The Both/And of the Gospel

By Robert MacSwain

For the past few days I have been reading a short book titled Backpacking Through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity. The author, Jesse Zink, is a young Canadian who was ordained as a priest in the American Episcopal Church and who now serves in England as director of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide. The book recounts his journeys as a missionary and seminarian in countries such as South Africa, Uganda, South Sudan, England, Ecuador, Nigeria, and China. In these travels he encounters the worldwide Anglican Communion in all of its rich ethnic, cultural, and theological diversity, but also finds an underlying yet strained unity in our shared baptism, common traditions, and mutual relationships.

In the earlier chapters Zink recounts his upbringing in the Anglican Church of Canada and the American Episcopal Church, and how this basic Anglican formation was challenged and enriched by an encounter with the evangelical organization InterVarsity during his college days in Nova Scotia. Zink attended an Anglican church on Sunday morning but also went to the InterVarsity meetings on Friday evening. Aside from considerable differences in music and liturgy, Zink noticed a sharp contrast in theology as well. He wrote that at the Anglican parish, the priest, Cathy Lee, “made it seem self-evident that our Christian faith compelled us to be interested in, pay attention to, and pray for people in the Holy Land, and work actively for peace here and there.” But his InterVarsity friends rather focused their theology on issues such as “salvation, heaven, hell, Jesus, and atonement.” Zink writes:

There was a personal focus as well in the way they concentrated on the individual’s relationship to God and were less concerned—if at all aware—of the rest of the world that did not share the relatively comfortable style of life to which we were all accustomed. What I almost never heard mentioned were the issues Cathy Lee emphasized in the pulpit: peace, reconciliation, and the world around us.

Presented so starkly, it is of course easy to see that both of these perspectives on Christian faith are stereotypical extremes that need the other to balance them out. Neither by itself is an adequate expression of the gospel of Christ. But Zink’s point is that, surprisingly, it is actually very easy to remain entirely within just one perspective and never encounter the other. To encounter another form of Christianity, even another form of Anglicanism, let alone another religious tradition entirely, means making the effort to get out of one’s comfort zone and meet people where they are, to share for a moment their life, to experience their forms of belief and worship and discipleship.

Now this sermon is not the time or the place to consider the details of Anglican ecclesiology and polity, ecumenical relations, and the pros and cons of belonging to a global family of churches. I simply want to observe that what Jesse Zink discovered in Nova Scotia is true for all of us: without encountering the other, without having our perspective challenged, without experiencing a different form of faith, we are all too likely to fall into self-enclosed systems of incompleteness. This is a basic scriptural insight. In First Corinthians, Chapter 12, the Apostle Paul wrote:

If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

Of course, this does assume that we are in fact all one body, the body of Christ, which is precisely what some are disputing. But, it seems to me, this is where ecumenical theology does indeed come into play, because one of the greatest achievements of the 20th-century ecumenical movement was recognizing that all Christians do in fact belong to the body of Christ through our common baptism. According to the World Council of Churches’ document Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, through baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection; we are converted, pardoned, and cleansed; we receive the gift of the Spirit; we are incorporated into the body of Christ; and we bear witness to the kingdom of God. And according to the Book of Common Prayer, “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”

I will confess that to me one of the great tragedies of our current divisions in the Anglican Communion is that some Anglicans apparently seem unable to acknowledge in other Anglicans what documents like Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry argue is the common property of all Christians whatsoever, regardless of their denominational affiliation, namely, membership in Christ’s body the Church. If we could start there, with this basic ecumenical insight, I think that would be a step in the right direction.

On this Sunday, the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we commemorate the Baptism of our Lord. There is a rich and complex relationship between Christ’s baptism and our own. Jesus was not baptized into the body of Christ, because he is the Body of Christ. But as the collect for today says, “at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan [God] proclaimed him [God’s] beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit.” In Luke’s Gospel for today:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

In obedience following Christ himself to the waters of baptism, we too are proclaimed God’s beloved children and we too are anointed with the Holy Spirit. At our baptism, we are grafted into the new corporate identity of the Church, and as members of the body of Christ we begin to share in the divine life of the Holy and Blessed Trinity.

The collect continues: “Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant that have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior.” Here, interestingly, we find together both of the forms of Christianity that Jesse Zink found separated in Nova Scotia, divided between the Anglicans and the evangelicals.

In a few moments we will renew our own Baptismal Vows. For many Episcopalians, it is somehow easier to focus on those aspects of the Baptismal Covenant that stress seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being. That’s what we do—or at least, what we think we should do. Yes, there’s also that bit about proclaiming by “word and example the good news of God in Christ,” although in practice somehow “example” always gets emphasized over “word,” and “good news” is left conveniently vague. But “boldly confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior,” well, that’s what InterVarsity does.

It’s a neat division of labor, but it’s also a tragically truncated version of the Gospel. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. We thus must do everything we can to overcome this facile division between proclaiming the good news by “word or example” instead of proclaiming the good news by “word and example.” Yes, it’s multi-tasking, but we can do this!

The Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain is associate professor of theology at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.

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