Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Reflections - Part 5

So I guess Paul does have a lot to teach about being church in today’s context. By learning how to live in community we also to grow to a greater understanding of what that means. It can help us reach out into the communities around us.

Diarmaid MacCulloch writes:
The separate inspiration of much of Paul’s message … was bound to bring tensions with the Jerusalem leadership … At stake was an issue which would trouble Christ-followers for 150 years: how far should they move
from Jewish tradition if, like Paul, they preached the good news of Christ’s
kingdom to non-Jews? Questions of deep symbolism arose: should converts accept such features of Jewish life as circumcision, strict adherence to the Law of Moses and abstention from food defiled by association with pagan worship …? Paul would allow only that Christians should not eat food which they knew had been publically offered to idols, and otherwise not make much of a fuss about wares on sale in the market or about dishes at a non-believer’s table.

I wonder what impact following Paul’s lead would have on the practice of open communion that seems to be in controversy today – especially after the statement from the Canadian House of Bishops. It is all fine and dandy to say that we don’t have to ask whether or not a person is baptized when they come to the rail for communion. That is the equivalent of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It does not provide consistency. Basically it says that we can practice open communion as long as we don’t do it knowingly. But as soon as we become aware we are not to practice it. So what happens then if I give someone communion on a regular basis and then find out they are not baptized. Of course, I would speak to them about baptism but am I to quit giving them communion when they have already received. Seems I am shutting the barn door after the horse got out. On second thought, maybe our bishops are following Paul’s example. Don’t eat the meat offered to idols but if you don’t ask and don’t know – it is okay.

It seems to me that if we follow Jesus’ example we would practice the meal as open to everyone. I am not aware of any place in the Gospels where Jesus insisted people be baptized in order to share the meal with him. There are no indications in the words of institution in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians or in the Gospels that the people who shared the last supper had to be baptized. It may well be that they all were as this was Jesus’ inner circle. But I am not even sure that baptism was a requirement for his community or whether it was later written in by his followers. We have no record of Jesus himself baptizing which seems strangely at odds with his commission that his disciples should go out and baptize the nations. Even the reading for Pentecost this year does not call on the disciples to baptize.

I am well aware that baptism as a requirement for full entry into the Church was a requirement very early on in the history of the Church. But I wonder if it wasn’t more an adaptation of the culture around it and maybe based on its Jewish roots. Circumcision was a requirement of the Jewish faith – an outward sign of belonging. The mystery religions of the time had an impact on the early Church and they had initiation rites.

I remember in seminary learning that the night before baptism the catechumens were given the secret. This secret was so secret that our professor had to finally tell us that it was the Apostles’ Creed as we couldn’t find any place that named it. It seems to me that Jesus, with his breaking down of barriers to a personal relationship with God, would not have put other barriers in place. I would, however, recognize a very human need to have some mark or rite of passage to belonging to the community.

Interestingly enough I recently researched the origin of the word “narthex.” Narthex is from a word referring to the giant fennel herb. I couldn’t, for the life of me, make a connection with the early church until I read that it was often used in initiation rites. Further research indicated that fire had been brought to earth in the hollowed out stem of this herb. Since fire was so significant to human development there is a connection with initiation. Early catechumens were made to stay in the Narthex for services until they were baptized. Some traditions had the doors being closed and locked before the reading of the Gospel. This would appear to be a very human requirement as I firmly believe Jesus would not have denied anyone the good news.

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