Sunday, May 21, 2017

Baptism and APEST

I’ve been thinking about baptism and the preparation of candidates for baptism, and also about APEST (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers) recently, and find myself making the following connections between them.

In our liturgy of baptism, there are three symbols: oil, water, and a candle.

The oil comes first, as we mark the candidates with the sign of the cross, in oil, on their foreheads. This is an anointing. As such, we are recognising that the candidate has been chosen by God to fulfil a special role. It is a deeply Christocentric anointing – they are marked with the sign of the cross, the sign of Christ, along with the words ‘Christ claims you for his own’ – but it is the candidate who is anointed. That is to say, they are anointed into a share in Jesus’ calling.

Note that this comes before we get to the act of baptism. At this point, they are not yet identified with Christ as members of his Church, but rather are being identified with Christ in his humanity, as members of the human family. What we are recognising – what we are anointing – is a unique share in Jesus’ fully-human nature, his incarnation; and this anointing is for the purpose of taking a stand against all that rebels against the God-given commission that we should steward this earth.

According to Ephesians 4, there are five human impulses that Jesus perfectly expresses, and that we share in. These are:

the apostolic impulse to innovation and pioneering, to taking ourselves beyond the known;

the prophetic impulse to pursue justice and to protect beauty – and often, to use beauty to resist and overcome injustice;

the evangelistic impulse to share good news, wherever it may be found;

the shepherding, or pastoral, impulse to care for others, paying special attention to the most vulnerable;

and the teaching impulse to learn and pass on learning.

Each of us carries all five impulses to varying degrees, but we tend to have one or two that are primary. It is this Jesus-defined humanity we are recognising here. Where baptism candidates are infants, we have yet to (help them to) discover the role for which we are anointing them: we do so in faith.

Next comes the water of baptism. Here, we are identifying the baptism candidate with the saving work of God, who always comes to rescue us from chaos. The water of baptism, poured out three times recalls God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – drawing out dry land from the waters; saving Noah and his family during the Great Flood; bringing the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt through the Sea of Reeds, and, after many years in the wilderness, across the River Jordan into the Promised Land.

In baptism, we are symbolising the reality that God has ransomed the candidate. This finds its expression in Ephesians 4 in verses 8-10, which draw on Psalm 68 and the imagery of God descending on Mount Sinai and ascending Mount Zion, liberating captives and receiving tribute. We move from Jesus claiming us, as members of the human family; to God saving us, into the family of the Church…and then to Jesus giving us to one another and for the world.

The third symbol is the giving of a candle, lit from the Paschal Candle which represents Jesus the Light of the World. Here, we are commissioned to shine as lights in the world. Again, this is to have a share in Christ – lights, dependent on the Light. The baptism candidate has been anointed, passed through the waters, and is now sent out into the world, to make a difference. The person they are by Jesus’ involvement in their coming into being (Creation Order) is redeemed (Salvation Order), liberated to fulfil their calling, shining in the world according to an apostolic or prophetic or evangelistic or shepherding or teaching impulse.

The role of the Christian community – with parents and godparents often having special responsibility – is to support the baptised to grow in their understanding of what they have been anointed and liberated for, and where and how we are called to shine as a light. This is as true with adults who come to baptism as it is with infants who are brought for baptism. It is a lifelong journey made by faith, in community. It is a journey made in response to the call of Christ, from which we get the word vocation as a way of coming to our right selves.

I am convinced that the pattern of Ephesians 4 is key to our practices of disciple-making, and is therefore rightly there in the very liturgy of baptism – and all that brings us to that point, and flows out from it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017


God came to us, and we killed him. And some of us killed him for love of God; because the tragedy of the human condition – as Shakespeare knew so well, and expressed so powerfully in plays such as Romeo & Juliet – is that, one way or another, we kill those whom we love as much as those whom we hate.

The work of Holy Saturday is to let that sink in, to refuse the impulse to excuse ourselves from the human condition.

Holy Saturday

Friday, April 14, 2017

By night

‘After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though secretly because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.’
John 19:38-40

I am struck that Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus at night, should come to him again at his darkest hour. Might it be that faith forged in darkness is all the more enduring for it? I think so.

I am also struck by the way in which these early disciples of Jesus were so fearful of the authorities – fearful, and yet overcome their fear. This is also the testimony of my Iranian brothers and sisters, who must appeal before our authorities.

Wounds of Christ

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Behold the beauty

Morning Prayer:
“One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.
Psalm 27:4

Because our bodies are temples to God’s Holy Spirit, poured out on all flesh, we do indeed live all the days of our life in the house of the Lord; are always and everywhere there.

Because God is spirit, and has no physical form, the only way in which we can behold the beauty of the Lord is in that beauty being made manifest in his temple. In me, and in you.

That beauty is made manifest in our brokenness, in the parts we think of as being ugly, those parts of us we don't think are big enough (our love is too small, too thin) and those parts we don’t like about ourselves (such as anger or despair). These are the places God is drawn to, the places where love and light and grace pour in and shine out. The unlikely places made beautiful by our placing ourselves in God’s hands and God taking us up into godself.

This is a holy mystery, revealed to us in the Songs of the Suffering Servant, in the Passion of the Christ.

You are holy ground, beloved and beautiful in God’s eyes. And God’s beauty is revealed in you, broken one.

Friday, April 07, 2017


Freshly risen from the grave – and I know that I am ahead of myself here, but bear with me – Jesus is thought to be the gardener. We take this to be a case of mistaken identity – Mary cannot see clearly through her tears, cannot think clearly in her disorientation – but it is not; at least, not exactly.

Throughout most of the Gospels, we are presented with Jesus’ false self – that is to say, the self that is constructed by the expectations placed upon ourselves, by others and by us; expectations we try to live up – or down – to. Jesus consistently refuses to take such expectations on board, at every turn chooses to listen only to the voice of the Father. You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased. Nevertheless, the Gospels present us with the false self that others ‘see’ and seek to place upon him. The satan, or Accuser. Jesus’ family. The crowds. His disciples. The Pharisees – both those who are drawn to him, and those who oppose him. Even in their moments of deepest revelation from the Father, Jesus’ followers do not see him as the Father sees him; do not see his true self.

When Jesus dies on the cross, and is laid in the tomb, his false self – the expectation that he will lead a popular uprising to overthrow the Roman army of occupation; to overthrow the puppet king and restore the royal house of David; to bring about reform of the corrupt Temple authorities – dies.

When Jesus is raised from the dead by the Father, his false self remains dead: like the grave-clothes in which he had been embalmed, pressed onto him, weighing down on him, outwardly conforming to his shape but in fact seeking to conform him to the expectations of others.

It is his true self that rises. That is why, again and again in the accounts of his resurrection appearances, we are presented with one who is definitely Jesus but not immediately recognised.

And when Mary sees Jesus’ true self, she sees the gardener. Why? Because, as Paul will write in years to come, his true self is the Second Adam: the human placed in the Garden to tend to it, to irrigate the earth and enable all life to flourish, in unbroken partnership with God.

As we approach Holy Week, we hear again the call of Jesus, take up your cross and follow me. As we come to Good Friday, we are called to die with Jesus. To see our false self – at least, something of it; for this is the work of a lifetime – surrendered into the Father’s hands, and dying under the cruel weight of human expectation, in the hope that what will emerge from the tomb is – something more of, degree by degree – our true self. For our true self is not who we offer to God, but who God offers to us.

What expectations of us need to die this year?