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Sunday, 13 January 2013

Living in the Christian story

At the Eucharist in St Margaret’s Barking for the Diocesan Day of Prayer for the Mission and Unity of God’s Church, Bishop Stephen told his favourite Christmas story. As it is his story, I won't repeat it here. Suffice to say for what follows that it involves a two year old called Miriam climbing into a crib scene.

What she did was essentially an acted parable to the congregation because she became part of the story. That is what happens – it is what we are doing – when we become Christians. In other words for many of us, it is what is going on when we are baptised.

Baptism is our immersion in the Christian story; a story which begins with God’s creation of the universe and life on earth. It continues with our rebellion as human beings. Our saying to God that we know who we are and what we need to do and, therefore, will go ahead and do our own thing. We all live with the consequences of that right now.

But in the story which the Bible tells God does not leave us simply to do our own thing. First, he chooses the people of Israel and through his special relationship with them seeks to call all people back to their true identity and purpose and then he sends his own Son, Jesus, to reach out in rescue and return us to him. He does this so that each one of us can find our identity and purpose in God and play our part in bringing the kingdom of God in full on earth as it is in heaven.

When Jesus was baptised he was saying that he would immerse himself in this story and play his special, unique part within it. As he made that commitment, God the Father affirmed him in his identity and purpose by saying, “You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you.”
As we do what Miriam did and enter the story, then we are also affirmed by God in just the same way. St Paul writes in Romans 8. 14 – 17 that:

“Those who are led by God's Spirit are God's children. For the Spirit that God has given you does not make you slaves and cause you to be afraid; instead, the Spirit makes you God's children, and by the Spirit's power we cry out to God, “Father! my Father!” God's Spirit joins himself to our spirits to declare that we are God's children. Since we are his children, we will possess the blessings he keeps for his people, and we will also possess with Christ what God has kept for him; for if we share Christ's suffering, we will also share his glory.”

What he is saying is that as we enter the story we are adopted by God as his children and become brothers and sisters of Jesus, co-heirs with him of all he possesses.

You may remember the wonderful words of Philippians 2. 6 – 11 which say that Jesus gave up the equality he had with God the Father in heaven in order to be born as a human being, living and dying as our servant in order to save us:

“For this reason God raised him to the highest place above
    and gave him the name that is greater than any other name.
And so, in honour of the name of Jesus
    all beings in heaven, on earth, and in the world below
    will fall on their knees,
and all will openly proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.”

That same glory, St Paul says, is shared with us as we enter the story, join the family of God and play our part with the story. The incredible message of Christianity is that our rightful identity as human beings is that of being God’s own dear children with whom he is greatly pleased.

How do we play our part? That all depends on our coming to know the story and what happens within it. The former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright has described Holy Scripture as being like a five act play containing the first four acts in full (i.e. 1. Creation, 2. Fall, 3. Israel, 4. Jesus).

“The writing of the New Testament,” he says, “would then form the first scene in the fifth act, and would simultaneously give hints (Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end ... The church would then live under the 'authority' of the extant story, being required to offer an improvisatory performance of the final act as it leads up to and anticipates the intended conclusion ... the task of Act 5 ... is to reflect on, draw out, and implement the significance of the first four Acts, more specifically, of Act 4 in the light of Acts 1-3 ... Faithful improvisation in the present time requires patient and careful puzzling over what has gone before, including the attempt to understand what the nature of the claims made in, and for, the fourth Act really amount to.”

So, we start by looking at what we know of the story to date – the things God has done in and through Israel, Jesus and the Church – and we also look at the hints we have about the way the story will end with the coming in full of the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. Then we say to ourselves, ‘What is it that people do in this story? How do they act and behave? And then we start to do and say similar things as we have the opportunity. As Christians we are never given a script which has all our lines and actions printed on it. Instead, we have to improvise our part on the basis of what we know of the story so far, on the basis of the example provided by those who have lived in the story before, and on the basis of the opportunities provided in the places where we are and among the people that we know.

Living in the Christian story, therefore, is a challenge – something we should know anyway from looking at the life and death of Jesus – but it comes with the affirmation that we are part of God’s family; his dearly loved children, brothers and sisters of and co-heirs with Jesus himself. When we know this we can relax because whatever happens to us we are accepted, forgiven, loved and gifted by the God who created all things and who will bring all things to their rightful end.

When we do that we are like Miriam climbing in under the altar to become part of the crib scene. When we do that we become part of God’s story which makes us his children and gives us identity, purpose and meaning.


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