There’s a danger in giving to a blog post the same name as a book by John Stott. As I considered what I was about to write about today, this was the topically relevant title that came to me; as I typed it into my computer, I was struck with the familiarity of the name; as I glanced at my bookshelf I remembered why. There sat Stott’s book. I cannot write as he, nor teach as he, nor reason as he. What he has to say on the subject is far better than what I do. But it is also quite different.
The question is first: what is accomplished in baptism? and is, second: what is Christian life about, because of this? There are two schools of thought on the matter of the first question, which I regularly encounter. They are not exclusive of one another by necessity, though are often held to be by their adherents. In the one way of thinking, baptism is about human repentance; in the other, baptism is about God’s covenant. The first is generally held to hinge on human response to God’s grace; the second, to hinge on God’s covenant faithfulness. An extreme view might say, of the first, that the bulk of Christian life is lived in continual response to that initial reaction of repentance from sin in baptism; or, of the second, that the bulk of Christian life is lived in continual response to that initial movement of God’s transformative grace in baptism. There are, of course, nuances available.
In either case, the bulk of Christian living is done in continual response to what was initiated in baptism. I typically, and imperfectly, put it like this: after baptism people live into the fullness of what baptism means. Because phrases like “the old has gone and the new has come” are difficult when it feels so like the old is still going, and the new is still a long way off in its coming. And yet, baptism has accomplished a new reality for the life of the baptized. In baptism, God’s grace is imparted to His people; the profane (please understand this word, which means normal or regular) has been made a part of God’s covenant people; the Holy Spirit is sent upon God’s people in power, which is unlocked through their continual response to His gracious presence in them.
There are times for all of us when we feel things deep in our core that we cannot articulate, not sufficiently. We haven’t the words, the vocabulary, for doing so. Having always held that the role of the Christian minister was primarily the encouraging and equipping of the saints, I never had difficulty voicing so – but the paradigm for doing so, or the familiar image that would shed light upon “how” this was to be done, had always eluded me. I couldn’t have told you how it was undertaken. In some cases, I was doing it – but I couldn’t give you a frame of reference for contextualizing it. The paradigms adopted by so many of my colleagues: a shepherd tending a flock of sheep; a herder of cats; the vehicle of sacramental giving or withholding; just didn’t seem adequate for what God had placed in my heart.
Enter John Cassian. The man was, of course, dealing with a monastic setting. He laid out guidelines that were borrowed from the ascetics of the Egyptian desert, and transplanted them into the Latin West to be largely adopted by St. Benedict and enshrined in the life of the monastic tradition of the whole of the Latin Church. But how was his setting so different from mine? It was he who furnished me with the paradigm-defining vocabulary for the priestly role of encouraging and equipping God’s people (in God’s time, in God’s way, as God moves). The local congregation is like a monastery: the people have not taken monastic orders, but have taken the far more important vows of baptism (soteriologically speaking). God has drawn together people who are under orders (not monastic or priestly, but sacramental nonetheless) by virtue of having renounced Satan, acclaimed only Jesus (declaiming evil, self, or any “other” way or one), and have been baptized in the name of the triune God in water, and have thus received the Holy Spirit. God has drawn them together into worshipping congregations so that they may walk the road of this earthly pilgrimage in one another’s company. He has gifted them differently for the sake of mutual up-building, and collective up-building. The role of the ordained minister, in this situation, is the role of abbot.
The ordained clergyperson is to encourage the congregation to be diligent in daily prayers – not because that’s what “we” do, or because they’re to try to uphold some unsustainable goal of being as-close-to-monastic-living as possible, but because God transforms people who meet with Him in regular prayer. The ordained clergyperson must do all possible to enable this life of prayer in people, because God works through it. The ordained clergyperson is to encourage the congregation in constant study of Holy Scripture – not for the sake of argument or apologetic, but simply that they may know God better, and in so knowing, they may be transformed by Him. The grace for this transformation is already poured upon them each in baptism, yet unless they activate it through engagement with the things of God it lies dormant in them. God’s grace is complete, but will not complete His people until they respond to what He has already done in them. Which means taking sin seriously. And taking repentance from sin seriously. And taking baptism seriously. And living into the fullness of the new reality into which baptism has brought us.
Let me take this moment to encourage you to seek the riches of God’s grace, the fruits of God’s grace, in your individual life – for the corporate good. Seek Him through prayer – not just extemporaneous prayer, but prayer guided by the wisdom of the saints who have gone before and in whose company you will one day stand. You are not a sheep. You are not a cat. You are a priest before God, and your life has been dedicated to the One who is making all things new.