Becoming too familiar with holy things.

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I just finished reading a wonderful spiritual reflection by an Episcopal priest, Marcus Halley, on why he has started wearing his cassock again. It’s beautifully written and although it is mainly of interest to his fellow Priests, he asks a question that’s important to all of us: Are we becoming too familiar with holy things?

Halley writes:

The Eucharist became another “task,” something else “to do” on a Sunday morning as we priests, the “professionally religious,” engage the hundreds of people who come to Church looking for something – peace, joy, community, love, fulfillment, coffee.  It became a ritual in the worst sense – a habit that I was too familiar with. That Sunday morning when I stood before God’s altar, holding the bread and wine that still seemed to me to be just bread and just wine, I had a moment when I wanted to cry because despite my best effort, I had become too familiar with holy things.

As a former pastor and now, sometimes small group leader, there’s nothing I enjoy more than leading communion. I think it’s one of the most amazing gifts the church has been given. It’s a mystery, it’s wonder, it’s basic, it’s deep, it’s… Something only God could construct.

Even if you don’t subscribe to a sacramental understand and prefer the term ordinance, the question is still valid. Do you take your Bible for granted, do you take the Church and other Christians for granted? How about your baptismal call? How about the death on the cross and resurrection of our Lord? How about your salvation and the leading of The Spirit, working in and through your life? Do you take the very existence of your faith for granted? Is it so well worn that it is no longer new?

Like Fr. Halley’s professor said, we must “always … be on our guard against becoming “too familiar” with holy things.

Fr. Halley found renewal in taking his eucharistic preparation more seriously.  It helped him renew his call as a Priest. How can you renew your baptismal call to live out the resurrection everyday, to be a witness to the Gospel and to seek the leadership of the Holy Spirit daily. Are there aspects of belief that are a little dried up and needs the living water of our Lord to renew them? 

Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his face continually.
Psalm 105:4

It’s so freaking obvious (or, it’s not)!


Anabaptists are fond of saying that they read the plain meaning of scripture first, before we try to do any gymnastics to explain what a verse means or doesn’t mean. Oh, and we don’t start with our theological teleology and back the truck up into our reading of scripture either; no never. This sounds well and good and noble, but sometimes I really wonder how much this holds up.

Take this verse for instance: 1 Peter 3:21

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also–not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

The thing it corresponds to, is Noah and his ark safely conveying people and animals through the flood waters to safety. It is, of course, historical anabaptist doctrine that baptism is only for those who profess faith in Christ and that it is an outward sign of something that God has already done on the inside. In other words, it has no actual metaphysical effect on the believer.

In that context, I’ve always struggled with 1 Peter 3:21. On plain reading, it clearly seems to be saying that baptism is salvific (having a direct metaphysical connection to salvation). “Baptism, which now saves you”. It’s really hard for me to see how we didn’t read our theology back into this verse. The explanation of how why this IS NOT actually making a connection between water baptism and salvation seem to me, at times, to be gymnastics worthy of the Olympics.

First, a selection of perspectives, found in various commentaries and the Church Fathers (sorry, some of these selections are quite lengthy).

First:Baptism has no real efficacy:

From the New American Commentary:
The typological thrust of the text is now specifically stated, expressed in the NIV by the verb “symbolizes,” though in the Greek the word is a noun that could be translated as “type” or “pattern” (antitypon; cf. Heb 9:24). The water that deluged the world in Noah’s day and through which Noah was saved functions as a model or pattern for Christian believers.324 But to what is the water related in the new covenant? The answer is baptism.

From the Holman New Testament Commentary
Verse 21 has also generated great debate. This writer believes that Peter used the historical account of Noah and his family as an analogy for the triumphant salvation provided through Christ. His reference to baptism, however, is not water baptism. The flood waters did not save Noah—quite the opposite. The waters of the flood destroyed everyone in judgment. Noah passed through those waters safely because he and his family were placed securely in the ark. Water baptism does not fit the picture and is not the point.

The point of the analogy becomes clear when we recall that when a person accepts Jesus Christ as personal Savior, he or she is placed into “the body of Christ.” At that moment the Holy Spirit enters that person’s life as a permanent resident. This action is described in the New Testament as “the baptism of the Holy Spirit” (see 1 Cor. 12:13). This is Peter’s emphasis. When you accept Christ, you are placed spiritually in Christ. As this occurs, you stand before God with a “good conscience” (v. 21) because your sins have been forgiven. Water baptism does not provide a person with a clear conscience before God; baptism by the Holy Spirit does.

Second: An attempt at a middle ground

From the Crossway Classic Commentary on 1, 2 Peter
That baptism has power is expressly stated: baptism that now saves you. What kind of power this is, is equally clear from the way it is here expressed. It is not by a natural force of the element. Even when it is used sacramentally it can only wash away the dirt of the body, as its physical power reaches no further. But since it is in the hand of the Spirit of God, as other sacraments are and as the Word itself is, it can purify the conscience and convey grace and salvation to the soul through its reference to and union with what it represents. It saves by the pledge of a good conscience toward God, and that by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Thus, we have a true account of this power, and so of other sacraments, and we find the error of two extremes. First, that of those who ascribe too much to them, as if they worked through a natural, inherent value and carried grace in them inseparably. Second, the error of those who ascribe too little to them, making them only signs and badges of our profession. Signs they are, but more than signs that merely represent something. They are the means exhibiting and seals confirming grace to the faithful. But the working of faith and the conveying of Christ into the soul are not put into them to accomplish in themselves but are still in the supreme hand that appointed them. God causes the souls of his own to receive these seals of his with faith and makes them effectual to confirm the faith that receives them in this way. They are then, in a word, neither empty signs to those who believe, nor effectual causes of grace to those who do not believe.

Third: Baptism is efficacious

According to: Ambrose of Milan. “On the Mysteries” and the Treatise “On the Sacraments.”
Therefore, when the Lord saw that the transgressions of mankind were multiplied, he saved the righteous one alone with his offspring, but he bade the water rise even above the mountains. And therefore, in that flood all corruption of the flesh perished, only the family and pattern of the righteous survived. Is not the flood the same thing as baptism, whereby all sins are washed away, only the mind and grace of the righteous is revived?

According to: St. Cyprian, The Epistles of Cyprian, Epistle LXXV
2. But that the Church is one, the Holy Spirit declares in the Song of Songs, saying, in the person of Christ, “My dove, my undefiled, is one; she is the only one of her mother, she is the choice one of her that bare her.” Concerning which also He says again, “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring sealed up, a well of living water.”9 But if the spouse of Christ, which is the Church, is a garden enclosed; a thing that is closed up cannot lie open to strangers and profane persons. And if it is a fountain sealed, he who, being placed without has no access to the spring, can neither drink thence nor be sealed. And the well also of living water, if it is one and the same within, he who is placed without cannot be quickened and sanctified from that water of which it is only granted to those who are within to make any use, or to drink. Peter also, showing this, set forth that the Church is one, and that only they who are in the Church can be baptized; and said, “In the ark of Noah, few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water; the like figure where-unto even baptism shall save you;” proving and attesting that the one ark of Noah was a type of the one Church. If, then, in that baptism of the world thus expiated and purified, he who was not in the ark of Noah could be saved by water, he who is not in the Church to which alone baptism is granted, can also now be quickened by baptism. Moreover, too, the Apostle Paul, more openly and clearly still manifesting this same thing, writes to the Ephesians, and says, “Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water.”2 But if the Church is one which is loved by Christ, and is alone cleansed by His washing, how can he who is not in the Church be either loved by Christ, or washed and cleansed by His washing?

Next, from First and Second Peter, Jude: Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture
21–22 Stepping aside from his narrative of Christ’s journey, Peter now applies the waters of the flood to us: This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. This is the only explicit reference to baptism in 1 Peter, though baptismal imagery and themes are found throughout the letter (1:3, 22–23; 2:1–3). The syntax of this verse is extremely complicated, and scholars continue to debate how to render it appropriately in English. Yet all agree that the meaning is fairly clear. “Prefigured” translates a rare word in the Bible that indicates here a divinely ordained correspondence between the waters of the flood and the waters of baptism. What happened to Noah is similar to what happens to us, and we can learn about our baptism by understanding Noah’s passage through the waters of the flood. What then is Peter saying? Just as Noah and his family were saved from death by passing through the waters of the flood, so we are saved from sin by passing through the waters of baptism. In both Noah’s case and ours God himself is the true cause of salvation, but the waters are the instrument through which salvation comes.

Peter goes on to clarify that baptism is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience. It is not perfectly clear what Peter means by this contrast. He seems to be saying that baptism does not consist in cleansing the body from dirt (literally, “filth”) but in our appeal to God to give us a “clear conscience.”
A “clear conscience” (literally, a “good conscience,” the same as in 3:16) is similar in meaning to a pure heart; that is, those who have a clear conscience are morally upright and pure. By submitting to the waters of baptism we purify our souls (1:22) by asking God to cleanse us within. It is God’s power that brings about a “clear conscience,” but by actively submitting to baptism we make an appeal to God to accomplish this in our hearts. Some scholars believe that “appeal” is better translated as “pledge,” such that baptism is “the pledge of a good conscience toward God” (NIV). In this interpretation, we are not making an appeal to God to give us a clear conscience but are pledging ourselves to live with a clear conscience in an upright way. Both senses are true: baptism includes our appeal to God and our commitment to him.

In a final phrase Peter shows that the true power for salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is not the water itself that saves, and even less our appeal or commitment to God; it is God who saves us through the resurrection of Christ

Finally, we can’t conclude such a brief outline of views, without quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1094:
It is on this harmony of the two Testaments that the Paschal catechesis of the Lord is built, and then, that of the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church. This catechesis unveils what lay hidden under the letter of the Old Testament: the mystery of Christ. It is called “typological” because it reveals the newness of Christ on the basis of the “figures” (types) which announce him in the deeds, words, and symbols of the first covenant. By this re-reading in the Spirit of Truth, starting from Christ, the figures are unveiled.16 Thus the flood and Noah’s ark prefigured salvation by Baptism, as did the cloud and the crossing of the Red Sea. Water from the rock was the figure of the spiritual gifts of Christ, and manna in the desert prefigured the Eucharist, “the true bread from heaven.”

Now, back to Sacred Scripture: There is this particularly odd verse from Ephesians: “25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,”

So, now baptism is connected to preaching?

Ok, I’m tired just thinking about it now. Truthfully, I’m less concerned about “what” baptism does, as I am the clear necessity for it. I am often distressed at the length of time it seems to take professing Christians to be baptized (if they have not already been as infants and therefore they may legitimately be struggling with the decision to be re-baptized).

… But, that’s for another post.

Essentially, the point of this post was to point out that there is valid diversity of opinion, and that the “plain” reading of Scripture is maybe not os plain after all. Let’s give each other some grace as we work through these things.

Sacrament of Divorce?

I’m bored, so I’m releasing this article into the wilds to stir up trouble…

I’m being facetious in my post title today, I don’t really believe in a Sacrament of Divorce. However, I have been thinking a lot about the notion of separation of church and state and how it applies to various aspects of life, including marriage and divorce.

When my wife and I were married just under 3 years ago, we understood that we were essentially being married twice: once before God, our friends and family, and once by the state (Province of Ontario). The first was the most important and the second more of a detail.  It’s important to keep these things separate in your mind so you understand the true nature of a Christian marriage. In the Anabaptist tradition which historically takes a very hard line on separation of church and state, it would not be unheard of to find two Anabaptist-Christians who were married in the church but never register their marriage with the state.

Here’s my question: in a situation as that, where the division between church and state is so sharp, how do they get a divorce? Pretty much all churches but the Catholic Church, grudgingly concede that divorce is possible; a concession to our fallen natures. We’re not going to discuss the merits of either position here, but I’m curious as to how a church recognizes a divorce apart from the state.

Point 1: Whether you take a sacramental or ordinal view of marriage, it is almost always seen as the one event that the individuals involved perform on each other and the officiant simply oversees, witnesses, and testifies to its’ validity . That is, it is not up to the priest/minister, etc to marry two people, it is the couple that declare that reality. The role of the priest is simply to give the churches’ assent to the proceedings.

Point 2: If a marriage happens when the two people involved, together with the assembled church (and other guests), declare it to be so, when does a divorce happen? A couple is married in the eyes of God when this is complete, it has nothing to do with the states opinion. In fact, in some sense, the states recognition of a marriage is retroactively applied because you have to send in the paperwork, etc. So, if we value a distinction between a valid state marriage and a valid church wedding, when does a church recognize that a divorce has taken place?

Point 3: Even if you are married before the church and in the eyes of the state, when does a divorce happen? When the state says so? This is problematic because now we’re giving power and control over to the state for a marriage that was also validated by the church. We are ceding jurisdiction over to the state for something that we agreed initially was valid in the eyes of the church regardless of what the state said.

So, again, the question is: how does the church know when a divorce has taken place? What is the church’s role in marking that divorce? If a couple is validly married in the church but never seeks state recognition – how do THEY get divorced and what is the church’s role in that? And what about remarriage?

This isn’t meant to be a polemic against divorce and remarriage, I’m still in the air on this myself. These are simply some questions that I’ve been asking myself as I ponder the question of separation of church and state. If a divorce is only valid and real when the state says it is, then why does that not apply to marriages as well and are we not giving up power to the state?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Should we dedicate our children?

Once upon a time all infants were baptized. Baptism carried with it two meanings: one of state citizenship and one of supernatural citizenship. So, when the anabaptists came along and not only refused to baptize children but re-baptized adults they were not just attacking the ruling church’s authority but that of the state’s as well.

Fast forward to today, we have largely left the state connection to baptism behind, but are still divided on the question of infant’s and what to do with them. Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, Lutherans, Presbyterians and some others still baptize infants, while Baptists, Anabaptists, most independents and others do not. Over the years this has left a bit of emotional hole in the psyche of some Christian parents who don’t hold to infant baptism, but none-the-less feel the need to “do something” with their children. It is important to note that not all paedobaptists (those who baptize infants) believe that anything in particular “happens” when the water hits the skin. Presbyterians don’t believe that baptism represents a washing away of sin as the Catholic Church teaches, but they still see a scriptural and historical warrant for it.(1)

Enter infant dedication. Infant dedication is a ceremony (or “event” if you prefer) where a child and their parents come before God and their congregation, friends and family and promise with the help of God and the community to raise the child according to their faith in Christ. The ultimate hope is that one day that child will choose to enter into a relationship with Christ themselves.

You wouldn’t call dedication a sacrament, nor is it even an ordinance, for it is nowhere commanded by Jesus. That’s because it doesn’t really have any basis in scared scripture as something Christians should do. It is borrowed from our Jewish friends and their tradition of taking a newborn child to the temple for dedication and naming. We see this recorded in the gospels in the case of Jesus (Luke 2:22-24).

I’ve been to a handful of Christian dedications and I’m even been privileged to do one for some dear friends of mine. I am, however, becoming less and less convinced that this is a practice the church should engage in. Now, to be sure, I have never heard anyone say “you must dedicate your child”, indeed, quite the opposite if true. There is nothing salvific or even particularly metaphysical about the event as opposed to some version of infant baptism that see the child being remitted of all original sin.

So, if it doesn’t do anything, then it’s not necessary. And if we mandate it then we’re doing it as tradition and wouldn’t that be terrible?! (slight sarcasm)

There was one dedication ceremony in particular that set me on this path of thinking about the validity and wisdom of infant dedication. It was for the beautiful new son for some friends of ours. It was a great and special time, but I came away thinking “the only difference between this and a baptism, was the water” (some even refer to dedications as “dry baptisms”). For some reason this really bugged me. Is this what we’re arguing about is this substance called water? I mean, if the words the minister/pastor says are virtually identical to a baptism, then are we just kidding ourselves? Are we truly being consistent with our beliefs by instituting something in place of something that we say we shouldn’t do. Are we somehow assenting to the very practice we’re eschewing?

Of the small group of anabaptists and baptists I’ve consulted for this article, they’ve all said it’s not essential, but appreciate the meaning behind the ceremony. One even said, if he had the choice, he wouldn’t do them, but because of the sentimentality attached, he would perform a dedication if pressed. He would be very clear however that this is not baptism and the child still needs to come to faith on its own and choose to be baptized.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s sinful, I’m just not sure it’s consistent. Baptize or don’t, but if you’re not going to baptize maybe we shouldn’t import a ritual from another faith (even if it is our faith of origin as it were) to fill that gap that is purely cultural and sociological.

I’d welcome your thoughts. What do you think? Can we dedicate our children while having complete integrity with our faith and stated position about baptism?

(1) Redeemer Presbyterian in New York (Tim Keller’s church) has a good explanation of it’s position on infant baptism (PDF).