Are you a Christian?
Genesis 1.1-5 Psalm 29 Mark 1.4-11
‘Are you a Christian?’ I remember being asked that question as a fresher. I had just arrived at University, and I went to the College Chapel on Sunday evening. At Balliol, there were always sherry afterwards in the Old Common Room. Someone, who I’d never met before walked up to me and asked me the question.
I must confess that I was surprised to be asked. Given that Chapel was hardly compulsory and that I had bothered to turn up, I thought on one level the question was redundant. But it was a question that put me on the spot. Was I being asked if I was a particular kind of Christian? Was I being asked to sign up to the Christian Union? Was I being expected to inhabit a particular kind of identity – to conform to a particular set of norms? And what if I had failed or would fail in the future? What if in the end I said ‘Yes’ and I didn’t turn out to be a particularly good Christian? Would that make me a fraud? All of this was going through my mind as the questioner looked at me expectantly. I said, ‘Well, yes’, perhaps a bit hesitantly. And then I said, ‘Are you?’ To which I got the answer, ‘I’m the son of the Bishop of Repton’. Then he walked off. I wasn’t sure that my question had been answered….
But how do we answer the question? Are you a Christian? I can’t help reflecting that it is strange that I have so rarely been asked that question. Of course, one might answer it in terms of being a cultural Christian. I inhabit a particular culture that has been shaped and animated by the Christian tradition. Tom Holland, in his book Dominion, has some interesting observations to make about that. Alternatively, I might think about being a Christian in terms of something that I may have inherited from my family, something that I didn’t choose but was simply given to me, a choice that was made for me, something that was instilled in me by a process of education. Interestingly, I was not baptized as a child and my parents were not churchgoers, but my faith was undoubtedly shaped by the church schools that I attended. So there is this sense in which my faith was shaped by a regular pattern of worship, a kind of practice or observance. But the temptation with such an understanding is that ‘being a Christian’ can then be reduced to thinking simply in terms of a certain kind of behaviour or ethic, certain moral standards. Again, once upon a time, people might have identified themselves as a Christian almost by a process of subtraction. ‘Well, I’m not a Muslim or a Buddhist, I’m not a pagan or an atheist, so I guess that makes me a Christian’. Of course, these days, such people are more likely to be described as nones. When I first heard that expression, it took me a while to realise that they were speaking about people with no religious affiliation, rather than people who might wear a wimple.
The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, had some interesting observations to make in response to the question, ‘Are you a Christian?’ Kierkegaard is often regarded as a rather melancholy figure, a philosopher who studied the depths of despair. And yet, his writings are characterized by enormous wit. Sometimes he can be devastatingly funny. Although he came from a pious Lutheran family, and was determined to try everything else before entertaining the thought of being a Christian himself, Kierkegaard’s theological imagination was shaped by the story of those frightened disciples, who locked themselves away in the upper room, after the crucifixion. They hid themselves away, uncertain, hesitant, unsure. And yet, in that moment, the risen Christ came and stood among them, and said, ‘Peace be with you’. And for Kierkegaard, this story provoked in him the realization that in spite of all his searching, at his core he was a person found by God. And this discovery was a moment of ‘indescribable joy’.
This sense of being found, grasped by a mystery beyond himself, this moment of revelation, was the starting point for his journey of faith. In the Lutheran church in Denmark at the time, a state church, any Danish citizen was counted as a Christian. He was shocked by the complacency of those who when asked ‘Are you a Christian?’ would simply say ‘Yes’, without recognizing that to be found by God, to be addressed by God as one who is beloved, demands a response, a response of wholehearted faith. For Kierkegaard, a Christian is something that you become and that becoming takes a lifetime.
And although Kierkegaard had some critical things to say about the way in which the Danish church had hollowed out the sacrament of baptism, the fact remains that the journey of a lifetime all begins with baptism. As the old Prayer Book used to say, ‘Baptism doth represente unto us our profession’. At the heart of the baptismal rite is the profession of faith, and that faith is something in which we seek to grow. The creeds that we say bear witness to the Christian doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Trinity. And it is no accident that in our scripture readings for today, the compilers of the lectionary have chosen passages of scripture with a distinctly Trinitarian resonance.
In our reading from Genesis, there is the description of creation, In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth’, God speaks ‘the Word’, that same Word which became flesh in Jesus Christ, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters, the wind, the breath of God, the spirit of God – in Hebrew as in Greek, the word for wind, breath and spirit are the same word. And then again, in Mark’s description of the baptism of Christ, there is this moment of revelation, the Spirit descending like a dove on Jesus and the voice that says ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’. In these words, we discover the revelation of divine love.
But more than that, there is that sense of being found, of being called, and that is the call which has brought us here today. As we contemplate the baptism of Christ, we come face to face with Jesus, and it is here that we discover who we are, slowly, sometimes painfully, sometimes surprisingly. We discover that ‘we have been created to mirror his life, the eternal life of the one turned always towards the overflowing love of the Father’. The tragedy is that so often we are tempted to turn away, because the life of faith can seem so overwhelming, so challenging, so difficult. ‘Are you a Christian’, ‘Well, yes’, and then when people say that ‘Your faith must be such a consolation to you’, sometimes I smile silently, when really I just want to say, ‘You know, to be honest, it doesn’t always feel like that’ because that journey of becoming, of becoming a Christian, is not always an easy journey – to follow Christ may take us to Calvary, even to that Upper Room. The sacrament of baptism speaks from beginning to end of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It provides no immunity from pain or suffering of loss. Rather we are drawn into the redemptive power of God's love, of love’s endeavour and love’s expense.
In his little book on icons, Rowan Williams meditates on an icon of Christ. Indeed, the evangelists’ story of the Baptism of Christ has fascinated and inspired iconographers for centuries. But Williams says this, ‘When we look at Jesus, we see in some measure what he sees, and are drawn to where his eyes lead us….When we look at him looking at us, we see both what we were made to be, bearers of the divine image and likeness, and what we have made of ourselves.’ Williams is making the point that it is God who initiates and sustains our relationship with him, and whose gaze, and whose grace, has the capacity to transform us into his likeness, into his joy, into his life. In spite of our searching and our wondering, he finds us and most wonderfully of all, he delights in us.