Is the Emerging Church going far enough?

Mark commented on his blog about our recent discussions on church he used these two fantastic quotes which I thought were worth a mention. The quotes also tie into some thinking about the Church on the Edge project we are working on. One the big questions I have is around what are the non negotiables of church, and the sacraments. I always wonder how much is added and think Bonhoeffer is spot on with the Sermon on the mount as the core.

Bonhoeffer wrote,

The renewal of the church will come from a new type of monasticism which only has in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount.

…and Br Samuel SSF wrote,

The renewal of both the Church and Society will come through the re-emergence of forms of Christian community that are homes of generous hospitality, places of challenging reconciliation and centres of attentiveness to the living God

I have been thinking a lot about the sacraments and the work we are doing with young people on Church on the Edge. I raised questions around the sacraments at a recent session I did for the Baptist College on Emerging Church and got this really helpful response from Ernest Lucas

I was particularly struck by your suggestion that tattooing might be an appropriate replacement for baptism for some young people today. You said that those involved with ‘emerging church’ have a right to ask difficult questions, and I fully agree with that. You also said that in seeking answers you sought to combine imagination, tradition and Scripture. I want to make some comments from the basis of tradition and Scripture.

Your suggestion about tattooing seemed to be based on the assumption that baptism is primarily a ‘rite of passage’. I accept it is that, but that is only a secondary aspect of it. I think that, on Scriptural grounds, the traditional view that it is primarily a ‘sacrament’ and ‘sign’ is correct. As a sacrament it is the use of a physical element which God has appointed and promised to be a means of blessing. As something that is a ‘given’ from God I don’t think we are free to replace it by whatever we like and then expect God to fall in with our wishes and use it as a means a blessing. That does not mean that the physical form of it can never be changed. However, this is where the ‘sign’ aspect comes in. As a sign it says something important about what God has done, and is doing, for us and in us. What it says is connected to the physical form. Baptism, in Scripture, says at least three things.

· It speaks of a moral cleansing (1 Peter 3:21).

· It speaks of a dying to one way of life and rising to a new life (Romans 6), and this imagery, expressed by going under water and coming out of it (however that is done), is linked to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

· It speaks of joining the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13).

If there is a physical action other than baptism which could convey these three meanings to a group of people today, then I’d be open to it being used instead of baptism. I don’t see how tattooing can convey either of the first two meanings above. I suppose that if it was done under general anaesthetic it could convey the second! In fact, it seems to me that water baptism is a good cross-cultural symbol for conveying these three meanings, which needs little explanation. Where explanation is needed is in linking it with Jesus’ death and resurrection. I’ll come back to this point later.

You suggested that baptism was a common ‘rite of passage’ in the first century and so it was easy for Christians to adopt it. I am not sure that this is true. Ritual washings were certainly common, especially within Judaism. However, the significance of baptism as death to an old way of life and entry into a new one was, I think, a Christian innovation. I think it only appears with this significance in mystery cults and Gnostic sects in post-Christian times and is borrowed from the Christian use. I may be wrong about this because I am by no means an expert with regard to these religions. Jewish proselyte baptism was primarily a ritual washing. Jews regarded Gentiles and Gentile territory as ritually unclean. So, when a Jew returned from travelling abroad, when they got to border of the ‘ Holy Land’ they would shake the dust of the Gentile lands from their clothes and have a ritual bath. Proselyte baptism was just such a cleansing prior to (for males) circumcision.

Circumcision itself is an interesting case study. It was a ‘rite of passage’ among the Semitic peoples of the ancient Near East. It was undergone by adolescent males and was linked with preparation for marriage. When the Hebrews started to use it for eight-day-old babies it lost this ‘rite of passage’ significance. An important aspect of a rite of passage is the ‘psychological journey’ undergone by the person in undergoing the rite. This cannot apply to a very young baby. The link with marriage preparation was also lost. Circumcision for the Hebrews became solely a sign of the covenant with Yahweh, and so of membership of the covenant people. In so far as baptism replaces circumcision this underlines that it is not primarily a rite of passage but a sign of the new covenant.

I am more open to the sharing of crisps and coke as a form of ‘communion’. The sharing of bread and wine in the Communion Service conveys at least two meanings.

· That through Christ God provides us with spiritual nourishment (John 6).

· The remembering of Jesus’ sacrificial death for us and the appropriating of its benefits (1 Cor. 11).

Bread and wine were staple food and drink in Jesus’ culture. I suppose crisps and coke may be staples for some young people – but on their own they are not truly ‘nourishment’! Jesus might have used bread and water if ‘nourishment’ was the only message to be conveyed. However, the red wine is evocative of his blood shed in sacrificial death. Also, of course, Jesus did not use just any bread and wine, he used the bread and wine of the Passover meal, which spoke to Jews of freedom from slavery which involved a sacrificial death.

Any stable food and a red drink is capable of conveying the meaning of the Communion Service. However, it can only do this fully if it is done in the context of retelling the story of the Passover and of the Last Supper. It is striking that when the first Christians took the gospel to the Gentiles, for whom the Passover was not part of their heritage, they did not ‘ditch’ this aspect of it, but taught the story to the Gentiles.

Just as there are aspects of ‘modernism’ that are inimical to Christian faith, so there are aspects of ‘post-modernism’ that are inimical to it too. An obvious one is the rejection of ‘meta-narratives’. Christians cannot dispense with the meta-narrative of God’s story of salvation history: creation-fall-Israel-Jesus-the church-consummation. Unless the ‘emerging church’ teaches this story and enables people to make it their own and live by it, it will not be authentically Christian. It seems to me that the sacraments of communion of baptism are prime means of introducing people to this story and enabling them to appropriate it. If, to some extent, the form of these sacraments is ‘counter cultural’ I don’t see that as necessarily a stumbling block. Getting to grips with them might be what is needed to stimulate people to use their imagination to enter into the story, and so begin to make it their own.

One thing I find interesting is the difference between baptism and communion and rembemer the resistance to coke and crisps ten years ago. At the moment I am just asking the questions so would like some help with the following.
-If are going to truely journey with young people in the light of the sermon on the mount, and practice love and genuine mutual relationships, how do we negotaite issues like the sacrements?
-Luther cut the sacrements down from 7 to 3 by looking at Tradition and Scripture are there further impliactions for the sacrements if we bring culture into that critical framework?
-Is this part of the root of the subculutral weakness of church, and will the emerging church emerge if we do not grapple more fully with the sacrements

-Any others you wish to add??

4 thoughts on “Is the Emerging Church going far enough?

  1. At some point in working with young people, and looking to form new expressions of church, they will have to engage with the bible on some level. (Someone will now probably disagree with that comment!) Would it not make sense, when an appropriate time comes, to present some of the ideas such as baptism and communion that we see, to explain what you believe the meaning behind them is, and then to debate and discuss with the young people what they think about those ‘meanings’, whether they are relevant to them in any way, and how they might be interpreted today?

    Obviously it would have to be done sensitively and in line with the rest of the things you are doing. It also raises questions about how you introduce people to the bible, and even to Jesus without religiousifying (if that’s a word) things, and how people engage with ‘history’ in that sense. It would be a lot easier to pick out of the bible yourself what you think the essence of church, kingdom etc is and introduce that to young people in a relevant way, but I wonder at what point do they get to wrestle with those issues themselves – including the ones which seem old and puzzling – rather than having the ‘important bits’ decided for them.

  2. Richard – some sporadic and messy thoughts on some of the questions that you asked I personally believe that a sacramental lifestyle is one of the kesy to a new way of being.

    Thoughts on baptism:

    • I think you were right that Baptism was a common rite of passage – another one of the many pagan rites that the Church used and
    • Jesus was baptised after his test in the desert – he had done his initiation, battled with the demons, and became a man and then the baptism was a physical demonstration of the test. He had passed through his first death.
    • I was wondered if it is recorded if the disciples were baptised.
    • Were women baptised – In many first cultures women were not initiated but did receive fertility rites.
    • To be baptised in the first century culture in still in some cultures today was to declare that you are taking on a new faith and it does mean to your family that you are now dead and it was / is a significantly major thing to do. In our culture baptism has none of this powerful and sacrificial element to it.
    • Baptism is a rite of passage – for baptism you could read initiation. Which begs the question of how we initiate our youth today? How do we help them move from childhood to adulthood?

    Thoughts on the sacraments.

    • A sacrament is a special moment of encounter between the human and divine
    • A sacramental event should be a powerful spiritual encounter that has the power of transformation. It is a transitional time, a liminal space.
    • The liminal or in-between space, the celts used a thinness – where heaven is almost tangible – can be characterised by unease and discomfort followed by a sense of challenge and maybe trauma. It really is like you have been born again – a person awakes seeing things differently.
    • Ritual and sacramental process should include three stages – separation, participation (initiation) and reintegration (return)
    • From a sacramental theological position , ‘everything belongs’ – the divine is seen everywhere and maybe most likely outside of the church. I wonder if the church instead of reducing the sacraments should be increasing them.
    • Sacramental encounters from my understanding would include , Birth / giving birth, puberty / initiation , marriage/ individuals joining together, midlife crisis, encountering pain, connecting with creation, sex ( many believe that sexuality and spirituality are the same things) death, and the sacrament of the present moment (being in the here and now – not living in the past of hoping for the future. Vulnerability, feeling lost, being truly listened to.
    • Sacraments should include theatre and the deep dramtic. I think they can be an event, but also an experience in the normal mundane ness of life.

    Thoughts on your ideas of communion / Eucharist

    • Jesus used to normal everyday elements within his day that they need to survive. They are the basis of the survival of humanity. Bread is grown annually and wine form ancient trees.
    • By connecting material things with his body I believe he was affirming that all things are divine – this is sacred stuff, we need to food to survive and it is a mystery how life just keeps on coming from the little seed.
    • I feel that symbols should be symbols of life – I don’t feel that would be the case with junk food. Coke and crisps may be contextual and relevant, but they have no significance about them – I wonder if actually spirituality should be irrelevant to the culture / counter cultural.

  3. great James – it is sooooo good to reconnect with you and the take on sacrements begins to put into words so many of my feelings. The lion and the lamb, the both/and theology that shapes a lot of my thinking is present in your thoughts on sacrements and very helpful.

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