By Daniel Martins
During the weeks preceding this past summer’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church, there was a significant amount of attention paid to a resolution that, had it been adopted, would have repealed the canon that prohibits unbaptized persons from receiving Holy Communion. The measure died in committee, so the matter is moot for the time being, though it will no doubt appear yet again as the winds gather for some future General Convention.
I’m not proposing to re-open debate on the underlying question of “communion without baptism” (CWOB) here, but one thread in the often-heated pre-convention conversation seems worth teasing out some, as it has implications that affect other fundamental issues, such as ecclesiology, interfaith relations, and mission strategy. What does it mean when we use expressions such as “people of God” or “child/children of God?”
One of the arguments deployed by pro-CWOB advocates relied on the prayer book invitation to communion, as the celebrant proclaims, “The gifts of God for the people of God,” usually while holding up the freshly consecrated elements for all to see. Are not all persons created by God and loved by God and therefore “people of God?” How can a community celebrating the Eucharist deny something so fundamental, so virtually axiomatic, by failing to extend the hospitality of the Lord’s Table to anyone present? We are bound by the Baptismal Covenant to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Fencing in the sacrament by restricting it to baptized persons is tantamount to denying that the unbaptized are created in God’s image and included in God’s love. It is offensive on its face because it dares to undermine God’s redemptive project of creating the conditions on earth in which the reign of God flourishes.
But there is another narrative. Instead of being immediately and reflexively inclusive, as our culture conditions us to be, it begins, counterintuitively, with separation and differentiation. It is scandalous in its particularity. In what is known as the proto-evangelium, the first cryptic hint of redemption to come, voiced by the LORD as he is evicting Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, “I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between her offspring and yours; he will strike your head, and he will strike your heel” (Gen. 3:15).
Here indeed is the hint of a covenant that is universal. But then the scope starts to narrow progressively. The Noahic Covenant, sealed with a rainbow, was universal inasmuch as it applied to those who had been chosen to survive the Flood, and the generations of their subsequent progeny. Yet, those who perished in the rising waters, presumably also created in the image and likeness of God, were, by any measure, excluded from that covenant community.
The Abrahamic Covenant created a “this people” that is not “those peoples.” The people of God did not include the goyim — the nations, the Gentiles, the heathen. As St. Paul is at pains to point out as he writes to the Galatians, it is Sarah, not Hagar, who is the mother of those through whom God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled; it is Isaac, not Ishmael, who would be numbered among the patriarchs of the am Elohim (e.g., Num. 5:11) — the people of God. Then there was still more exclusion, more particularity, as the line passed through Jacob, and not Esau. Eventually it becomes a matter of excluding everyone, even within Israel, who is not of the “house and lineage of David,” and ultimately anyone who is not Jesus, not the Eternal Word of the Father.
The Son of God is the only natural “child of God.” Anyone else who might own that designation does so by adoption and grace, not by nature. Jesus, in his pascha, in his exodos, in being the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2), becomes the “firstborn of many children” (Rom. 8:29). He, in effect, capitates the people of God. He is, by right, the head of the Church, which, by definition, the body of which all baptized persons are the members (BCP catechism).
Yes, God loves every human person. That much is axiomatic. There certainly is a generic sense, especially if one is inclined to process experience more with the heart than with the head, in which it is probably not inaccurate to say that “we are all God’s children” and “all people are God’s people.” Nonetheless, “child of God” is a term of art within Christian parlance. It denotes membership in a community that one is not automatically a member of merely by birth, but of which one becomes a member by an act of God. The 1928 catechism puts it this way: “[The inward and spiritual grace of baptism is] “a death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.” The 1979 catechism employs the imagery of grace and inheritance to the same effect: “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.” Then, a little later: “The inward and spiritual grace in Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church…”
This is all redolent of St. Paul, writing to the Ephesians: “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). St. Peter, plausibly writing to neophyte Christians by way of post-baptismal catechesis, puts an even sharper point on it. He reminds them of their prior status, and contrasts it with their new status: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:10).
“People of God” has a related ecclesiological meaning. In the Old Testament, it is used more or less synonymously with “people of Israel.” Over and over again the prophets and the psalmists hammer home the theme of remembering God’s might acts, by which he has constituted Israel as his own people, a nation separate from and unique among the nations of the world. In the eyes of the chroniclers and the prophets, Israel’s greatest sin was always syncretism — forsaking, or diluting, the worship of the LORD in favor of the gods of the surrounding nations. Yes, in the “mature” prophetic tradition, there are hints of the yet-veiled gospel being made available to “the nations” (Isa. 49:6), but the path to such universality runs first through the exclusionary territory of specificity, of particularity.
From a Christian perspective, of course, Israel is seen as a stage-setter for the Church. The Apostle Peter, in the second chapter of his first epistle, carefully constructs this concept, culminating in the rhetorical heights of verse 9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” — and in the already-referenced following verse: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” In the language of the Book of Common Prayer, the Church is denoted as the “blessed company of all faithful people” who have been reborn in Christ and nurtured at the altar in the sacrament of Holy Communion. In Dom Gregory Dix’s deservedly well-loved paean to the Eucharist (“Was even another command so obeyed? …), he concludes with this very notion: “And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta dei — the holy common people of God,” (The Shape of the Liturgy, p. 744) who are constituted in each celebration of the Eucharist.
My argument could, and perhaps should, end here, but it seems worthwhile, in closing, to place it in a practical context — namely, a concept that is presently a “front burner” issue among Episcopal Church leaders—that is, “Beloved Community.” Beloved Community is, as I understand it, largely seen as a sort of nursery for racial reconciliation. Indeed, there is ample New Testament foundation for seeing it in such a way. Witness St. Paul to the Ephesians:
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Eph. 2:14-16)
Yet, we do well to note the specificity here, the particularity, which necessarily entails an element of exclusion that is scandalous to the egalitarian and inclusive sensibilities of our culture. The blessings of “Beloved Community” happen among those whose mutual hostility has been “killed” by the one who reconciled us to God through the cross, and in no other way. Christ himself, and no other, is “our peace,” and that peace is known in the community of those who have been reborn in him. We are children of God and part of the people of God because God has made us so through incorporation into the body of his Son.
Without falling into pedantry and hair-splitting, it nonetheless pays to be careful using language.
Thanks. Hard to believe this kind of basic biblical framework has been swallowed up by generic cultural trends.
(text of Genesis 3:15 needs correction).