Who am I?

Who am I?

The television programme ‘Who do you think you are?’ in which people learn more about their ancestors and thereby, it is suggested, more about themselves, has been a big success on both sides of the Atlantic.

The success of this show reflects the fact that a proper understanding of who we are is essential to our ability to function effectively as human beings. Those who lose their knowledge of who they are through either accident or disease suffer acute disorientation which prevents them from living normal lives or relating properly to those around them.

It follows from this that we need to know who we are, but this in turn is something that can be defined in a whole variety of different ways. For example, people understand themselves in terms of their family relationships (‘I am a mother or a son’), their ethnicity (‘I am English or Chinese’), their age ( ‘I am a teenager or a senior citizen’ ) sexuality (‘I am straight or gay’) or their employment (‘I am a hairdresser or a brain surgeon’).

However, what I want to look at in this blog is what it means to understand our personal identity in Christian terms. In order to do this I shall draw on material from the Catechism in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. This catechism begins in the following way:

‘Question. What is your Name?
Answer. N. or M.
Question. Who gave you this Name?
Answer. My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.’

In this section the catechism is using ‘name’ in the biblical sense of a name that expresses someone’s true identity. Thus in Genesis 17:5 Abram receives the name Abraham (‘father of a multitude’) in recognition of his appointment by God as the ancestor of a multitude of nations. Similarly in Matthew 1:21 Joseph is told to give his son the name Jesus (‘God saves’) ‘for he will save his people from their sins.’

By using the term ‘name’ in this way the catechism is telling us that it is in our baptism that we receive our true identity. In the baptism service the minister addresses the candidate by their name (in the case of the Prayer Book service for the baptism of infants the name supplied to the minister by the Godparents) and then, in accordance with Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19, baptises them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Because ‘name’ is being used in the baptism service to refer to our true identity, who we really are, by baptising the candidate in his or her name into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit the minister is declaring that from henceforth the one who has been baptised shares the identity of God Himself. As 2 Peter 1:4 puts it they come to ‘share the divine nature.’ One of the Early Church Fathers, St Athanasius, said that ‘God became Man that we might become God,’ and baptism is where this miracle happens.

The catechism uses three pictures drawn from the Bible to describe this miracle.

First, it says that when we were baptised we were ‘made a member of Christ.’ This picture is taken from 1 Corinthians 12:13 and it tells us that through the Spirit we are as much part of Christ as a part of our body is part of us. Since Christ is God it follows that we share in God’s own life.

Secondly, it says we became ‘the child of God.’ This picture is taken from what St Paul says in Galatians 3:1-4:7 and the idea it conveys is one of adoption. From all eternity God the Son who became incarnate as Jesus Christ has related as a son to God the Father through the Spirit. At our baptism, through becoming members of Christ, we were adopted into that eternal relationship and so we can call out to God ‘Abba! Father!’ (Galatians 4:6).

Thirdly, it says we became an ‘an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.’ This picture too is derived from St Paul’s teaching in Galatians and from other New Testament passages such as Luke 12:32, Romans 8:17 and Colossians 1:12-13. The idea here is that God the Son has received from the Father the promise of rule over the new creation that God will bring in at the end of time (see Psalm 2) and as God’s children through Christ that inheritance is ours as well. We shall reign with Christ in the world that is to come (2 Timothy 2:12) thus fulfilling the calling to exercise dominion over the created order given to the first human beings (Genesis 1:28).

The overall message that we are presented with by these pictures is helpfully summarised by C S Lewis in his book Mere Christianity. In a chapter entitled ‘Good infection’ he writes:

‘Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share a life which was begotten not made, which has always existed and always will exist. Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life we also shall be sons of God. We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy Ghost will arise in us. He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has – by what I call ‘good infection.’ Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.’

What all this means is that from a Christian perspective those who have been baptised into Christ have an identity that can no longer be defined by all the normal categories of family, ethnicity, sexuality, employment and so forth. That is why St. Paul writes in Galatians 3:27-28: ‘For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ The Apostle is not denying that the Christians in Galatia were Jews or Greeks, men or women, slaves or freemen. What he is saying is that all these are now secondary characteristics. What defines them is the common identity that they have in Christ as members of Christ, sons and daughters of God and inheritors of God’s coming kingdom.

The answer every baptised Christian can therefore give to the question ‘who do you think you are?’ is ‘I am a miracle. God became Man than I might become God and through the grace of God given to me at my baptism I was adopted by God, made part of the life of God and given a new existence that will last forever. ‘

Reading the stories or reading the story?

Reading the stories or reading the story?

There has been quite a lot of press coverage of a new report from the Bible Society entitled Pass it On which reported the results of a YouGOv poll that indicated widespread and growing ignorance of the contents of the Bible. The poll results showed that 23% of the children surveyed had never read, seen, or heard the story of Noah’s Ark and that over 60% were ignorant of the stories of the Good Samaritan and the Feeding of the Five Thousand. They also showed that biblical literacy is little better among adults with 46% of the parents surveyed failing to recognise that the story of Noah’s Ark is from the Bible and 30% being unsure or unaware that the story of Adam and Eve is from the Bible.

The overall argument of the report is that the awareness of the contents of the Bible is falling across the generations, that this is a problem, and that it needs to be addressed by parents being proactive in passing on Bible stories to their children.

I have no doubt that the YouGov poll gives an accurate snapshot of the current level of knowledge of biblical stories. I also agree with the Bible Society that the levels of ignorance about the contents of the Bible revealed by the poll are worrying and need to be addressed. However, I am not convinced that it is helpful to see ignorance of the Bible simply in terms of ignorance of particular Bible stories or that the way to counter biblical illiteracy lies solely in telling these stories more often. There are two reasons I have a problem with these ideas.

First, even a cursory glance at a Bible shows that large parts of the Bible do not consist of stories. In the Old Testament, for example, much of Leviticus consists of laws rather than stories and there are no stories at all in Psalms, Ecclesiastes or Habakkuk. In the New Testament only parts of the Gospels consist of stories and there are no stories at all in the Epistles. If you concentrate on telling the biblical stories you will therefore necessarily omit large parts of the biblical material.

Secondly, the biblical stories themselves are not freestanding. In order to be understood properly they have to be understood in a wider biblical context. Thus the story of Joseph as told in Genesis 37-50 is often interpreted as being a story about how a young man achieves his destiny in spite of the obstacles that he encounters in his path to greatness. However, that is not the point of the story in its biblical setting. In the Bible the story of Joseph is part of a bigger story about how God fulfils the promises made to Abraham of numerous descendants and a land for them to live in (see Genesis 12:1-3 and 15:1-16) .

The key verse in the Joseph story is Genesis 50:20 where Joseph tells his brothers, who are worried that he will exact revenge on them for selling him into slavery in Egypt, ‘As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.’ This verse reminds us that the subject of the Joseph stories is not Joseph but God and the point of the stories is not about how Joseph achieved career success as Pharaoh’s right hand man, but about how God kept alive Joseph and his family, the descendants of Abraham, in spite of a famine in the land of Canaan which would otherwise have wiped them out.

Furthermore, because the story of Joseph only exists as part of the wider story of the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, the fact that the story end with Abraham’s descendants, those who will become known as the people of Israel, living in Egypt rather than the promised land means that the story is necessarily incomplete and points forward to the next stage in Israel’s history. That is why at the end of the story we are told that ‘Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die; but God will visit you, and bring you up out of this land to the land which he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” Then Joseph took an oath of the sons of Israel, saying, “God will visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.”’ (Genesis 50:24-25). Joseph’s story leads into the bigger story of the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt and their entry into the land of promise which is told in the books of the Bible from Exodus to Joshua.

What all this means is that telling the story of Joseph properly necessarily means telling people about the bigger story of God’s promises to Abraham and their fulfilment in the exodus and the subsequent conquest of the land of Canaan.

In addition, that bigger story is in itself only part of an even larger story. The call of Abraham is part of the fulfilment of the promise made by God that the seed of Eve would one day crush the head of Satan (Genesis 3:15), thus undoing the effects of the fall. This promise points back to the creation stories in that it tells us how the vocation given to human beings by God to rule over creation on God’s behalf (Genesis 1:26-28) will achieve fulfilment in spite of human sin. It also points forward to Jesus, the seed of Eve, God incarnate, by whom the power of Satan was overthrown (Colossians 2:15) and to the final fulfilment of the work of Jesus in the renewed creation described in Revelation 22.

It is this larger story that provides the framework within which to understand those parts of the Bible which are not in story form. Thus the Book of Habbakkuk is a prophecy about how God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 and his subsequent promise to Abraham will move towards their fulfilment as God uses the Chaldeans to discipline the descendants of Abraham for their unfaithfulness to God and how this act of discipline will eventually lead to the final fulfilment of God’s purposes when ‘the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea’ (Habakkuk 2:14).

All this being the case, if we want to tackle the growing problem of biblical illiteracy (as we should) it cannot just be a matter of simply telling our children, or our grandchildren, a selection of biblical stories. In order for them to understand these stories as God intended them to be understood when he caused the books of the Bible to be written and then brought together in a single volume, they need to see these individual stories as part of one big overarching story about how God the creator fulfils his good purposes through the history of Israel, the sending of Jesus Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the mission of the Church.

It is because you need to know the whole in order to understand the parts that the Early Church developed a ‘rule of faith’ for new Christians, which in the Western Church eventually developed into the Apostles Creed, and why the Church of England retained the practice of using the Apostles Creed both for the instruction of young Christians and as a liturgical affirmation of faith.

The Apostles Creed does not replace the Scriptures. What it does is to provide a handy and memorisable summary of the overall biblical story which gives a framework for reading the Bible with proper understanding. In the words of the Prayer Book Catechism, what the Creed tells us about is ‘God the Father, who hath made me and all the world,’ ‘God the Son, who hath redeemed me, and all mankind’ and ‘God the Holy Ghost, who sanctifieth me and all the elect people of God.’ When introducing people to the Bible we need to help them to read it in terms of how the good purposes of this God, and his faithfulness to these purposes in the face of the activity of Satan and the sinfulness of human beings, find expression in range of different ways in the all the books of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

In summary therefore, if we want people to not only read the Bible, but read it with proper understanding we need to follow the age old tradition of the Church and introduce them to the Creed and the Bible together. By this means we can help them to read the stories in the light of the story.

Remember the Sabbath day

Remember the Sabbath day

There was an article in the Church Times last Friday in which the author described why, rather than staying in bed and pulling the duvet back over her head, she went to church on a Sunday morning. Reading this article, I was struck by the fact that she gave no theological reasons for going to church (God did not even get a mention) and this led me to reflect on what the theological reasons for going to church actually are.

The starting point for thinking about this is the account given in the Book of Genesis of how God rested on the seventh day after the completion of his work of creation. We are told in Genesis 2:2 that as a result of this ‘God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.’

The blessing and hallowing of the Sabbath means setting it aside as holy day, a day that is separate and distinct from the other six days of the week and particularly dedicated to God. This is reflected in the fourth commandment which declares:

‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.’ (Exodus 20:8-11).

Throughout Jewish history obedience to this commandment has been a distinctive mark of Jewish identity. Jews have been willing to die rather than profane the Sabbath and when the first Christians emerged from within the Jewish people after the day of Pentecost they retained a belief in the importance of setting aside one day in the week as a Sabbath dedicated to God. The early Christians eventually came to regard many aspects of the Jewish law as not being universally and perpetually binding. However, this was not the case in regard to the Sabbath. As far back as our information goes, Christians regarded the fourth commandment as binding not only on the Jewish people (as in the case of other Jewish distinctives such as circumcision or only eating kosher food), but on all people everywhere.

Where they differed from their Jewish neighbours was in setting aside the first day of the week (the Lord’s Day, the day of Jesus’ resurrection) as their Sabbath rather than the seventh day of the week. We can see this in the references to the Lord’s Day in New Testament passages such as Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2 and Revelation 1:10 and in the early Christian writing called the Didache which declares ‘On the Lord’s Day gather together and break bread and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that you sacrifice may be pure.’

There is no express command in the New Testament to observe the first day of the week as a Sabbath day. However, the fact that this is something that the Church did from the earliest times, and which it did without controversy in spite of the breach with Jewish practice that this involved, indicates that it was something that had the sanction of the Apostles and therefore carried the authority of Jesus himself. It follows that observing the Sabbath and observing it on Sunday, the first day of the week, is an obligation that is as binding on Christians as observing the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week was to the Jewish people before them.

This then raises the question ‘How should we observe the Sabbath?’ The first answer, which we learn both from the creation account in Genesis and from the fourth commandment, is that so far as possible all our normal work ought to cease. God ceased from his work and we should cease from ours.

The example and teaching of Jesus in passages such as Matthew 12:1-14 shows us that works of necessity and mercy may be done on the Sabbath. As J C Ryle puts it: ‘Whatever in short, is necessary to preserve and maintain life, whether of ourselves or of the creatures, or to do good to the souls of men, may be done on the Sabbath Day without sin.’ This means, for example, that it is legitimate for doctors to care for the sick on Sunday, for farmers to look after their animals and for clergy to take services. However, everyone who is able to do so should avoid unnecessary work as far as possible.

The second answer is that the Sabbath is to be hallowed by not only to being set aside from work, but for God. We are not abstain from work simply to stay in bed, go shopping or watch rugby. To quote Ryle again:

‘It is not to be a carnal, sensual rest, like that of the worshippers of the golden calf, who ‘sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play’ (Exodus 32:6). It is to be emphatically a holy rest. It is to be a rest in which, as far as possible, the affairs of the soul may be attended to, the business of another world minded and communion with God and Christ kept up.’

It is for this reason that we should attend church on Sunday. As the homily ‘Of the Place and Time of Prayer’ in the Second Book of Homilies puts it, God’s ‘will and commandment’ is ‘to have a solemn time, and standing day in the week, wherein the people should come together, and have in remembrance his wonderful benefits, and to render him thanks for them, as appertaineth, to loving, kind and obedient people.’

As the homily goes on to say, the place where God’s people should come together for this purpose: ‘…is called God’s temple or the church, because the company and congregation of God’s people, which is properly called the Church, doth there assemble themselves, on the days appointed for such assemblies and meetings.’

In conclusion, although we live in an increasingly godless society, and although in such a society there are always multiple reasons and excuses at hand for not going to church, we need to take seriously the warning of Hebrews 10:25 not to neglect to meet together. Christians met together on Sundays for hundreds of years before the Roman Empire became Christian and Sunday became a public day of rest. Down the centuries and across the world Christians have kept meeting (and still keep meeting) on Sundays, in situations that are far more daunting than those we have to face.  Most of us can go to church on Sunday if we choose to do so and this is something that we should choose to do.

To quote the homily one final time:

‘If we will declare ourselves to have the fear of God, if we will show ourselves true Christians, if we will be the followers of Christ our master, and of those godly Fathers that have lived before us, and now have received the reward of true and faithful Christians, we must both willingly, earnestly, and reverently come unto the material Churches and Temples to pray, as unto fit places appointed for that use, and that upon the Sabbath day, as at most convenient time for God’s people, to cease from bodily and worldly business, to give themselves to holy rest, and godly contemplation pertaining to the service of Almighty God: Whereby we may reconcile ourselves to God, be partakers of his holy Sacraments, and be devout hearers of his holy word, so to be established in faith to Godward, in hope against all adversity, and in charity toward our neighbours. And thus running our course as good Christian people, we may at the last attain the reward of everlasting glory, through the merits of our Saviour Jesus Christ.’