St Ninian

St Ninian

Sun 13 Sep

Today we honour St Ninian, Bishop of Galloway, and the first in a succession of Celtic missionaries – including Patrick, Columba, Aidan and Boniface.  

Historical data is sparse, but the following seems to have some authenticity about it: 

Firstly, he was born in southern Scotland, and travelled to Rome where he received instruction in the Christian faith.  He was ordained bishop around 397 CE.  He came under the influence of Martin of Tours, whose monastic life and evangelical zeal Ninian admired.  Ninian visited Martin on his way back to Scotland.

And secondly, Ninian established a monastery called Candida Casa [Whithorn] in Galloway, South West Scotland, and from there ventured forth into Cumberland and southern Scotland north of the Roman Wall, establishing churches and monastic cells.  He died around 432 CE.

His association with Martin of Tours is suggestive that he may have held similar views. 

Martin, some 50 or 60 years Ninian’s senior, was renowned as what we would today call a conscientious objector.  Or more plainly, he believed his commitment to Christ was in conflict with the commitment of an imperial soldier.

One of the legendary stories of Martin has him cutting his cloak in two to share with a beggar.  This was eulogized into a dream, with Christ wearing half a cloak.

Martin engaged in the theological debate surrounding Priscillian, who was denounced as a heretic.  However Martin objected when the State, becoming increasingly intolerant of perceived deviancies, wanted to execute Priscillian.  Martin was critical of the State’s violence.

These stories of Martin indicate both a commitment to and compassion towards those who were poor, or were a theological minority, as well as a vision of society that was different from that of the Empire.  I would like to think Ninian learnt from his mentor in these regards.

Ninian certainly adopted Martin’s mission strategy.  Martin pioneered the monastic way as a means of converting the countryside, the church having largely been confined to towns and cities until then.

Without idealizing it too much the monastic strategy was to set up groups of Christians committed to an alternate vision of both faith and practical living.  It was a strategy that underlined the importance of community, and in the context of community life Christ would be known and proclaimed.

This commitment to community life, and the idea that the everyday practicalities living are inseparable from God and faith, is the basis of much Celtic spirituality.

Over the last few months I have been studying the authentic letters of Paul.[i]  And today, in the spirit of Ninian, and his mentor Martin, I want to share two of what I think were Paul’s ideas about Christ and community.

Firstly, the Christ community – or better: the community of the Anointed crucified – is a community of subversive memory, reflected in their language and deeds.

And secondly, the ritual of baptism re-enacts symbolically what it means to die to an old life and its allegiances, and to be raised into a new one with its allegiances.  Baptism is not about assenting to a set of beliefs per se, but leaving a hierarchical community founded on patronage and joining an egalitarian community founded on justice for all.

Jesus was born into a world where there already was a Son of God.  And that Son of God, who also had titles like ‘the Lord’, ‘God of Gods’, ‘God incarnate’, ‘Redeemer’, and ‘Saviour’, was the most powerful man in the known world: Caesar Augustus.  When Paul wrote in the 50s that Caesar was Nero.  Words like ‘justice’, ‘peace’, ‘gospel’, ‘grace’, and ‘salvation’, were all part of Roman imperial theology.

The Emperor was the all-conquering one [Imperator], which was the evidence not only of his extraordinary gifts but that he was the Son of God.  Being a crucified rebel like Jesus was not evidence of being the Son of God.  Indeed to call Jesus such was either a joke or treason.

Dom Crossan, in discussing the title ‘the Lord’, draws a parallel with the German word ‘Fuhrer’ [meaning leader].[ii]  In Nazi Germany ein Fuhrer simply meant ‘a leader’.  But Der Fuhrer was ‘the leader’.  There was only one Der Fuhrer in Nazi Germany, and to call Jesus or anyone else Der Fuhrer was treason.  So too in Paul’s time with his language the Lord or our Lord – it was a treasonous confrontation with the Empire.

Imperial theology achieved ‘peace’ through prayer, war, and victory.  ‘Peace’ was the subjugation of dissent.  This was the ‘wisdom of the world’ – the common sense of the time, also known as providence, the will of heaven.

The Jesus movement offered a counter-theology.  It was radically egalitarian.  ‘In Christ’ there was no longer race, religious, class, or gender inequalities.  An example is the letter of Philemon – where Paul entreats Philemon to not only take back and forgive his runaway slave Onesimus, but to do his Christian duty and voluntarily free him.  Christians were to be equal to one another – both inside the faith and out in society.

Further this counter-theology of Paul’s pictures God not as a King or Emperor but as a householder – a father/mother.  God is a house-holder and we are all children of God – brothers and sisters to each other.  The phrase ‘brothers and sisters’ appears more than 50 times in Paul’s authentic letters.  Paul was deliberately creating a new family-like community of caring and sharing.  And, not surprisingly, this new structure was appealing to those on the margins of the old structures of hierarchical patronage – women, former slaves, widows, foreigners, the poor, those newly migrated to the city… 

This Pauline family-in-Christ is not a hierarchical, patriarchal family but a subversion of it.  It is a family where each person receives a fair and equitable share, and each has enough.  It is founded on the notion of distributive justice.

Jesus theology therefore, contrary to imperial theology, achieved peace through prayer, non-violence, and distributive justice.  “There will be peace on earth, said imperial theology, when all is quiet and orderly.  There will be peace on earth, said Pauline Jesus theology, when all is fair and just.”[iii]

The phrase ‘the Anointed [or Christ] crucified’ is a code subversive of imperial theology, subversive of the top down ‘wisdom of the world’, and subversive of normative hierarchical social relationships enforced by violence.  It was the catch cry of a community subversive in its language and deeds.  I think we can hear whispers of this subversive Jesus memory in some of the stories about Martin.

Secondly, the Jesus house groups, reflected in Paul’s authentic writings, did not simply convert individuals, but created communities.  People were converted to a life together ‘in Christ’, ‘in one Spirit’, ‘in one body’ – a community radically different from that of normal society.  ‘In Christ’ was not primarily about a new personal identity for individuals, like the predominant forms of Western Christianity we are familiar with, but ‘in Christ’ was always a communal matter.  This was not because, like we might say today ‘it’s important to be part of a church’, but because the community of the Anointed crucified embodied an alternative to the prevailing ideology and power structures.

1 Corinthians 12:13 reads, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body”.  These Jesus communities were the body of Christ, animated by the Spirit of Christ.  In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul likens the believers’ relationships to that of say a finger to a hand, or an ear to a face – different but intimately connected and dependent.  Importantly, crucially, the whole body – all the believers – are the Risen Christ.  Later the author of Ephesians [not Paul!] would rewrite the metaphor[iv] to make Christ the head, and thus create a hierarchy and undo the basic egalitarianism of the original metaphor.

For Paul the body of believers were the manifestation of the Risen Christ.  If you want to know about or meet Jesus today – look at, become part of, the community of his followers.  Ritually you did this by casting off imperial theology, being washed of that theology’s stain and stink in the waters of baptism, and emerging into a new life in the body of the crucified, in the collective of the believers.

This collective was a ‘share community’ – namely one in which members had the same obligation to each other as members of a biological family.  It was one that cared for beggars, destitute widows, and refugees.  It was this sort of share community that the monastic movement would try to replicate, and that Ninian used as a missional strategy.

It is these communities of the Anointed crucified, in their being and practice, which are the Risen Christ.  They are the manifestation of the triumph of God over the powers that crucified Jesus.  So the Risen Christ is no magical body that walks through walls and eats barbequed fish on the side of Lake Galilee – such stories are later parables/metaphors.  The bigger truth is that the Anointed crucified [Christ] is the community of followers.  Christ is not separate from the ‘risen’ collective body of believers.

This is the context in which today we share Holy Communion.  It is a ritual that is based in the subversive memory of the Anointed crucified and its counter-cultural wisdom [what Paul calls ‘foolishness’] that calls us to re-affirm the Jesus vision.  It is also a ritual that symbolically re-enacts our intimate connections with each other as a single body, and our obligations to each other.

I close with the Collect of St Ninian from the Scottish Book of Common Prayer 1912:

O GOD, who by the preaching of thy blessed servant Saint Ninian didst cause the light of the Gospel to shine in this our land; Grant, we beseech thee, that having his life and labours in remembrance, we may shew forth our thankfulness unto thee for the same by following the example of his zeal and patience; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[i] 1 Thessalonians; Galatians; 1 and 2 Corinthians; Philemon; Philippians, and Romans.

[ii] M Borg and D Crossan The First Paul New York: HarperCollins, 2009, p.110.

[iii] M Borg and D Crossan The First Paul New York: HarperCollins, 2009, p.121.

[iv] Ephesians 4:15ff.