Belonging and Baptism

Belonging and Baptism

Glynn Cardy 22/1/23

There is a great little parable in the series by Arnold Lobel where Grasshopper meets members of the ‘We Love Morning Club’ who were singing, dancing, and proclaiming the wonders of the morning:

“When does the clover sparkle with dew?”  “In the morning!” cried all the members.

“When is the sunshine yellow and new?”  “In the morning!”

Grasshopper likes their enthusiasm, positivity, and delight in the morning.

But when he lets slip that he likes afternoons and evenings too, the Club members turn on him.  They scoff at him, yell at him, and throw him out of their Club.

Lobel’s message is similar to that of Kate de Goldi’s book, “Clubs”.  There is a club that one can belong to, and there is a club that can hit one over the head.  And sometimes the two are the same.

Yet surviving in suburbia, surviving the stresses of both the absence (and sometimes the presence) of family, we need friendships and connection with those with whom we might share common interests.  We look for communities to belong to.  Communities of friends, neighbours, those of similar background, culture, and religion. 

The danger is always in creating for ourselves our own echo chamber – associating only with people who mirror our own values and understandings.  A bit like how computer algorithms shepherd us into a pen of the likeminded.  Indeed, one of the huge problems we have seen with the Trump presidency and reactions to Covid prevention measures, is this siloed approach to truth and the manipulation of what is considered to be a fact.

Churches are not immune from this.  There are lots of examples of religious groups using circular logic to confirm their ideas, and then refusing to listen to anyone who differs.  When it comes to truth, history teaches us to be wary of closing our minds to the thoughts of others.  Instead, we need to always have a critical subjectivity, drawing on the insights of the logic and thinking in many different academic fields, to refine our thoughts and sometimes change our minds. 

Churches too know the importance of community.  We gravitate to places, people, and preachers who offer music, liturgies, and sermons that even if we don’t agree all the time we can agree a lot of the time, and find both sustenance and challenge.  And inevitably whether churches use labels or not, they become labelled.  No church caters for everyone.  A church might say that it welcomes all but, like being welcomed into someone’s home, some will find it a place where they could imagine belonging yet others won’t.

All church labels – ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’, ‘evangelical’, ‘Presbyterian’, ‘Christian’ – are coded pointers, reflecting something of the history, journey, and understanding of that place.  But there will be people who don’t agree with the preacher or even the vision of the parish, yet stay part of that community for a variety of reasons.

I think the health of a group – whether a group of morning loving beetles or a church – is in their ability to celebrate and proclaim their values and vision whilst at the same time keep a space – literally and figuratively – for that which is other, contrary to, or strange to, their normal ways of thinking and operating.  Which can be hard to do.

The reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians this morning indicates that this issue of belonging and group-think is not new.

We now know that in the first two centuries after Jesus’ death there were a variety of Jesus groups – and one of them, ‘Chloe’s people’, is mentioned by name here.  Of course, the name indicates their leader was a woman.  We also now know that not all the letters that are ascribed to Paul in the New Testament were actually written by Paul.

The custom of writing in the name of someone held in high esteem was common in the ancient world. Philosophers’ students would write such works.  Others in later generations would often write in the name of someone famous.  Works appeared that named Aristotle as the author even as late as the Middle Ages. 

Some early Jesus followers wrote in Paul’s name using the form of the letters he wrote.  These authors did not have bad motives.  As a new generation of Jesus followers confronted new issues, they were asking, “What would Paul say about this?” They answered that question with their own points of view.  Their perspectives did not necessarily agree with what Paul said during his lifetime.  Scholars read these writings with an awareness of the changing situations of later generations of Jesus communities. 

Scholars refer to the “seven undisputed letters” as the ones that are generally agreed to be Paul’s own.  In the order they appear in most editions of the New Testament, they are Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, First Thessalonians, and Philemon.  Some of the letters may also be composites of parts of letters composed at different times, too.  However, these seven letters are the ones that Paul wrote before his death, probably in the mid-60s CE in the later part of Emperor Nero’s reign.   

So, our reading today comes from an authentic Pauline letter, written probably in first 20 years after Jesus’ death.

In this passage, Paul is concerned that the Jesus message and commitment will simply be regulated to ‘philosophical schools of thought’, as was common in the Greco-Roman world.  So, one would belong to the Apollos school, following that mentor.  Or the Cephas school, or the Paul school.  Your belonging to Jesus would be mediated by commitment to your school and its leader.

Paul could have easily have been addressing the rise of denominationalism.  For each denomination, and indeed each church offers a way of belonging to Jesus mediated by commitment to that denomination/church and its leaders.

Paul firstly criticises the idea that by a leader baptizing you, that leader gains your allegiance.  The Church today has by and large taken Paul’s critique to heart.  Our theology is that a person is not baptized as a St Lucan, or as a Presbyterian.  They are baptised into Christ, namely into a ‘body’ that is far larger than any and every denomination.  Similarly, they are not baptized as a disciple of the minister of that church, nor is there any payment or gift demanded or expected. 

So, you might ask to what or whom does a baptised person belong? 

Paul’s answer would be: ‘to the foolishness of the cross’.  The cross is literally an instrument of torture, and metaphorically it speaks of shame (rather than honour) and powerlessness (rather than potency).  The Anointed one, for Paul, was therefore one of the shamed and powerless, standing alongside the shamed and powerless, in order to include them in a vision of how life might be.

So, a baptised person belongs not just with their family, group, or tribe, but belongs with all the shamed and powerless, a great ‘body’ of people (creatures and ecosystems), who strive for a vision of restoration, justice, and mutuality.  Which of course might not go down too well with your family, group, or tribe. 

Another way of saying this is that we are baptised into the world, not out of it.  We are baptised into the struggles and joys of making the values and vision of Jesus a reality.

Yet we need communities to belong to, to belong with and alongside others, whilst also being aware

our belonging is more universal, and the best communities don’t define or restrict us but encourage us to broaden our horizons.

Everytime, we listen to or read the news we are confronted with tribalism.  Tribe Russia and tribe Ukraine.  Tribe China and tribe Taiwan.  Tribe New Zealand and tribe Australia.  Tribe Labour and tribe National.  Many leaders use tribalism to cement belonging, pride, and vision.  And many do so by denigrating other tribes.

The best leaders though call us to look beyond tribal boundaries to values and commitments that can benefit all.  In the tributes following the resignation of our Prime Minister this week, Farid Ahmed, a survivor of the 2019 Christchurch terrorist attack that killed 51 people – including his wife, said Ardern’s “universal call for human unity with compassion made me cry with joy then, and it makes me cry now”.  It is that ability of a leader to help us raise our eyes and hearts up from our own contexts and limitations in order to see a commonality, a unity, that can be good for and embrace all.

This is what the likes of John Hick and Jack Spong called a ‘Copernican Revolution’ – that our world does not revolve around each of our own tribal communities (of allegiances to theology, or culture, or nationalism) but that we are all part of a bigger revolution around what enhances life for every one and every thing on planet Earth.   This is what ecumenism in its best sense calls us to.

The esteemed historian Arnold J. Toynbee once argued that the religious system that survives into the future will be the one that proves capable of expanding and evolving in such a way as to embrace and learn from other religious and human systems.  Toynbee hoped that Christianity would prove to be this elastic.  Toward the end of his life, however, that hope began to diminish, for he saw Christianity harden into a brittle, defensive posture, making final and ultimate claims for its present understanding of truth.

The pull of tribalism is very strong, and many political and religious leaders play to its audience.  Yet many of the issues of our time won’t be solved by tribalism, but by cooperation, learning from, and giving to each other – across the divides of difference.

And its to that end, and with that company, that I believe we are baptised into.