Lord, you have taught us that all our doings without love are nothing worth: send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love, the true bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whoever lives is counted dead before you. Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen
COMMENTING on a form of confession proposed for Series 3, and now part of the Common Worship Order One eucharistic rite, Professor David Frost admitted that he would be hard put to explain what was meant by the “newness of life” which is part of the prayer’s concluding petition (“forgive us all that is past; and grant that we may serve you in newness of life to the glory of your name”).
He did not think he would be able to offer more than “pious platitudes” (The Language of Series 3, Grove Books, 1973). Detached from any sense of its source, the phrase is undeniably vague, but, in the setting from which it was lifted, it has all the impact of Professor Frost’s own well-loved post-communion prayer, “Father of all, we give you thanks and praise . . . ”.
Paul’s Letter to the Christians in Rome reminds the recipients of their baptismal commitment (Romans 6.1-11). There is no need to explain how baptism is performed, because the practice is already familiar. Paul concentrates on what baptism means: on its seriousness and its joy. All of this is contained in being baptised “into Christ Jesus”, and so taking on the very identity of Christ (Romans 6.3).
But, to be absolutely clear, Paul spells out the full implications. To be baptised is to share Christ’s death, to give up the “old self”. It is also to share in Christ’s resurrection and discover a new self no longer held captive by sin, and to “walk in newness of life” as witnesses to Christ’s glory (Romans 6.3-6).
Even this is shorthand for the complexity of the time-frame surrounding the promised transformation. Paul writes to a community living between the resurrection and the end of time. Until that end comes, every day is a challenge to live “in newness of life”, as people who really are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6.11).
The confidence to live by this pattern has baptism as its reference point. Ambrose of Milan (c.340-397) took the newly baptised candidates he was instructing back to Romans 6, the lesson they would have heard just before entering the water, when he described to them how dying to sin differed from physical death.
He wanted them to think of the “death” that they had undergone in being immersed as a “sacrament of the cross”, which “fastened them to Christ” as Christ had been nailed to the cross. He prayed that the nails would continue to hold the neophytes, so that the devil could not drag them back into sin (De Sacramentis 2.23, in Robin M. Jensen’s Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity, Baker Academic, 2012).
The writer of Matthew’s Gospel makes a realistic examination of what it means to live as a follower of Christ. He, too, works with two chronologies: on the one hand, the narrative setting of Jesus’s missionary instructions to the disciples (Matthew 10.5-10.42); on the other, the milieu of a very early Christian community with a strong consciousness of the judgement to come.
The likely developments are dramatic enough to warrant repetition — conspiracy, persecution, and terrible family rifts (Matthew 10.16-39) — and they would not sound unfamiliar to minority Christian communities in hostile conditions today.
For them, and for the Gospel’s first audience, Jesus’s thrice-repeated injunction not to be afraid has enormous urgency (Matthew 10.26, 28, 31). Others living in comparative, although never complete, security might look first for a spiritual interpretation when faced with the same words.
Brendan Byrne refuses to let anyone get away with that, and points to baptism as a great leveller: “If we never experience discomfort and embarrassment in living the faith, if we never have to ‘confess Jesus’ in a way that means standing apart from the crowd, have we truly heard the good news for which at our baptism we were claimed?” (Lifting the Burden, Liturgical Press, 2004).
Jeremiah, released from the stocks and in the depths of despair over the failure of the Judaean towns and cities to take any notice of his warnings and turn back to God, was in no doubt about the sacrifices involved in remaining faithful. His lament enacts a journey through resentment: first against God, and then against his close friends; and he does not shrink from savage metaphors.
God, he suggests, has seduced him and raped him (Jeremiah 20.7). His friends plot revenge on him (Jeremiah 20.10). Yet he is a prophet despite himself, and God’s message to the people is “like a burning fire shut up in [his] bones” (Jeremiah 20.9). For a moment, he turns to God as redeemer and not as destroyer (Jeremiah 20.13). The curse that follows immediately afterwards calls that into question (Jeremiah 20.14-18).