Borrowing for Mission

I wonder if any of you have heard of the Borrowers?  The Borrowers are little people, just a few inches high, who live under the floorboards of an old country house in England.

Their names are Pod and Homily Clock, and they exist by borrowing things which they find above them in the big house. They borrow doll’s tea cups because they have no crockery, and they borrow food from the kitchen in the big house, and all kinds of other things.

I do not know if any of you were brought up reading the stories of these loveable characters, or indeed whether you might have read them to your own children.  It is never quite clear in Mary Norton’s 1950s books whether the Borrowers are actually stealing, to whether this is in fact some sort of admirable recycling operation. Nevertheless the Borrowers are defined by their love for borrowing.

And I want to suggest to us today, that that same title of being “Borrowers” might also be true for us as Christians, because all of us who are heirs and inheritors in the Church come from a long line of borrowers, we are a borrowing people.  Our teachings and beliefs, our traditions and symbols and architecture have largely been borrowed from outside of our faith tradition, and then adapted for our use.

Some of this is totally understandable of course. The Early Church had no tradition of its own, so like all other new movements it consciously in some areas and unconsciously in others borrowed from what it saw going on around itself.  So when the Church (for example) gained legitimacy after the early persecutions, and for the first time needed its own buildings, Christian leaders in the fourth century (the first ‘century in which Christians established physical churches) looked not to temples, or to synagogues, or to their own homes for the designs for their church buildings, but instead to the basilica, the hall of the king. It was on the designs of that powerful secular building that Christian churches were first modelled. That pattern of borrowing has been ongoing throughout Christian history.

In our Gospel reading, on this Second Sunday in Advent, we are re-introduced at the start of our Christian year to the figure of John the Baptist, wandering in the wilderness, proclaiming the coming of the Lord.  In the passage which we heard, John the Baptiser is connected very consciously to the Old Testament prophets.  John borrows the prophetic words of those who have come before him, as he Seeks to prepare people for the coming of the Lord.  We are told that it is through the Jewish ritual of baptism, that John enacts a cleansing liturgy to symbolise repentance and redemption.

So, what is true for the first Church buildings (the borrowing of their design from what Christians saw around them), is also true for the first Christian ceremonies as well, and because all of the first Christians were Jews it seems natural that the worship of the Church was based on the foundations which were borrowed from Jewish worship of the time.

For those of us living 2,000 years after these events, it is good I think for us to remind ourselves of these facts.  Sometimes we have the idea that a particular translation of the Bible, or a particular service in one of our prayer books, or even a particular way of saying our prayers has somehow been dictated to us by God.  This is a special problem for those of us who are involved in the Catholic movement of the Church, which emphasises rituals and ceremonies which have been used by the Church for many centuries.  Because we begin to create the idea that at some point in the early life of the Church, God dictated that our worship should be done this way.  Many of us have seen images in stained glass or paintings depicting heaven as if it was like a constant High Mass, with incense and vestments and candles and altars… I fear that some of us may be very disappointed when we get there.

As we hear this account of John, baptising people in the Jordan, we can easily make the mistake of thinking that baptism was somehow invented by John or indeed by Jesus him- self.  When we think back to the stories which surround the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry, we remember that he is himself baptised by John in. the river Jordan. So that gives us a clue, (on the basis that it is happening before Jesus has started his ministry), that baptism is something which the first Christians and indeed Jesus borrowed from someone else.

Baptism does not find its source in Jesus, it’s roots are much earlier in the Jewish religion in which it was a ceremony which pointed to ritual cleansing for those who took part in it.  It is a very powerful symbolic ritual: you will know that yourselves from when baptisms are celebrated here, because as we watch it, and as we experience it, it is clear what the symbolism means. The water expresses for us what is going on inside: we are being washed clean, we are being transformed and made new with the water of life.

In the time of Jesus, Gentiles who wanted to become God-fearing Jews were both circumcised (if they were men or boys) and then after healing had taken place they were baptised in water.  Circumcision was a sign of the Jewish covenant, and baptism was a sign of being made clean from the impurity which had come from not keeping the Jewish purity laws.  Men and women were baptised naked, they were fully immersed under the water whilst religious teachers read from the books of instruction from the shore.  The first Christians borrowed this ritual and made it their own. They continued the practice of baptising in streams and lakes and rivers.

Our present formula for how we do it, owes more to the growth of cities, and thus the lack of accessible streams and rivers than it does to anything more profoundly theological.  So the first Christians, who were also Jews, borrowed baptism from the Jewish religion and made it their own.

As Anglicans we miss some of the symbolism because we don’t immerse people under water when they are baptised with us, because we instead put water on their foreheads.  The symbolism of going down under the water, and then coming back out of the water would have been enacted each time John baptized those who were seeking the Lord.  The believer would go down under the water, as if they were dead, and then they would rise again back above the water, being raised to new life in Christ.  We cannot do that in our little fonts, but it is worth remembering as we celebrate the sacrament of baptism here during the year, that that is how the symbolism first worked.

When Augustine arrived in what is now the British Isles, to convert the English to. Christianity, he was advised by Pope Gregory the Great not to destroy the pagan temples in which people worshipped, but instead to borrow them, and to seal within the altars the relics of the saints, to simply begin a process of Christianising the worship which went on in them already, so that people became Christians without really realizing it.

The more that I think about his instructions, the more I find that to be a profound mission strategy, even for our times.  As Christians we are borrowers, our tradition has been formed by borrowing things from the cultures around us and other religious traditions, and having borrowed them, making them our own.

As we hear about John the Baptist this morning, we are reminded that it was the Jewish custom of baptism which was adopted (borrowed) by the first Christians to be the central life giving symbol of our dying to self and being raised to new life in Christ; which may challenge us this Advent to reflect on how we might borrow from the cultures around us, in order to communicate the love of God to those who are not part of our Church community.

Just as baptism was borrowed from Judaism and made significant for us as Christians by the Early Church, we could say the same thing about the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, which was originally a Jewish Passover meal.  In the past we have borrowed bizarre fertility rites and brought them into our churches like May Pole Dancing.  In England the practice of beating the bounds of the Parish, and standing the youngest choir boy on his head at the four corners of the parish, still goes on to this day, having been borrowed centuries ago by the Church from rural customs.

Let me give you an example of how this borrowing might be a simple step forward for us as we respond to the challenge of being a missional Church.  A church in another diocese in Australia, seeking to reflect on the kind of customs which are found in the culture around it, and to Christianise those customs for the sake of mission, has recently started holding a service to bless L-Plate drivers, and that seems to me to be a great example of what this interplay between the Gospel and our local culture might achieve.  That church recognised that becoming an L-Plate driver was a major milestone in the life of young people, and it recognised as well the need for those young drivers to be responsible in their actions as drivers.  So they designed a liturgy through which Christian significance was given to what was going on.  That is a very simple example, there are lots of others.

Today, on this Second Sunday in Advent, (as we focus on John the Baptist) we celebrate our hope that in our baptism we have died in Christ and been raised with him.  Through our baptism each one of us is made a member of the body of Christ, an heir of the Kingdom, a witness to the love of God.

My question for us, as we remember that our liturgy has been created by humans and not sent to us as a finished package by God, is (using the language of Pope Gregory the Great to Augustine) where are the pagan altars in our society, and in our local community, and what can we do to insert the relics of the saints into them?  Or in other words, what do we see, as we look at the community in which we live, which we can borrow to help to express the unconditional love of God in Jesus to all those who live around us?

Those questions will require us to think deeply, not only about our faith, but about the lives of those who live in this local community.  For the sake of the Gospel, and the mission of the Christ’s Church, let us be borrowers.