Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Portable Narrative (Baptismal Covenant, part 4)

Q.1 Celebrant  Do you believe in God the Father?
People   I believe in God, the Father almighty,
  creator of heaven and earth.

Q.2 Celebrant  Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
People   I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
    He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
      and born of the Virgin Mary.
    He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
      was crucified, died, and was buried.
    He descended to the dead.
    On the third day he rose again.
    He ascended into heaven,
      and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 304

(The belated fourth installment in the Baptismal Covenant series)

So far in this series, I have framed covenant in biblical terms together with the way the Prayer Book talks about covenant. The takeaway is that nothing that the Baptismal Covenant asks of its people is anything other than can be "proved" (in that old Anglican sense) from Holy Scripture. This is important. The BC formulates a path of discipleship rooted in Scripture.

The first two questions of the Covenant are the first two articles of the Apostles' Creed. As one of my undergraduate teachers used to say that the creed is a "portable narrative." It hits the highlights of the Gospel story from beginning to end. I would add that the creed, when memorized, creates a set of useful "places" to go in the mind. They are nooks and crannies in which you can put other memories, other thoughts about God, self, and other. Memorizing this is not an end in itself. It is something that creates the ability to learn and retain more than one would otherwise be able to capture and keep.

Why put the creed first in the Baptismal Covenant? Because it provides the narrative context for everything that follows. In effect, the creed stands at the head of the Baptismal Covenant as both context and legitimation. The way of life that we request of our baptizands is sufficiently weird that we have to justify in advance why this kind of life means something. Our answer: this crazy way of life means something only because of the story told in the creed.

What about people who struggle with believing the creed? There is a certain amount of "as if" here. If you don't believe the creed but still act according to the rest of the Covenant, you are acting as though you believe it. If you're okay living with that kind of ambiguity, that's up to you; however I have a hard time imagining taking the rest of the BC seriously without some kind of grounding in these basic statements of Christian belief.

The basic elements of the portable narrative revolve around the three persons of the Trinity: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father stands at the head of the creed as almighty creator of heaven and earth, already the Father because of his everlasting relationship with the Son. The Son has a very earthly life: conceived, born, suffered, crucified, died, buried, descended to the dead, rose, ascended, coming again. The creed is clear about the continuity of Jesus' earthly life and his resurrected, ascended, and reigning life. Without this continuity, without the Jesus who died and yet reigns and is coming again, everything else that is to follow (including the third article of the creed) makes little sense.

This portable narrative stands at the head as context and legitimation for the way of life to follow, a life just weird enough to need that context and justification. The next instalment in this series will begin to look at the life of the baptized as the life of the Spirit.

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