Just (by Austin Fischer)

By Austin Fischer

Baptism, Eucharist and Why They’re Not “Just Anything

Just.

It just so happens to be the most crippling word in the English language.

That’s just the way things are.

It was just one night.

He was just a beggar.

It’s all the arrogance and suffocating reductionism of secularism jammed into a single word. It drains the world of mystery and wonder. If ever there were a word to define a secular age, it would be just.

Christians should not say just, because, for a Christian, nothing is just anything. The doctrine of the Incarnation tells us so. If the infinite God came out of a human womb, walked dusty streets, sat under moonlight, ate bread and drank wine, then nothing is just. Everything is teeming with divinity, and since there is no such thing as just divinity, there is no such thing as just.

For example, a star is not just a ball of hydrogen and helium. As Ramandu reminds Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: “That is not what a star is but only what it is made of…” No—a star is not just hydrogen and helium but the blazing beauty of God speckled across the boundless canvas of the cosmos.

And more to the point for our purposes here, the two sacramental mysteries at the heart of Christian faith—Baptism and Eucharist—are many, many things, but just is not one of them.

How did we get here—so many Christians compelled to say Baptism is just an outward sign of an inward change; that Eucharist is just a reminder? Nein!

I’ve heard it said that Baptism is just like a wedding ring (nice but not particularly important), but Baptism isn’t like a wedding ring so much as it is like a wedding.[1] It is a communal act of love and commitment. It is the creation and reception of a new family—the church. Who can say when a couple is actually “married” (surely it’s not simply when they are given a piece of paper from the government!), but the wedding is a profound moment in any marriage; a moment wherein the reality of marriage congeals. A wedding is not just a public expression of a private decision. It doesn’t just demonstrate what has already been privately created. It is a communal decision that creates something new. So it is with Baptism.

Then we have Eucharist. I have Protestant friends who take great satisfaction in mocking the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Such strange things those Catholics believe! Opinions about transubstantiation aside, I like to remind my friends they believe a dead man rose from the dead, ascended into the heavens, and will return to judge the living and the dead. There are times that sounds more than a little strange to me—every bit as strange as transubstantiation.

I have no new definition or explanation or formulation for understanding what happens in the mystery of Eucharist (I’m perfectly content to shut up, eat and drink). My aim is more modest: whatever your definition/explanation/formulation, please don’t use the word just. Because whatever Eucharist is, it isn’t just anything.

A quick read of John 6:41-65 reminds us that when we remove the miraculous scandal at the heart of Eucharist in the name of just, we are doing the exact thing Jesus refused to do: “Let the scandal remain…the most appropriate response to this holy mystery is not an empiricist explanation or an embarrassed backpedaling, but a reverent amen.”[2]

That’s what Brian Zahnd says and I say amen! So whatever you say, just don’t say just. It does not belong to the vocabulary of faith.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Roger Olson observes this as well in “Water Works: Why Baptism Is Essential”, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/july-august/water-works-why-baptism-is-essential.html?start=3

[2] Brian Zahnd, Water to Wine, 146.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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