Saturday, January 23, 2016

A ramble on trust

What a great photograph! The infant being held above the baptismal font has a look of sheer terror—or is it only disbelief?—‘How can this be happening to me?’ as a very calm looking priest steadies himself to perform the famous Orthodox triple dunk. How I wish I had been ‘born Orthodox’ so I could’ve had that bracing shock of entry into the Kingdom of God instead of, as a Catholic infant, been merely poured on from a scallop shell while being comfortably ensconced in my godmother’s arms.

Or perhaps the baby’s already been dunked and that look on his face is pure wonder at the miracle of instantaneous new birth. Even without knowing that, ‘unless a man is born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot see the Kingdom of God,’ this and every baby who has survived the symbolic drowning and then been slathered in virgin olive oil, cannot help but be thankful that the ordeal is over and that normal life can start up again. Do they ever wonder, ‘What did I do wrong to deserve this?’

Well, even after almost sixty-five years I still wonder about such things, and being able to articulate the wonder with my biblical vocabulary hasn’t made anything any clearer. Thank God that Holy Church has had two thousand years to work out every possible explanation known to man, and been generous enough to share it with anyone who would listen. Too bad, even knowing what is knowable, we’re no wiser than when we started out in diapers, yet some people insist on being dunked again.

Once when I was reading the Gospel of John aloud publicly in the forum—that is, Portland’s Pioneer Square: if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean—I was asked if I was reading the Qur’an by a passer-by. No fault of his, I was reading the Gospel in the original Greek, verse by verse, and then translating it, don’t ask me why. The enquirer stopped for my explanation and then took the opportunity to challenge me in my faith. ‘Do you believe that one must be baptized to be saved?’ he asked.

Well, that wasn’t hard to answer. Of course, the answer I gave him was, ‘No.’ That was his entrée into my personal testimony, and it turned out that he was a member of some kind of Christian fundamentalist cult. When he challenged me that the words I had just read, and quoted above, ‘unless a man is born again…’ were proof that I was wrong, I simply asked him if the thief who was crucified next to Christ was saved or not. He admitted that, according to Christ’s words, he was.

I asked him, politely, ‘Well, when was he baptized? He cannot have entered Paradise just on the words of Christ’s promise alone, can he?’ Well, this turn in the conversation was not part of the questioner’s script. He hadn’t been prepared for this. I mean, how can you win in a contest unless you know the strength of your opponent, and prepare for it? Life cannot be scripted, neither can salvation.

One night my eldest son Jacob visited me, and we had a nice evening of catching up on things. He is a Greek Orthodox seminary graduate and a profound theologian. He shared this with me. He used to teach high school level Sunday School at our local parish. Sometimes his students would get cheeky—Greeks can be very lively—and challenge him on this or that. He would tell the challenger, ‘Don’t trust anyone to be your teacher unless he has died and risen from the dead, not even me.’

There's a point at which, no matter what church or fellowship we belong to, or what doctrines or creeds we confess, or even what our opinions are and whom we agree or disagree with, we must go back and hear the plain words of Jesus, believe what we hear Him saying in the gospels, and try our best to carry out what He says. You may notice there is very little doctrinal stuff in His teaching, almost all of it is quite practical.

To get at the meaning of His parables and mysterious sayings is the prize reserved for those who are willing to follow His simple and obvious commands. If we only do this, we can't go wrong, can't be damned, no matter what anyone may say, whether we are baptized or not, confirmed or not, churched or not, even good or not—‘why do you call me good?’ says Jesus, ‘None is good but God alone,’ even though He is God. This is what is behind the saying of martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘only the obedient believe.’

Hence, what the Word of God says to us is always true,
‘You have One Teacher, the Messiah.’

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