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Being Christian by Rowan Williams

June 26, 2015

BCThis book was recommended to me by a friend who used it for Lent groups in his church.

It’s a small book but not one to swallow whole in one sitting.

By far the best section is the last one, on prayer.

Baptism is ‘being led to where Jesus is’, which, in apparent contradiction, places you both ‘in the middle of human suffering and muddle’ (not marked out as a member of a superior group) and in the heart of God.

The Bible is like ‘God telling us a parable or a whole sequence of parables’. It is the word of God because it is what God wants us to hear, not because everything it contains, including a call to genocide, is his direct word. God is saying, ‘This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them; this is the response they made… Where are you in this?’

The heart of the Eucharist is illustrated in the story of Zacchaeus, when Jesus says to him, ‘Aren’t you going to ask me to your home?’ In the Eucharist, Jesus not only exercises hospitality, he draws hospitality out from others, makes people open to God, open to each other, and able to see all things as ‘demanding reverent attention, even contemplation’.

Prayer is something to grow into, which is always about growing in Christian humanity. Essentially, to pray is to let Jesus pray in you. It’s not so much about chatting to Jesus, still less about trying to persuade God to listen. We make room, we say ‘Our Father’, and Jesus prays in us. All this is considered with help from Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Cassian.


“baptism takes us where Jesus is.” To be baptized is to be “dropped” both into the depths of the mystery of Christ’s Passion — and therefore into solidarity with all human suffering — and also into the depths of God’s love, “in the depths where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be.”

“If you take this step, if you go into the depths, it will be transfiguring, exhilarating, life-giving and very, very dangerous.”’

“Christians will be found in the neighbourhood of Jesus – but Jesus is found in the neighbourhood of human confusion and suffering, defencelessly alongside those in need. If being baptized is being led to where Jesus is, then being baptized is being led towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny.”

the new humanity that is created around Jesus is not a humanity that is always going to be successful and in control of things, but a humanity that can reach out its hand from the depths of chaos, to be touched by the hand of God.”

That is also why, although this sometimes has been a controversial element in Christian history, reverence for the bread and the wine has instinctively been felt to be a good thing, something appropriate to Christians. It is why the Book of Common Prayer tells you that you need to consume reverently at the end of Holy Communion what is left over. Here is something of the world that has been identified as carrying the power and love of God to you. Don’t just throw it away. Make what you will of this tradition of reverence for the consecrated things; but it does at least suggest that to take seriously the material food of the bread and wine can be the beginning of a proper and grateful reverence before all God’s material things — a doorway into seeing all things as demanding reverent attention, even contemplation.

‘This is what God wants you to hear. He wants you to hear law and poetry and history. He wants you to hear the polemic and the visions.’

‘Prayer… is like… sneezing – there comes a point where you can’t not do it’.

‘The diversity of the Bible is as great as if you had within the same two covers, for example, Shakespeare’s sonnets, the law reports of 1910, the introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the letters of St Anselm and a fragment of the Canterbury Tales. All within the same two covers.’

‘Christ-centred reading of the Bible that tells you exactly how to relate all the different bits to the centre… how that bit in Leviticus and that bit in Ezekiel come alive when you relate it to Jesus… the whole massive history of Christian commentary on the Bible is just an ever-expanding exercise in that reality: that of relating different bits to the centre’.

‘God telling us a parable or a whole sequence of parables’.

‘This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them; this is the response they made… Where are you in this?’

“For many people in the 1970s and 1980s it was surprising to realize what the story of the exodus, for example, meant to people in deprived communities in Latin America.”

“Jesus sought out company, and the effect of his presence was to create celebration, to bind people together.”

‘Queen Victoria did not like going to Holy Communion on Easter Sunday, because, she said, she could not understand why you had to interrupt a joyful day with such a sad service.’

“Here we are, in the company of Jesus: Father, send us the Holy Spirit that as these people share these things, the life of Jesus may fill them all.” Being Christian is about accepting God’s hospitality, to be welcomed where “Christ, the Son, gives his life to the Father in the Spirit” and receive a foretaste of the new creation.

Growing in prayer is not simply acquiring a set of special spiritual skills that operate in one bit of your life. It is about growing into what St Paul calls ‘the measure of the full stature of Christ’ (Ephesians 4.13). It is growing into the kind of humanity that Christ shows us. Growing in prayer, in other words, is growing in Christian humanity.

Jesus speaks to God for us, but we speak to God in him. You may say what you want – but he is speaking to the Father, gazing into the depths of the Father’s love. And as you understand Jesus better, as you grow up a little in your faith, then what you want to say gradually shifts a bit more into alignment with what he is always saying to the Father, in his eternal love for the eternal love out of which his own life streams forth.

That, in a nutshell, is prayer – letting Jesus pray in you, and beginning that lengthy and often very tough process by which our selfish thoughts and ideals and hopes are gradually aligned with his eternal action; just as, in his own earthly life, his human fears and hopes and desires and emotions are put into the context of his love for the Father, woven into his eternal relation with the Father ­even in that moment of supreme pain and mental agony that he endures the night before his death.

Origen’s little book on prayer is the first really systematic treatment of the subject by a Christian. And one of the questions he asks is one you have probably asked yourself from time to time: ‘If God knows what we are going to ask, why bother to pray?’ (You may be relieved to know that they were already asking that in the third century.) And Origen has as good an answer as anyone has given: God knows, of course, what we are going to say and do, but God has decided that he will work out his purposes through what we decide to say and do. So, if it is God’s will to bring something about, some act of healing or reconciliation, some change for the better in the world, he has chosen that your prayer is going to be part of a set of causes that makes it happen. So you’d better get on with it, as you and your prayer are part of God’s overall purpose for the situation in which he is going to work.

‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ Well (says Gregory), is that about my getting what I need? Actually, no. Because the bread of God that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (in the words of St John’s Gospel) is everybody’s bread. I am asking for bread for everyone. And I can only say that I have properly received my daily bread (he says) ‘if no one goes hungry or distressed because you are satisfied’. I receive my daily bread when no one is made poor because I am rich. So the resolve to work for justice along with reconciliation is essentially part of living out the Lord’s Prayer.

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From → Spirituality

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