Once upon a time, in the land of Arabia, Malik, son of Dinar, was upset about the disgusting behaviour of a young man who lived next door to him. For a long time Malik took no action, hoping that someone else would intervene. But when the youth's behaviour became absolutely intolerable Malik went to him and asked him to change his ways.
The youth calmly informed Malik that he was a friend of the Sultan and so nobody could prevent him from living the way he wanted.
Said Malik, "I shall personally complain to the Sultan." Said the youth, "That will be quite useless, because the Sultan will never change his mind about me."
"I shall then report you to God above," said Malik. "God above," said the youth, "is far too forgiving to reproach me."
Malik felt quite helpless, so he left the youth to himself. But after a while the young man's reputation became so bad that there was a public outcry about it. Once again Malik decided it was his duty to attempt to reprimand him. As he was walking to the youth's house, however, he heard the voice of God say to him, "Do not touch my friend. He is under my protection." Malik was thrown into confusion by this and, when he got to the presence of the youth, did not know what to say.
The young man demanded, "What have you come for?" Said Malik, "I came to reprimand you, but on my way here the voice of God said: `Do not touch my friend. He is under my protection.'"
The young man's face changed. "Did God call me His friend?" he asked. But by then Malik had already left his house. Years later Malik met this man in Mecca. The young man had been so touched by the words of God that he had given himself to live and love amongst those crippled by poverty. "I have come here in search of my Friend," he said to Malik.[i]
I have long loved this story for it captures the essence of the Christian faith – namely that God first loves us, regardless of who we are, what we have done, or what we look like, before we ever respond to God. The first and paramount truth our faith is that we are loved, and that love does not need to be earned.
Once we know this truth we may, like the badly behaved young man, choose to respond to it by loving others. Another reason I love this story is that the response of the young man is not to ascribe to a set of beliefs, or even to join a church, but to search for God through caring for others and seeking justice for them.
So baptism, like Lauren’s this morning, is not only a declaration of God’s unconditional love, regardless of anything she might do or believe, but baptism is also an invitation to Lauren to lead a life seeking God through service to others. It’s a call as F.D. Maurice once said to ‘become who you are’.
But there are other truths than just these in baptism.
The Christian faith would say that not only is God outside of us and unconditionally loving us, but inside us and loving us, and in all the in-between-ness and loving us. As the 2nd century writer of the Acts of Apostles says, ‘In God we live and move and have our being’ [17:28]. In baptism we recognize that we are immersed in God. Indeed we are baptised into the Holy Trinity – the Trinity being that unique way Christianity tries to talk about God. We are in God.
Our poem[ii] this morning from J.K. Baxter has a Trinitarian shape. The first person of the Trinity – sometimes called ‘Father’ or ‘Source’ or ‘Creator’ – [names all of which are problematic] – points to the above and beyond-ness, the mystery, of a God-infused love. And our vocation here, ‘in the furnace’, is to learn to love this God and one another.
The furnace refers to the story in Daniel about three Jewish men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who refused to bow down and worship a golden statue. The king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, had them bound and thrown into a furnace. But, so the story goes, the flames had no effect on them. Nebuchadnezzar, amazed, relented and decreed: ‘Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb’ [v.29]. (I kind of think the king didn’t get it!!)
Baxter uses the metaphor of a furnace to allude to the destructive flames of our current world: greed, consumerism, addictions, violence, etc. In Baxter’s second verse he says ‘the hope and doom of the love of friends is eating us up’. We won’t walk out unscathed from this life. Loving others has a cost on us.
In his verse 3 the 2nd person of the Trinity is introduced. The Christ – that ongoing essence of Jesus – is described as a house. The body of Jesus is a house ‘in whom we live’. It’s a house that works for reconciliation [the cup of peace], that knows brokenness, and is ultimately a mystery [beyond the stars]. This house is made up of all who try to follow the way of Jesus, including all those who are baptised. We are joists, and floorboards, and light fittings, and front doors – all nailed, glued, and fitted together.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12 uses another metaphor – a literal body. He talks about us being the body of Jesus – so we are cells, or organs, or bones, connected to one another. We are the almost inseparable, ongoing essence/presence of Jesus in the world. We, the baptized, are corporately the eyes, ears, hands… of Jesus. There is no other body of Christ but us.
You might say, but hold on, I might look fine but really I’m not. There is a lot of muck and yuck in my life. I’ve screwed up a number of times. I’ve hurt others, I’ve hurt myself. How can I be a member of the body of Christ? Surely you’ve got it wrong! Maybe you just mean that I’ve got potential. If I pull my socks up, work harder, please more people, I’ll make it – I’ll make a good member of the body of Christ.
No! All who are baptized have been recognized and welcomed as already members of the body – no matter what we’ve done; no matter what we will do. You can’t earn God’s favour.
The 4th verse introduces the 3rd person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit – that which gives us life: Love herself.
I heard a story of an archaeologist who was in field digging, trying to find an ancient spring and the stone marker beside it. In the middle of the field was a tree, beneath which a group of cows were enjoying the shade. Well he dug all around the field to no avail. Finally he looked at the cows and realised that he would have shoo them away and dig through the dung, where sure enough, a metre down, he found the spring.
The teller of this story likened this to his own life, that after digging through the muck of past relationships and mistakes he found that the Holy Spirit, the spring of living water, had always been there.[iii] This spring is sustenance, is hope, is Love herself, bubbling up to inspire, to guide and to heal.
Interestingly Baxter finishes his poem with a reference to Isaiah 49:15 – an amazing image. God, the eternal mother, is breastfeeding us. By her love she is giving us the power to be holy, namely the power to love others and ourselves.
Eugene Peterson reminds us that our Greek theological ancestors used the term perichoresis to describe the Trinity. Perichoresis is the Greek word for dance. It focuses on the movement of God, rather than the persons/ae[iv] of the Trinity, and that we are part of that swirling, foot-stomping, gyrating goddish movement: the dance of the Trinity.
So we are part of that movement that is mysterious beyond, that is deep connection of house/body, and that is bubbling spring – a movement that is born in love, suckled in love, and known by love.
It is into this movement of God, which we call Trinity, that you Lauren have been baptized. In knowing yourself to be always loved and accepted by God [just as you are], knowing that this life can be difficult and scorching, you are now invited to dance in God. Welcome to the St Luke’s Presbyterian Dance Club!
[i] p.85ff., A. De Mello, The song of the bird, Lonavla, 1982, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash.
[ii] J.K. Baxter “Song to the Lord God” http://anglicanprayerbook.nz/147.html p.160
[iii] Told by the Revd Martin Smith. Martin Smith is well known throughout the Episcopal Church as writer, spiritual director, retreat leader, and teacher exploring contemporary spirituality.
[iv] Personae is not the same as the English word person. Personae originated with the idea of a social role or character played by an actor. The Greek word hypostasis means an underlying reality or substance. The Western Church used personae of the Trinity three, and the Eastern Church hypostasis.