St John’s, Kitchener, 18th after Pentecost, 2018
Wisdom 1:16-2:1,12,22; James 3:13-4:3; Mark 9:30-37
I’ve been working for a few weeks now on a small project for St. John’s around the Memorial garden. It began with the fact that some of our neighbours are using the Memorial Garden in ways that we hadn’t intended. The presenting issue was that needles were being left behind, and creating an unsafe environment for those who wish to use the garden.
And as Deb Sheach and I have been investigating, and meeting with people from the church and the neighbourhood, it’s become quite clear that this is quite a complex thing.
It’s been a good opportunity to reflect on appropriate boundaries around the use of the garden, as well as, and just as importantly, how we interact and care for our neighbours who struggle with addictions and substance abuse, how we might care for our neighbours who are poor, or whose housing situation is precarious.
In that sense, it’s been a good time to reflect on our ministry as a downtown church.
I’ve been reflecting, myself, on what might be in play for us theologically, as we minister to those who would remember or mourn loved ones in the Garden, and providing a good space for them; and as we minister to our neighbours and friends whose lives are caught up in things like drug abuse and poverty
I’ve found it quite helpful to look to the Baptismal Covenant.
In between the prayer over the water and the baptism itself, the Baptismal Covenant is when the priest asks all those present to answer a number of questions. The first part is the Apostle’s Creed, set in question and answer form; the priest asking, “Do you believe in God the Father?” and the people responding, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth…” And so on.
The second part is a relatively new part of the baptismal rite. It’s a series of questions about the shape of Christian life. It’s that last one that has been most helpful as I’ve thought about our relationships amongst ourselves and with our neighbours, and what it might mean for us to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.
Before we get there, though, it’s worth briefly speaking about where this Baptismal Covenant comes from. If we were to look back in history to some early practices of the church around baptism, it would look a bit different than it does today. There was still water; there was still a profession of faith.
What was a bit different is what once happened before the baptism itself.
Before the baptism there was often a long period of preparation, taking years, sometimes; it was called the catechumenate, and those who were preparing for baptism were called catechumens.
Time spent in the catechumenate would certainly include instruction in matters of belief; but one of the reasons the catechumenate was so long, and took so much time, was that it was also an apprenticeship into a new kind of life.
Baptism, in this sense, was not just assenting to particular doctrines: it wasn’t simply “I believe.” Instead, belief, and manner of life, were thought to be intertwined with one another. So a long catechumenate made sense. There were a lot of habits that needed to be unlearned; and a lot of virtues that needed to be cultivated.
And this takes time.
And so the Baptismal Covenant is one way to recognise this connection between belief and manner of life, and that Christians don’t simply confess faith in the triune God, but live a life of faith that takes a particular kind of shape according to that belief: a life of eating with others, and of prayer; of resisting evil, and repentance; a life of proclaiming the Good News of Christ; of serving others as Christ, and of loving our neighbours; a life of striving for justice and of respecting the dignity of every human being.
So let’s return to that last question for special attention: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
That first part, the question of striving for justice and peace among all people, speaks to one kind of dignity. And though we wouldn’t find the word “dignity” all that often in most translations of the Bible, the concept is there: “dignity” is a part of holiness.
To lead a life of dignity is to be an inconveniently righteous person in the eyes of the “ungodly,” in the words of Wisdom. And when James writes of wisdom, something similar is in play: to act with dignity, is to not allow ourselves to be dragged down into envy, selfishness, and pettiness. But rather to be peaceable, gentle and willing to yield to others. To be merciful.
So the first part of that question speaks to the dignity that comes with holiness: peacableness.
But the second part of that last question speaks to different kind of dignity. Not only do we strive for justice and peace among all people, among ourselves, and among others, there’s also a kind of dignity that is part of being a human creature, a dignity that does not depend on our own holiness.
And here we can see a clear connection between what we believe, and the shape of our lives. “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” we say, in the profession of faith. And to believe in God as creator is to believe in a God who creates in us, as human beings, in a particular way. Human beings are as a special sort of creature: to be a human creature is to be made in the image and likeness of God.
There’s a long tradition of reading the part of Genesis, where it describes human beings as made “in the image and likeness of God,”as a way to speak of two things. Part of this is to say that though we may have been made in the likeness of God, sin obscures that likeness. We find that we, and others, do not always seek justice and peaceableness. Instead, we give in and act with envy, selfishness, and pettiness. And thus, our God-given likeness to God is obscured.
But we are also made in God’s image: the image is stamped in—much like a coin can get dirty, and obscure the features of the face on the coin, underneath that is an image that can’t be rubbed away. And to be made in God’s image, despite our own sin and fallenness, is to have an inalienable dignity, a divine dignity, something that cannot be taken away or effaced.
It is something that all human creatures are already given: dignity, the dignity of being made in God’s image.
So to believe in a God who creates, and creates each human person in his image, a God who thereby giving each human person an inalienable dignity, is to be led to live a life shaped by that belief; it means we act and live in certain ways as we interact with others, all those people we meet each day, the difficult ones and the kind ones, according to a dignity they have already been given by God.
And I’ve been impressed, and encouraged, in my conversations with all those who have a stake in the memorial garden: because as much as it’s taking some time to figure out the details, this is where we are beginning: with a recognition that all the people we are meeting on our boundaries, no matter how difficult some of these relationships are—we are each beginning with the assumption of our shared humanity, and shared, God-given dignity.
It is, nevertheless, a good question to keep asking ourselves, to discern and make sure that are we acting in ways that recognise the dignity that God has already given to each one of us.
Has this been an easy question to wrestle with? Not really. But no one made the promise that a life of faith is always easy. Catechumens surely learned that, in their years of preparation for baptism. Treating others with dignity, in a world so often intent of stripping people of that dignity, is to run counter to a dehumanising culture where people are so often disposable.
But having a job doesn’t make a person a person. Contributing to the economy doesn’t make a person a person. Having a home doesn’t make a person a person. Neither does dependence, on others, or in addiction, disqualify you from personhood. To be a person is simply to be a creature made in God’s image, and thus, to be a person with dignity.
Does recognising a person’s dignity mean we should suffer abuse at the hands of others, or putting up with any and all behaviour? Not at all—there’s very little dignity in that for anyone. We can have boundaries, and treat people with dignity.
Does recognising the dignity of others mean working for others, advocating for social services, and providing what we can? It sure does. Christians above all know that we all might live a life of God-given dignity, despite the fact that we are so often caught up in sin.
To respect the dignity of others, sometimes against all appearances, is to live a life of faith in a God who makes us, preserves us, and ultimately saves us, redeeming us and others from brokenness and poverty, from addiction; it means a life of faith in the God who is already redeeming the world God has made, setting right the structures of impoverishment, a life of faith in the Christ who forgives and takes our place, making room for each of us at God’s table, not according to what we deserve, but according to the dignity already given to each one of us, as people already made in God’s own image.
The Revd Dr. Preston DS Parsons