing to invite God into the meeting and it struck me that night that music worship has become a ‘sacrament’ within the life of the church. John Colwell writes, ‘Whenever there has been a belittling of the sacramental dynamic of the Church’s life, other symbols, events and experiences – themselves neither divinely ordained nor pregnant with a divine promise – have assumed a pseudo-sacramental significance. The proclamation of the gospel, instead of being accompanied by baptism, is accompanied by ‘alter calls’ and ‘decision cards’. Christian assurance is sought, not in the divine promise inherent in baptism and the Eucharist, but in pious feelings or ecstatic experiences.’ This dynamic of replacing the sacraments with other events and experiences seemed to come across very strongly at this youth event and, after reflection, seems to be an all to common experience in my own church and many of the churches I have attended. Granted, my Soul Survivor experience was after a long period of music worship, yet it was not after this experience that any real change happened in my life, it was through my baptism that I met with God on a far deeper level than before. Furthermore, not only did I meet with God through my baptism, God mediated his gracious presence through my baptism, by the Sprit, and an indwelling of the gospel story took place. Jesus death and resurrection were no longer a part of history; they became a reality to me in the present. Moreover, this indwelling of the gospel story happens each time we come to the communion table and it is at the communion table that my most significant encounters with God have happened. Certainly during the times where words run dry, feelings grow cold and God seems somewhat distant, communion has been valuable and vital in my Christian walk. To share in Christ and know his faithfulness, even when I am faithless, is a promise more precious than gold. Therefore, this knowledge of God’s promises made through baptism and communion are paramount in our walk with God, for whenever our feelings fail us and deceive us, God’s promises are there to hold and stand firm in.

Baptism was the means through which my journey with God became a living reality. The experience that I had at Soul Survivor was a stepping stone in my journey and certainly had an impact in my journey towards God, yet it was at my baptism that I encountered God in such a way that the desire to follow him and his ways brought with it a conviction over the lifestyle I was choosing to live in. There was an expectation at my baptism of the fulfilment of the promise that God has made through baptism and the subsequent giving of the Spirit at my baptism was a fulfilment of the promise that God has given, not because of my expectations, but because of God’s faithfulness and gracious presence in and through baptism. Furthermore, my journey with God deepens and evolves each time I come to the communion table. His story becomes my story as I eat the bread and drink the cup. The reality of the death and resurrection of Christ is known at the table, regardless of the place I am in as I come to the table. In the same way, at baptism, the reality of the death and resurrection of Christ was known and indwelt as I was buried and raised in the water. This reality and indwelling happens through these means because these are the means through which God has promised to act. The reality and indwelling of the gospel story is not promised through music worship (although God is able to act through them) therefore, it is at the sacraments that I will continue to seek to indwell the gospel story and it is through the sacraments that I will continue to know the reality of the life, death and resurrection of Christ.