I spent last week at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, GA, where I was privileged to become one of the 2014 Marcy Fellows. The week involved an intense set of classes and cultural experiences based around developing the skills and thoughts of myself and the 5 other preachers gathered there. Everything we did was based around Mark 1 as a text and the outcome of all the learning and experiences and discussions was work towards a sermon based on a passage from that text. There were a number of highlights for me personally:
1. The company. As I mentioned I got to sit with 5 other FLUMC pastors throughout this experience and there were a couple of reasons as to why this was so good. First of, they were just good people who were each committed to Christ and the ministry Christ has called them to. They were friendly, intellectually challenging in loving ways and were also each marked with a wonderful humility in the context of our learning. I would imagine this humility extends beyond the classroom and dinner table too. The second reason that sitting with these five folks was so good was that I finally made some new friends in the Conference. If I am honest, while I have loved the last year so much, I have felt lonely in the context of my ministry in the Conference. At Annual Conference gathering in June, I felt very alone and almost intimidated by not knowing anyone aside of old friends and the few others from the local UMC’s in my area. To have five folks with whom I now have friendship and shared learning experiences was the unexpected and invaluable gift of the Marcy Fellowship to my life and ministry.
2. The conversation on baptism which took place on Tuesday morning. To be honest we spent the whole week talking about baptism in the context of Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1. But on Tuesday we started to extend that conversation into the role of the sacrament in our lives, and the understanding of baptism that we and other Christians hold to. I was left with a question about baptism in the life of the church and the individual: Is baptism a momentary experience which is by and large forgotten after the event (by both church and individual) or is our baptism the significant moment in our lives which marks our hearts with the Spirit and declares our belonging to Jesus, and also becomes the context for the outworking of God’s story of grace in our lives? Does everything relate to our baptismal identity?
Through Marcy and the conversations we had, I got to engage with the declaration over Jesus at the moment of his baptism when he hears the Spirit say: “This is my Son. With Him I am well pleased.” These words became so powerful for me when i began to see them in the context of the next two little stories that Mark includes – those of Jesus’ wilderness experience and the beginning of his preaching ministry. I began to see that both the wilderness and the call to preach were lived out in the context of those words whispered in the moment of baptism. This fresh insight only served to confirm that it is only the love of God deep in our souls which can offer the strength to both endure the wilderness and live out the call on our lives. It was Christ’s experience of the Father’s love and affirmation in his baptism which, according to Mark, was the context for everything else which followed. Mark does not point to any birth stories or genealogy. From the beginning of his account, his only role is to point to Jesus as the Messiah that John and the Prophets before him preached about. And in doing that, he announces Jesus as the one who is affirmed and who finds his own beginning, middle and end firmly in the context of his baptismal experience.
I think this is powerful.
It also makes me worry somewhat at how we in the church have managed to cheapen baptism to a momentary experience which is all too soon forgotten in our lives as we forget our baptismal identity. It has become either just a symbol of our testimony of new life after conversion, or it has become something that we do to children whereby we announce God’s grace and claim on their lives in a ceremonial moment, before quickly reclaiming them for ourselves and going our own way. Both of these attitudes towards baptism (and they are assumed by me based on experience, not empirically proven by research) reveal an alarming lack of understanding which itself points to an alarming underplaying of the role and value of catachesis in the life of the believer. Early church practice was to ‘school’ the catachumenate for up to three years in the ways and understanding of the faith before allowing them to enter sacramental fellowship through baptism and receiving of Holy Communion. I do not think I am suggesting that this is the way forward – but I think that the loss of baptismal identity as the marker of our life context does warrant some attention in this area. Solid catachesis does not answer all the problems of the reality of life. But, surely if we believe and enact that sacraments are important pillars of our theological understanding and our tradition, it should follow that families and individuals be made more fully aware of the covenant they are entering into as they go through the waters of baptism?
3. The resulting sermon. I wrote a sermon which came directly out of the conversations and experiences and learning we had at Marcy. I delivered it to the group on Friday morning and got some great feedback. I will blog a little more when I get the opportunity to preach said sermon in our church context in a few weeks. But right now I am happy with it apart from a few tweaks that are needed here and there.
Overall, the week was excellent – food, fellowship and solid learning are always a good mix. I would do it again in a heart beat but this is a one off experience for my ministry. The other thing, in closing, is that i was reminded how much I love to study and learn in that environment. It scratched the itch of my inner nerd. I do not know what will come of this – but I do want to look at possibilities for further study towards either a PhD or a DMin. Who knows what will come of that – but the desire has been awakened a little more as a result of last week.