Sunday, 22 April 2018

2.2 Into the name

To act in a person’s name can be a powerful thing; and it can also be presumptuous, if authority has not been delegated and authorised. In the main Christendom traditions, the authority of the church has normally been understood as being established through relationship, if not in explicit partnership, with the power of State or Empire. The Reformation, by and large, did little to change this. The naming of great theologians, such as Luther and Calvin, as ‘magisterial Reformers’ recognised that the authority they exercised in people’s lives was one that acknowledged by and depended upon cooperation with the power of civil magistrates.

For baptists, the source of authority and therefore the shape of our identity could rarely, if ever, be confused with the authority of the State. Baptists, throughout history, have resisted the call to  conform to the dictates or expectations of the political establishment. Authority and identity has been looked for elsewhere. In the second part of the Declaration of Principle, the authority that we affirmed in the first part of the Declaration – the authority of Jesus Christ – leads us to reaffirm the true nature of our new identity; and to review the implications it bears.

The extended narrative of Exodus 3, in the confrontation that takes place between God and Moses, exemplifies the profound mystery there is in divine encounter, both as recorded in the Holy Scriptures and as found in present experience. To be confronted by God is something we might apprehend, but never fully comprehend: we cannot contain or define, within the parameters of our understanding or experience, the One who authors and holds the Cosmos in existence. Yet we can enter into a relationship with God that shapes and changes us, at God’s initiative and at His volition. We see the self-conscious limitations of Moses caught up and countered by the dynamism and power of God’s initiative, where God declares Himself as, ‘I will be who I will be’ (Exodus 3.14). God redefines Moses, moving Moses from a place where he seemed to enjoy independent and free, self-determination, to a place where God becomes the centre, the subject; and where Moses becomes the satellite. Furthermore, the revelation of God’s name draws Moses into a new identity and a new purpose for living. This reorientation of Moses proceeds, God revealing Himself and dealing with Moses, as God did with the patriarchs who came before Moses, in ways he does not expect. It continues on through the Book of Exodus, reaching its climax at Mount Sinai, in Exodus 34.6-7. Here, the apex in Moses’ experience of God, is where God reveals His goodness - but not the full extent of His glory. The event is recalled by Peter in 2 Peter 1.3-4, when Peter rehearses the nature of the participation that God draws us into, a participation that is in the life of God Himself. An appreciation of this meeting with God is echoed in the writings of Paul, as He too reflects on the effects of that meeting by Moses with God, which is paralleled in our own experience (2 Corinthians 3.17-18).

Baptism by immersion leads us to experience something of what it means to be united with Jesus Christ. We are also called to a deepening appreciation of the way in which we are renewed and redefined as persons, in the light of God confronting and embracing us, ‘into the name’. Our identity is not simply augmented or adjusted by conversion to Jesus Christ: it is radically repositioned.

Scottish, evangelical Christians, standing in the traditions of mainline, western churchmanship, will appreciate something of what God has done for them. We are acquainted with the news that we are saved as both ‘saints and sinners’. We are thankful for God’s mercy and forgiveness. We are delighted with the revelation of God’s love. Yet the inheritance of Christendom, in seeking to shape Christians as good citizens of Empire, Kingdom or State, has encouraged us to focus upon the passive, receptive quality of discipleship: appreciation of what we have received from God. What, however, of the way that baptism ‘into the name’ commissions us, a commissioning into a journey of wondrous redefinition and discovery of who and what we have become, through God’s embrace of our lives?

The manner of Christian living that most of us have been conditioned into has, I suspect, been founded on perspectives of the Christian life based on conformity, not non-conformity. We instinctively adhere to the desires and dictates of the State; and to an understating and practice of Christianity that conforms to these. I recall my own sense of shock and surprise when, some years ago whilst visiting in Eastern Europe, a Russian colleague asked me, ‘what is the attitude of Scottish baptist to the laws of the secular State?’ When we live with an assumed attitude of conformity, we adopt a restricted perspective that cannot fully appreciate, apprehend or embrace what it means to be brought, by baptism, ‘into the name’. Yet when we are baptised ‘into the name’, it is into a life where each of us has a new identity and a new empowerment, not least in terms of gifting. This will call us into a life of ministry that, in turn, releases the power and presence of the Kingdom of God to confront the powers and principalities that Christ has overcome, including those that govern this world we live in.

At the heart of our identity, the new identity in Christ that God has called us into, is the issue of empowerment. We now share a life where we have been initiated ‘into the name’, one that has been made possible through God’s embrace of all that we are. We have been brought into the life, ministry and victory of Jesus Christ. Sacramental traditions, interpreted and perpetuated through centuries of Christendom, can foster both a receptivity and understanding that restrict us to a passive participation ‘in the name’. The narratives of Scripture, however, would suggest that a ministry that functions ‘in the name’ is one that is proactive and empowered. Moses was raised up by God, in power, so that God’s name would be declared in all the earth (Exodus 9.16). It was by the power of the name of Jesus, Peter declared to the Jewish Council in Jerusalem, that the lame man at the Beautiful Gate was made whole (Acts 4.7-10). It was with empowerment, in the name of Jesus, that Paul adjured the Corinthian church to act against immoral behaviour (1 Corinthians 5.4). 

Grasping what it means, to act in empowerment, ‘in the name’, is something that Jesus Christ exhorted and called the first disciples to realise: that God would not refuse them a request that conformed to Him. Jesus Christ called them to look to, act and undertake in His name, in a manner consonant with His mission and ministry (John 14.13-14). Around the world, where this is understood and laid hold of, we see the church in advance. Pray God that we, in our generation today, rehearse and rediscover the meaning of baptism ‘into the name’.


Questions for reflection:

·         In what ways has your life become ‘repositioned’, as you have journeyed as a Christian?

·         Do you view yourself as a person with authority, under authority, or both together?

·         In what ways might your life be described as characterised by seasons of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ faith?