Thought for the week - 2 July
I wonder if sometimes, as I do, you read the news online and think that maybe a sense of perspective would be useful? Issues of equality, justice and discrimination are important and make our society the way it is, but sometimes the next article down is about the political situation in Russia and I think to myself ‘maybe we have other things to focus on now’ – indeed, as I write this article I am aware that it may seem quite dated by the time it is read on Sunday, as things are moving apace – but today as I look out at a wet church garden, things appear to be the same as they were yesterday.
This, however, is a hopeful but unrealistic way of looking at life and history, even if it is an attractive one occasionally, particularly when the major events of our era, which we appear to have so little power over, threaten to engulf us. And it is true that we have little power over Dictators, but the small seeming things that occupy our news channels and thoughts do mould us into people who, at their best, are caring enough about the needs of others to become as a society more resilient to the evil overtures of Dictators and those who would use us for their own ends. So it is that a country which would care about inclusion of all people in cricket matches would also be resistant to the kind of rhetoric coming from Pyongyang. Small things make big buildings.
In today’s readings, we see a link between St Paul, who never met Christ (at least not while Paul was alive) and how his mystical encounter with Christ changed his life – and the lives of each of us after our own encounter with Him. But Paul is not unrealistic, he has no rose-tinted view of how life in Christ will be, how could he? He has a long list of things that have gone wrong for him: arrest, imprisonment, shipwreck — you name it, it has happened to Paul. And that is why he makes such a close link between the death of Jesus and his resurrection. It is not just that one happened after the other. Paul’s conviction is that if you want to share in one you have to be involved in both. Paul uses the symbol of baptism as a way of highlighting both of these elements.
The symbolism of the water of Baptism can be seen in two ways, can it not. Living by the sea and walking down the front, we see the chains and gates put over entrances to the shore and taken off at different times of day, at low and high tide, depending on the danger offered by the water – and we can walk out to sea some days and watch the tide gently lapping in on a fine day, but that same sea can also provide a threat to life hours later if we were to stay still long enough. The damage caused by a burst pipe is easy to think about with some horror, but the warmth brought by the same pipe in our radiator on a cold winter day is a happy thought. A paradox, like the waters of Baptism. Water can take life and water can give life. As a symbol water can point to death and it can point to life. That is why it is so apt for what Paul is trying to express. The symbol of water in baptism brings us to share in the death and risen life of Jesus. We become part of both. In fact, in Paul’s terms, we become part of Christ, part of Christ’s body through which his death and resurrection are visible and tangible in today’s world.
Paul asks the people of Rome in todays second reading to accept the different characteristics of the mark of Baptism – the comfort and threat of the waters of faith – and to believe in the life of Christ within ourselves which means that we have died in those waters, died to sin, and given a new life that nothing can overcome. Death is to be feared, of course, as it is an unknown, but we have already died to sin and that death is to be celebrated as the gateway to life. In this death we become alive in the Body of Christ, and that does mean we have to work hard to believe and to make the many small changes in our lives that make the Body not only attractive to others (marked by mercy, love and justice) but also able to resist the insistent voices of our world that call us to deception, falsehood and hatred. We see in North Korea and Russia how a body of people can be kept in fear and deceived, and we see in the Body of Christ how faith leads to love and love leads to a radical inclusion of all people. It’s a harder way, and the marks of fire and water in Baptism that led us there are as fearful as they are comforting, but love will bring us back home.
‘Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me; and those who welcome me welcome the one who sent me,’ (Mt 10:40) Jesus says: a familiar saying, perhaps. Yet within this statement is contained the life changing truth that human beings can be so closely united to God that it’s possible for Jesus to speak of our relationship with him in the same way as of his relationship with the Father. This is why He asks us to love Him more than our own dearest relatives and friends, because by our example and His call, they are already part of Him and therefore part of us, but He offers us a closeness deeper and longer lasting than any human relationship – and our deepest human relationships find a home forever in Him.
And as we see in Christ’s own life, union with God doesn’t make life in this world of ours easy. But it does mean that this effort is not without value – ‘if anyone gives so much as a cup of cold water they will not lose their reward’ (Mt 10:42); in this following of Christ, this union with God, our life and our loves become a sacrifice in the true sense, an offering of what we have, of what we are, to God, united with Christ’s own great sacrifice and grafted to His glorious body.
And, as St Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans, in our baptism we have been given a share, not only in Christ’s sacrifice but also in his victory, a share which transforms our lives and sets us free. So it is that we share in His work of transforming the world, bit by bit, brick by brick, building His Body out of love.