It is pretty much universally acknowledged, that it was Christendom which first created and then cemented into place a two tier expression of Christian life. There were those Christians who had ‘a vocation’ and those who didn’t.
This separation appears to have had its roots in the flight, out of the world and into the desert following the Constantinian settlement. Alert souls became aware that as Christian faith was normalised, all of life seemed to be ‘baptised’ and that this had a profoundly negative impact upon faithful Christian living. They thus had to leave the city, a world where to be Christian was synonymous with being a good citizen, and go out into the desert. Over the years, this separation became institutionalised in the Monasteries, which led in part to our contemporary understandings of ‘Clergy’ and ‘Laity’. Those who are called ‘into the church’ and those who are not. Such a view of Vocation also changed our understanding of Baptism.
Having baptised the world, Our Baptism became of little significance. It was reduced to ‘a public demonstration of faith’, or a family ritual. The end product was the same. Baptism no longer required a renunciation of the world – there was no need to leave anything behind. Thus 1700 years later, many contemporary candidates for Baptism, if they dream of going on to university and business career, with wonderful holidays and a rich family life thrown in for good measure, never imagine that Baptism might in any sense affect the story they hope to write for their life. And often, an emaciated theology does nothing to disrupt their fond imaginings, or indeed wake them from their slumbers once the Sacrament has been applied. We may well be in a post Christendom world, but our theology of Baptism is still mired in the Christendom way of thinking. Cheap Grace, Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it
Like couples who live together before getting married, the Before and the After of baptism, like the Before and the After of ‘The Big Day’, was and remains, demonstrably the same in most cases. In this respect we are completely blind-sided by arguments over ‘believer’s baptism’ vs ‘infant baptism’. There is little in the praxis or teaching of the church of whatever denomination, to suggest that Baptism requires to change the way we live out most of our lives, apart from a few moral injunctions. Having tacitly agreed this, we carefully arrange our theology to suit.
[Perhaps another time I may write a little more about how Theology is taken captive by our desire to ignore the command to follow Christ]
As a result of this we have those in the church who give up careers etc to ‘go into the church’, and those who don’t. That in itself is bad enough, but we then further compound the error by a way of thinking about the church that re-inforces the sense that this is the way it is to be. The role of the minister is to look after the flock by tending to various trials and traumas and teaching timeless spiritual truths to edify the soul, not to call everyone else similarly to leave the lives they have so carefully arranged for themselves and likewise follow Christ. In this, those of us who are ordained often conspire with the rest of the church in not rocking the Christendom boat . . . I mean “we can’t all leave our nets behind, can we!”
Yet Hearing the gospels, try as we might, we cannot avoid the radical nature of the call of Christ. To leave nets, to leave everything to follow Him – trusting that our Father in heaven will in truth provide all we need – “homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields, and with them, persecutions” (In other words physically and socially, not ‘spiritually’) . We cannot fail to note the radical discontinuity between the life of the disciple of Jesus of Galilee and its contemporary expression. We have developed a ‘spiritual’ gospel which requires nothing of us at all – which takes the ‘following Christ’ out of the ‘believing in Christ’. And where the church is wealthy this can still be readily played out as if it was the honest truth and blessed by God, but where it is not, or where the money is fast running out, it is revealed for what it is, a Lie. And we all know where Lies come from.
BUT . . . WE CAN’T ALL LEAVE OUR NETS BEHIND! . . . can we . . . ? ? ?
Seek first God’s kingdom, and all these things will be given you
Of course, Christendom is dead – even if many churches still only acknowledge this purely in theory and not yet in practise. Yet where the Christendom church has all but ‘croaked’ there are, here and there, signs springing up that the Life that is to be found in following Christ and trusting our Father to provide for our material needs. Interestingly and indeed encouragingly here in the Anglican Church in New Zealand, it is Bishops, the Apostles amongst us, called to embody the life and the mission of the church, who are making the headlines
First there were of course the Earthquakes in Christchurch, which apart from the desperate tragedy of so many deaths and the way in which lives have been scarred emotionally and permanently, has brought down the Cathedral of that city. Although demolition orders are now passed, still there are those who want this solid sign of God’s presence to be rebuilt. After all the city is Christ Church . . . but the church under the leadership of its Bishop, Victoria Matthews sees that God in the midst of this upheaval is about something new. As the old order is passing away . . .
Secondly in my own diocese, the effect of the Christchurch earthquake has been felt in terms of the financial cost of significant rises in insurance for church buildings, which may well be the final blow for some congregations, and on top of that the requirement for earthquake strengthening which may prove too much to bear for others . . . and we are few . . . Yet again in these events our Bishop, Kelvin Wright hears God speaking to his people, calling them to a deeper commitment to Christ as many of the last vestiges of Christendom are being swept away, all but overnight
The third Bishop, is only just this moment in post – the newest bishop in the world 🙂 – the new bishop of Wellington Diocese, The Right Reverend Justin Duckworth. Justin is not your typical episcopal candidate, and for those of you who are curious, I’ll leave you to use the mighty power of Google to find out more :). However one way in which Justin is untypical not only of many Bishops, but indeed of most Christians is the way in which he and his wife Jenny have for the last 20 years lived in a radical dependence upon God our father to provide. At the heart of their story which you can read about in their book, was a determination to follow the call of Christ. This led them to live and work amongst the urban poor and indeed more. They set aside their dreams, they set aside the typical life which anyone of their background would expect to be held by and largely be able to live out, of stable careers and trips overseas and more and trusted in Christ to lead them where he would and His Father to provide.
What they found was that their needs were taken care of. Not through lots of fat cheques falling through their letter box from those ‘working in the real world to support those called to mission’, (although I am sure there were a few of these), but by putting their work with young people and those in difficult circumstances first. Only then did they work out how best they could earn a penny or two around the fringes of this work. They put Christ at the heart of their lives and the work they needed to do to provide their basic needs was relegated to their spare time. In other words they turned inside out the way Christendom has taught us to live, which is first to look after your own needs, and then to do what you can to further the kingdom in your spare time. [Of course we have further diluted the call of Christ by a convenient theology which allows that Everything we do is part of God’s work in the world, but as I said, we like to shape theology to our lives rather than have to conform our lives to a new reality] They left their nets and found that as they concentrated on what Christ had called them to, God provided opportunities for work that fitted around their calling.
This seems to me to be a Very Clear Example of what Christ meant when he called us to ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you’. Such lives are rare, yet as I read the gospels I cannot help but think that they are The Normal Christian Life. It is only Christendom that has taught us otherwise – and by and large we have preferred the theology of Christendom to that of the Kingdom.
I hope you’ll join with me in praying for Justin today, and also Kelvin and Victoria, but also for ourselves, for Grace to follow Christ, putting down our nets, laying aside our own stories (many of which are amusingly and sympathetically parodied here 🙂 ), for the adventurous life of faith in Christ, to the greater glory of God our Father who will supply all our needs according to His riches in Glory.
(And there is more to that quote than meets the eye . . .)