Fr. Randall Warren drew our attention to the Baptismal Covenant during last Sunday’s sermon at St. Luke’s. You can read the Covenant by clicking here or by flipping to page 304 of the Book of Common Prayer (if you’re one of those old-fashioned people who still remember how books work). This brilliant summary of the Christian faith was born from the womb of liturgical renewal in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since its inclusion in the the 1979 Prayer Book, Episcopalians have “fallen in love with it,” according to Fr. Randall.
Reading and reflecting on the text later that day, it occurred to me that this brief Covenant provides a helpful starting point for thinking about the way the Church practices its mission in the world.
Do you believe in God the Father?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?
We begin by reciting the Apostles’ Creed. This is our way of saying that faith begins, not with us, but in God. And God is not a monolithic entity but a community, a network of relationships, between divine persons (i.e. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) that we collectively refer to as the Trinity. This is how Christians are able to say that “God is Love” (1 John 4:16). A single person can be loving, in the adjectival sense, but Christians believe that God is love, in the active sense. God is relationship. To borrow a phrase, “God is a verb.” God happens.
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
The place where God happens is the Church.
Of course, the Church is not the only place where God happens. All communities and relationships reflect, to one degree or another, the relational nature of the Trinity: friends, families, societies, ecosystems, even the gravitational relationship that exists between planets and stars. God meets us in all of these places, but the Church is the particular community where human beings are invited into a special covenant relationship with each other and with the Triune God through the person Jesus Christ, who is present with us in the Scriptures and the Sacraments.
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Relationships are never easy. Relationships are raw. Intimacy strips away our fig leaves and exposes all our parts: the good, the bad, and the ugly. When we come into the Church, a network of relationships that spans all of time and space, and is itself enfolded into the network of relationships that is the Trinity, we come as we are, with all our baggage in hand.
Standing in the light of Christ’s perfect humanity, we are confronted with the fact that we, in our selfishness, behave in ways that are less than fully human and lead to broken relationships.
The good news is that God refuses to break up with us, even when we try to do so with God and each other. God is like a mother in a department store whose toddler is throwing a tempter tantrum. The child screams, “I hate you!” And God adjusts the purse strap on her shoulder, takes us by the hand, and says, “You can hate me if you want to, but I still love you. Come along now; it’s time to go home.”
Christ dares us to get honest about our shortcomings. Christ invites us to begin again… and again… and again, knowing we are bound to fail. Success is measured, not in how many times we fall down, but in how many times we get back up. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Recovery is about progress, not perfection.” Salvation is a journey, not a destination.
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
The result of this continual falling down and getting back up is that we grow in confidence that we are fully loved and accepted, no matter what.
This is big news.
This is big news in a world where a person’s appearance and performance are analyzed and judged with ruthless scrutiny. This is big news in a world where the “worth” of a person or an ecosystem can be quantified and calculated with dollar signs. This is big news in a world that prizes whiteness, maleness, and straightness. This is big news in a world where “might makes right” and “the best defense is a good offense.”
The absolute and unconditional love of God is big news because it renders irrelevant all the noise of news broadcasts and the temptations of commercial advertisements in between. People who know they are loved don’t need those trappings. People who know they are loved don’t fear what others fear. People who know they are loved by God have found something worth dying for, and therefore have something to live for too.
Love changes everything. Love makes the world go round and turns it upside down. Love wins. This is big news. It’s worth sharing. It needs to be said. The rest of world needs to hear it.
The Church is a community of people who have been changed by God’s love and try, to the best of their limited ability, to embody that love in the way they treat others. Evangelism is a “show and tell” enterprise… in that order. We do our best to show love first, and when the world asks us why we love so radically, then (and only then) we have earned the right to talk about Jesus.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Some Christians have mistakenly conflated evangelism and proselytism. They think the proclamation of the good news means arguing with people until they see things from your point of view. They think their job is to bring Christ to the world, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The reality is that Christ is already present in the world. Christ is in that homeless person, that sex worker, that meth cook, that terrorist, that presidential candidate. Christ lives in them and loves them at the level of their true self, which is deeper than all their problems and insecurities. They don’t see it, most of the time, and neither does the rest of the world. That is why most people falsely identify with things that are less than their true selves: appearance, occupation, possessions, criminal record, diagnosis, disability, race, national origin, political party, etc.
What breaks the spell of these false selves is when we enter into a relationship with someone who treats us as though we are Christ because, at a certain level, that is exactly who we are. The role of the evangelist is to help us realize this truth in ourselves and live it out in relationship with others in the Church and the world. So, in the end, all evangelism is simply Christ loving Christ through Christ.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
This is where the rubber meets the road. This is what it looks like to seek and serve Christ in others, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ, and to be the Church on Earth.
When we do this, we can expect the powers-that-be to get angry. Proclaiming the truth that God loves everyone completely, equally, and unconditionally is a direct affront to the lies they peddle. Bishop Gene Robinson once asked me, “If you aren’t getting in trouble because of your faith, is it really the Gospel you believe?”
Striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every human being will undoubtedly put us at odds with this world system of domination and manipulation. When we march on the picket line, write to an elected official, volunteer at the shelter, let go of an old grudge, bring a casserole to a sick neighbor, or sit through another committee meeting, we are turning the world upside down.
The same holds true for those who teach, heal, practice law, raise kids, run for office, work the McDonald’s drive-thru, or greet customers at Wal-Mart. You are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world and the work you do, when undertaken with this Baptismal Covenant in mind, is the ministry of the gospel.
And here’s the really amazing thing: it works.
When we begin to practice these promises in our lives, the world will take notice.
People are spiritually hungry. They intuitively sense that something is wrong with the way things are, but have no idea how to remedy the situation. Sadly, centuries of Christian dogmatism and judgmentalism have led many to believe that the Church has nothing to contribute. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
The Church’s mission begins and ends in love because we believe that “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16) Our Baptismal Covenant begins with the perfect love of the Triune God at the heart of reality and quickly ripples outward in concentric circles, embracing us, the Church, and the whole universe in the everlasting arms.
“We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)