By Chris Saxton
For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. + John 5:36
One of the questions that I struggle with as a person on the path to ordination as an Anglican priest is: How do we as Christians in a post-Christendom world become the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a people? How are we called to enact the very work that the Father has “given me to finish.” For much of the past 1,500 years the Church has been inextricably wound up in the fabric of society. The church has been culture. In our post-enlightenment world, the Church of Christ has moved further from the center of culture and in many ways is establishing itself against culture. What does it mean to be a Christian in a post-Christendom, twenty-first century world? There will be times when our devotion to Christ will cause conflict with the world and we will have to take the unpopular way to be true to God. Christianity is a revolutionary idea that actively opposes many of the core values of our modern society … an egocentric society that focus on personal wealth, health and happiness with very little concern for others, or the eternal. For many centuries, my denomination, the Anglican Church has been the embodiment of privilege. We have been the Church of the 1%.
So how today, how do we embody the Gospel? How do we Anglicans today follow in the footsteps of the rebellious rabbi, Jesus?
We have to again make the Church a subversive element in society. To do this, we have to commit acts of worship, in public and in community, and together, commit the revolutionary act of celebrating the Eucharist. My denomination is a sacramental one, and I believe that it is by public practice of the principals learned in the Eucharist that we Christians become the living Church.
The idea that this 21st Century world is post-Christendom is found in Michael Frost’s book, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture. Frost writes on a post-Christendom community of faith as needing a new framework to rediscover what it means to re-imagine and rethink the future of the Christian movement. Frost sees that framework as the disciplines of: Dangerous Memories, Dangerous Promises, Dangerous Songs, and Dangerous Critiques. If these dangerous disciplines are to be found anywhere, it is in communities gathering for worship...in our Liturgies. We need to be recognizing the power of the church’s regular gathering and worship as an act of revolution against the harmful norms of modern society, and nowhere more so than in the celebration of the Eucharist. It is a dangerous memory.
For Anglicans, when we begin the Eucharist, we launch into a celebration of community that demonstrates that we are not longer in a self-centered universe; we are in a place apart from society. We come in. We come out from the world and enter into a different world. The presider asks a blessing for us. An invitation that “the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be upon us.” And we respond asking that the same Grace be accorded him. This is a subversive thought, a dangerous promise. The entire concept of Grace is antithetical to our linear accountant-based modern culture; the offer of Grace is a dangerous promise. We start the liturgy with this preposterous proposition that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and conversely there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.
Language shapes us. Marshall Mcluhan posited that the dominant medium of the age uniquely molds the ways that our brains process information. As the brain processes information it in turn shapes our personalities and social systems. This concept reflects linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf's hypothesis that language defines the way that we behave and think. It can be of no surprise that Whorf's interest in language and how it shapes humanity stemmed from his interest in religion. Our rehearsal of the Eucharist as a community literally shapes our brain and reforms us as active agents in the subversion of the society outside the walls of the church. We are communal creatures and can’t create ourselves but are created in the image of a communal, Trinitarian God, and the dangerous promise that we depend on others to be born, to survive, to be buried, and remembered. We live and have our being in community…and this is a dangerous promise.
The insurrection continues. We hear again the dangerous stories of our ancestors. Stories that may challenge us, encourage us, and even alarm us. In these dangerous stories we touch the timeless and eternal. We strive for connection with people who have been touched by the scriptures in the past, share with people who are being touched today, and look to those who will be touched in the future. This connection with what was, is, and shall be is not what we see outside the body of the Church. Our modern society is static with no real connection with the past or the future. In the Liturgy, we understand ourselves as a people that are at once an historic and a living community. We are become a history still unfolding and developing, embodying and passing along a story…through which its people gain their identity and their way of seeing the world. These are dangerous stories.
We reflect on the words we hear. A sermon or homily provides us context and allows for a conversation to develop with the texts we have head. At its best, effective preaching will provide a “springboard for reflection.” It is the preacher who articulates for us our common questions, who provides a theological language for us to better understand our lives in relation to the Eternal. We are invited to reflect on our predecessors (dangerous memories). And we are invited to challenge the surrounding culture by offering dangerous critique, as did that rebellious Rabbi Jesus. Christianity is counter-cultural. God called the church into being as its own culture and as a witness within and through the vicissitudes of history.
We pray. Together, and in community, in song and in word we sing these dangerous songs leaving behind our solitude. Seeking not the isolation that a relationship with the Almighty has come to mean for so many in our Baby-Boom Christianity. We rebel against the twenty-first Century view of Christianity as an individualized, abstracted ethico-religious system and unlike the society surrounding; we offer our concerns in public. As a community we are standing before God as we are and we confess our brokenness, our humanity. We seek all that is good for us and most importantly for others. We offer prayers for those within our community, and for those in the wider world. We prayerfully eavesdrop on the world around us…and offer dangerous critiques.
In our lives we are given many opportunities to develop and stock a storehouse of resentments. So many things in our culture can affect our pocketbooks, our self-esteem, and our overarching ambitions. Thwarted expectations grow like mustard seeds into cedar trees of resentments. We see others as rivals and our culture leads us to believe that we are entitled. But here, in this place that is in many ways against culture, we are asked to share the dangerous promise of peace. We are invited to offer the love of Christ to another, and in doing so we open our hearts to Him, and to each other. This is our answer to God's call to mission. We have asked God to forgive us our sins and here we act out the forgiving of others sins against us, both real and imagined. With these resentments released we have room for the Peace of Christ to inhabit us and to live out the dangerous promises made to us.
Bread and wine are offered by us to be blessed and eaten. Eating in our modern society is so often a solitary and hurried affair, but not here. Here we reenact the dangerous memories of Jesus' feeding of the multitudes. A small amount of food becomes great when it is shared. This is an act of rebellion against our society of greed and status. Here, at this table, we are equal. We consume the Body of Christ and in turn become his visible body on earth. The Gifts of God are given and consumed by the People of God.
We have become, through the Eucharist, His Church incarnate. We are separate from the broader culture. Our ethical language is no longer the language spoken by a twenty-first century, post-Christian society. We are given the mission to shine like stars amid a “crooked and perverse generation.” However beleaguered, however divided, however hateful we may sometimes be, still, as long as we remain the church in the slightest, that witness is our reason for being. This is our act of rebellion in a post Christendom world. We become, in the words of Rodney Clapp, a “peculiar people, a people called to survive by worship rather than by weapons.”
We have been fed at the table of life. We are refreshed and recharged by our prayers, our fellowship, and our worship. We have told dangerous stories, remembered dangerous memories, sung dangerous songs, and offered dangerous critique. Our minds have been re-shaped by the language and actions of the Liturgy. Now comes the separation from the embrace of our loving community and we must return to the world. This worshiping community is a welcoming community of friends looking outward, not a family looking inward. We have acknowledged that we are indeed Christ's disciples. Our eyes have been opened and we have been given a chance to see the world as it truly is, bathed in the light of Christ's presence in us and our fellows. We are beloved and redeemed as creations of the Father. And we are are ready for our mission of healing, of justice, of peace, and of dignity for all.
Chris Saxton is in his final as an year MDiv student at Trinity College, Canada's oldest centre for theological study in the Anglican Church of Canada. Like the college he is liberal and catholic in his views, and also rather old coming to Divinity after a long career as a sommelier, and a wine educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @ckwsaxton