Galatians 3:1-3, 10-14, 25-28

That relationship comes first – a reflection by Dan Spragg

I remember my baptism. I’m one of the odd ones out in Presbyterian circles because I was baptised as an adult. I was 18 at the time. So, I remember it. I remember the service and the people who were there. But mostly I remember it because looking back, I can see that in actual fact it was a large stake in the ground so to speak within my journey of faith. I can see reasonably clearly a before and an after. I don’t recall it being a magical kind of flick of any switch – a lot of my behaviour at the time didn’t change but as I look back I can see the fundamental shift in my life from that point on. Like what is said about baptism, at any age, I belonged afterward to a different thing, Christ had laid claim to my life. From that day forward I can trace a more active and engaged faith, I was drawn into faith more.

Faith is largely an ambiguous thing, isn’t it? In my experience it certainly is. I have at some times known my faith very consciously and have a real sense of God’s presence – at times this has been a physical experience. And at other times I wonder how long it has been since I truly spent time in prayer or considered God in the equation at all. Such is the grace of God though, yes? We walk through our ups and downs, and at every moment that we wake up and once again remember God, there God is waiting for us with the door wide open.

I remember my Baptism because it reminds me that I am held in an eternal promise of life and there’s nothing I can do or not do to change or shift that in any way. It simply just is. We are found in Christ, that is, in and with the abundant life of God. That is our place.

Take a look at these photos for a moment.

One is a snapshot of traffic in India. The other is a snapshot of the corner of Brougham and Colombo Streets here in Christchurch. One is chaotic. One is ordered. One is a little tricky to negotiate, you need to pay attention to where you are and who else is around you. The other is quite ordered and all you have to do is sit there, follow the rules, and things will happen. This, if we stop to think a little bit, shows us something interesting about our society. To operate in the first is to operate with a keen awareness of the relationships between you and the other vehicles. To operate in the second is to do the right thing or else suffer the consequences. This points us in a way to how our society operates.

The modern age in western society  – 18th – 20th Centuries has been said to have been epitomised by the ATM machine. A nameless, faceless, hole in the wall purely there to facilitate the distribution of cash. It’s transactional living at its height. Our society is based on a certain amount of order and efficiency. Pay certain amounts, and get certain goods. Past the test, and graduate to the next level. Jump through these hoops, and advance up the ladder. Behave in the right way, and be allowed access to certain things. Our faith and the way we understand it has been shaped by this thinking too. Faith is always influenced by the way we see the world. So, faith in western society has had a tendency to become transactional. Have faith, and ask for forgiveness, and God will love you. Believe certain things, and go to heaven. Behave a certain way, and belong to the church. Unfortunately, I believe it has made us live with some unhelpful threads running through how we think and act. ‘I deserve xyz because I’ve achieved xyz.’ Perhaps that is pride? Or some sense of entitlement? Perhaps there is shame in our ways as well, ‘If I do xyz, then I’ll be worthy of their love and attention.’ ‘If I do xyz, then I’ll be worthy of God’s love and attention.’  Approaching life with a transactional way of seeing things – tit for tat – is not all bad. It is actually useful in some situations. Traffic, for example! But I’m not convinced faith is ever meant to be viewed as a transaction.

Let’s pop into Galatians for a moment. Paul’s concern for the Galatians arose out of a conflict that saw a number of them believing they needed to follow the Jewish practice of circumcision in order to be included in the number of God’s people. These were non-Jews who had come to faith by an experience of the Holy Spirit, yet they were starting to believe they needed to also be circumcised. Paul calls them irrational or foolish depending on the translation you read. For Paul, the Spirit is the ultimate source of power that enables Christian living. There is no need for an extra act on their behalf in order to secure their salvation. The Galatians for some reason had become insecure in their faith. Perhaps the ambiguity of faith was too much for them and they sought something more concrete, however, they shouldn’t have been worried. The Spirit was with them, they had woken up to their inclusion in Christ, and to follow the law was unnecessary. God had reached out to them and included them in his family. Listening to the Gospel, trusting in, and following the Spirit of God with them was all they needed to do. This can be a lesson for us too. In our transactional bent, achievement-oriented society, even after 2000 years of Christianity, we still need this reminder. That our Christian identity is a gift given which we then live out of.

Baptism. A sacrament. An outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. We see, in being under the water and coming out of it again, a visible sign showing us the grace that is present. That we are lifted to God in Christ, in love eternal. Before we were even born we have been lifted to God. That all creation is found with God. That is our starting point. There is nothing we need to work our way back to on a fundamental level. There is nothing that we need to buy or pay for or tick certain boxes for, we are found in Christ, the life of God. No transactions are needed!

Repent is often a word spoken or used in a transactional sense. Often in a threatening sense. But it’s good to remind ourselves that it simply means – to have a change of heart and mind and turn towards the way of God once again. Which simply acknowledges that we often do make mistakes or drift off into strange directions, or simply fall asleep to who God is and who we are.

Baptism reminds us that we are in a relationship with God. That faith is an act of relationship, of trust, of hope. God holds us, we are always and already ‘in’. So the question is not – what do I have to do to get in with God? Or, what do I have to do in order for God to love me? The question is, knowing our place as held in God’s life already, what are we to do because of this? Out of our relationship, we live trusting in this and live showing this way of God to the world. That is the work of our faith. To live as visible signs of God’s life in the world.

That’s how we try to be with others around us. So we talk of partnerships with community groups rather than ‘hall users’ because our relationship with them and what we can achieve together is more important than what we get from the arrangement. Sure we often receive money for their being in our spaces but this is simply something that comes from making the partnership work as we join together to serve the communities around us. God seeks a relationship with us. This is how God is with us and our faith is a gift of God reaching out to us. God holds us in a relationship with Christ. God offers us a deeper relationship, always. God is for our growing and living in God’s abundant life. God’s love is unconditional, existing before us as the way things are. So this is how we are to be with ourselves and others. Not rules, regulations, and hoops to jump through. Not keeping score to reward or not. Not to disallow some entry and access unless they change to what we think is right. We are people of relationship. People of faith. People of trust, hope, and love.

Remember your baptism. That outward and visible sign of a beautiful inward, invisible but unshakable grace.