Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

“Be” not “Go” 24/7 – From the Daily Office – February 27, 2013

From the Gospel of John:

The man [from the pool at Beth-zatha] went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 5:15-18 (NRSV) – February 27, 2013.)

I go to vs I am GraphicRecently, a graphic has been making the rounds on Facebook. I received it from another church and posted it on my parish’s Facebook page about 24 hours ago with the caption, “Something to think about.” As of the moment I am writing, this graphic has been “liked” 235 times. It has been shared 1,412 times. And according to Facebook’s calculations, it has been seen over 132,400 times. That’s only as originating our page. It is being posted and shared on other pages and, no doubt, has even larger numbers than these at some of those other pages.

The graphic in question is the illustration of this meditation. It suggests a distinction between what it calls “the consumer church” and “the missional church.” The first is characterized by an attitude in its members of “I go to church;” the second, by a realization that “I am the church.”

“My Father is still working, and I also am working.”

When I read these words, they spoke to me of the same thing, the difference in paradigm between “going to church” and “being church.” For Jesus, his ministry on this earth among the People of God was not simply something he was doing; it’s who he was. It wasn’t work he could walk away from, go home from at night, take a day off, or go away on a long weekend. His Father was working “24/7” and, so, so was he. This is the difference between “going to” and “being.”

Theologically, this difference is most often discussed in connection with ordained ministry, in distinguishing between a “functional” view of ordination and an “ontological” theology of Holy Orders.

Ontology deals with the nature or substance of thing. It answers the question, “What is it?” The ontological view holds that ordination works a permanent and indelible change in the character of the deacon, priest, or bishop ordained. It is a sacrament which, like baptism, cannot be repeated, nor can Holy Orders be conferred temporarily. The ontological view is that ordination places one in an exclusive position in the community of the church, not a better or privileged place, but one from which the clergy person is to live exclusively in service of the people of God. This view is summarized in the aphorism “Once a priest always a priest.”

Orthodox theology holds that this is also the nature of baptism, the sacrament of membership in the church. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, a real metaphysical, ontological change takes place in the baptized person, if the baptized person lives a virtuous life and makes his or her baptism effective in faith. Again, the church’s understanding is that once one is baptized, one remains forever baptized.

At the other end of the spectrum of understandings of these sacraments is the “functional” or “relational” view. As to ordination, it is a view that the sacrament is nothing more than a license to perform the functions of ordained ministry within the context of the local church community; apart from his or her relation to that community, the ordained minister is nothing and possesses nothing. According to the functional view, any of the tasks normally performed by the ordained could be performed by others within the church if properly authorized by the local community. When the ordained minister ceases to function in that role, he or she ceases to be ordained.

However, there is no “functional” theology of baptism. To the best of my knowledge, all Christian traditions hold that once a person has been baptized with water “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19 NRSV), they are then and forever baptized. They may quibble about whether immersion is needed; they may describe the effect of baptism differently, as the “washing away of sin” or as conferring an indelible “mark” or “seal.” But once baptized, always baptized: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6 NRSV)

At least that’s the theology . . . the lived reality is often something different. For many church members, baptism is something that “was done” to them; they do not view it as defining who they are. For these Christians, church is a place they “go” not a Body to which they belong, not something they “are.” This morning, a member of my parish governing board brought this up in the context of contributions and offerings, budgets and bills. She made particularly note of the many church members who make an offering when they attend, but do not consider the church’s financial need when they are absent. “They are like people buying a service,” she said. Church is a place they “go;” church is not who they “are.”

I think this is why the graphic has proven so popular. There are many, many church members who “are the church,” who do not merely “go to church.” The graphic resonates with them. They realize that their Father is always working and that they, like Jesus, are also always working. Their Christian identity is a 24/7 thing.

In baptism, says The Book of Common Prayer, by water and the Holy Spirit God bestows upon God’s servants the forgiveness of sin and raises them to the new life of grace. The newly baptized person is “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” (BCP 1979, page 308)

During this season of Lent, as the baptized are invited to observe “a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (page 265), I hope that all baptized persons will come to believe that church is who they are, not simply someplace they go.

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

2 Comments

  1. Gillian

    Of course totally agree w/ your commentary.
    Historical quibble: there are many Protestants who often re-baptize either b/c they don’t view infant or childhood baptism as valid or b/c they feel they’ve “backslid” or wish to reaffirm their commitment.
    The discussion at this link, for example, shows this is very much done, if not uniformly thought to be a good thing.
    http://www.gospel.com/blog/index.php/2010/04/07/is-re-baptism-ever-appropriate/
    Basically comes down to a radically different understanding of the purpose of the sacrament and who the actor(s) are.

  2. eric

    Gillian, a valid historical quibble. I would think, however, that you refer to a strain of independent American evangelical congregation rather than a major stream of historical Christianity. Still, even for those folks, I would wonder how much their baptism is internalized, to what extent it is a matter of self identity; i.e., for how many of them is church “what I am” rather than “where I go?” Thanks, Eric

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