Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd
June 25, 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
The early church lived out a powerful witness of Christ’s love. They were a small minority in a Roman culture that was largely hostile to them. In spite of persecution, including torture and death, the Christians persisted in gathering together and worshipping their God. They became known for their support of one another and kindness to strangers. Early writings, both from the church and from its prosecutors, agree that Christians were known by their acts of charity for the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned. They offered an extended family to the orphans and widows, nursing services to those suffering from epidemics, fire and earthquakes, friendship to newcomers and strangers. They excelled in their behaviour and speech and actually invited the Roman prosecutors to search for any default in their characters. Justin Martyr wrote to the Roman Emperor, Antonius Pius, around 150 CE, saying “no evil can be done to us unless we are convicted as evildoers or proved to be wicked men…It is our task, therefore, to provide to all an opportunity of inspecting our life and teachings…It is your business, when you hear us, to be good judges.” In short, the Christians stood out in their Roman culture by their exemplary comportment.
Fast forward 2000 years to Canada and we move from being a persecuted minority to becoming a comfortable majority. We now make the laws and benefit from the system we have created. We no longer have to prove ourselves. What is the result? I would say it’s mixed.
Collectively, we have created human rights codes, we provide somewhat for strangers at our doors, we offer medical care to any in need. These are based on our Christian values of care for those who are in need. However, our Christian faith has mixed with a colonial mentality and we have judged ourselves superior both in faith and culture. This has justified some un-Christian behaviour towards those of other faiths and cultures.
Individually, we might have become a bit lax about our own moral responsibilities. I haven’t recently heard of any Christians volunteering to stand before a judge and asking to be scrutinized for any moral defect! We don’t usually think about how our public behaviour or words reflect on our Christian character. When you are a majority, you don’t have to worry about such things and you become less vigilant.
On many occasions, I have been glad that I don’t have a Christian bumper sticker on my car, or even more terrifying—a “Clergy Parking” sign on my dashboard. That would be a sure invitation for public scrutiny!
We don’t tend to wear our faith on our shirtsleeves and this might make us a little more casual in our behaviour. We are no longer publically accountable for our faith, as the early Christians were, and as the Muslim minority is today. They are the ones who must publically defend their faith and character now, just as we once had to 2000 years ago.
With this early church background in mind, we might better be able to understand our reading from Romans. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, urging them to uphold Christian virtues. Their very lives depend upon this. But fear is not the only motivation. He asks them to remember their baptism. Through baptism, they received grace and power to resist temptations that would hurt themselves or others. In other words, through baptism, they died to sin and became alive to God.
When the early Christians were baptized, we think that they stood in a body of running water, such as a river, and the priest would use a shell to scoop up the water and pour over the baptismal candidate. Their old character, with its many flaws, would be washed away and they would receive a new life in Christ. It was at this time that would receive a Christian name that would reflect their resurrected life in Christ. This is why baptism used to be called christening, when they would be given their Christian, or first, names.
What does baptism means for us today? It is no longer a christening, as names have already been chosen. For some, it has simply become a rite of passage when people tell me that they would like to have their child “done”. But baptism is much more than this. In the United Church, it is one of two sacraments. A sacrament is more than a symbol or sign. I like to explain that the sacraments of baptism and communion give us an extra dollop of grace. When we receive the bread and cup, when water is poured over our heads, God is pouring over us the Spirit of grace and power. That is why we talk about being refreshed at the table and receiving the power of the Holy Spirit in baptism.
Some of us have never been baptized and most of us will not remember our baptisms, but I invite all of you to close your eyes and imagine the blessed water from the baptismal font being poured over your head. Relax into God’s grace that is being wrapped around you like a prayer shawl. Cosy yourself into that grace. Now think of something with which you struggle. It may be having a short temper. It may be dealing with addictions of substance abuse or impulse buying. It may be an unwillingness to share what you have with others, or to blame others for their misfortunes. It may be not looking after yourself. Recall whatever behaviour or tendency you have that might be harming yourself or others. Now—imagine the baptismal waters pouring God’s grace on your head. Feel that cleansing water releasing you from the grasp of this sin. Sense the Spirit’s power flowing through you and giving you the ability to resist these impulses, to be set free from their power. Breathe in slowly and deeply the grace of God and release the deadening weight of temptations. Find yourself becoming alive again, with new hope.
You may open your eyes again. You can practice this type of meditation any time, anywhere. It can be as simple as the prayer Jesus prayed when he was struggling in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but Yours be done.”
There is another way in which we can find the power of God’s grace helping us to live up to Christ’s teachings. Even if we don’t feel very appreciative, we can purpose to live into appreciation. Even if we’re not in a generous mood, we can still give. By living into our faith, we might find it. In some ways, it’s the opposite of grace, but the two go hand in hand. Not by our will, but by God’s can we move forward. But not only in spirit, we must will our feet to do the walking through the power of God’s grace.
There is a medical school where they encourage the students to call each other doctor from the very beginning of their studies so that they will begin to live in to this new identity of being a doctor, even if they haven’t yet graduated. It’s more than just having a diploma. It’s acting your way into a new way of being.
When I was coordinating a training program for ordination, I found that the single most challenging part of the program for most of the students was living into the identity of being a minister. I suggested that, for one day, they put on a clerical collar, even though they weren’t yet ordained, and see what it felt like. Students were surprised at their emotions when they lived into the identity of being a minister.
What would happen if we tried for one day, to consciously live into the identity of our baptism? If we set a reminder throughout the day to pause, remember the grace of God flowing down on our heads, and then continue going about our day? Would it change our behaviour? our words? Would it provide a check to our impatience or frustration? As Kyle Fever wrote, “Baptism is not a security; it is a reality changer.”
 See primary source documents at http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1-300/what-were-early-christians-like-11629560.html