A Sure Foundation
September 1st, 2001
The baptismal covenant grounds us in faith before sending us out.
During August, Phoebe and I enjoyed several weeks in New Hampshire, where most of my childhood summers were spent visiting my grandmother. Some years ago we bought a small house of our own, which sustains and refreshes us as a point of reference and return.
This year we decided to build an addition. First came the foundation, which entailed an excavation, then exterior walls, followed by under-floor drains. Next several tons of crushed stone had to be shoveled and leveled. Then, a covering of wire mesh was laid and more concrete poured to form the floor. After all this effort, I realized that when the addition is finished, none of what has taken several weeks of intense and careful labor will be visible. Even so, the integrity of the building it supports will depend upon this unseen "sure foundation."
Scripture is filled with references to foundations. Jesus uses the image in his parables, and Paul speaks of his ministry in terms of laying a foundation built upon the foundation of Christ. I thought of these things as I filled what seemed to be endless wheelbarrows with crushed stone, wheeled them some distance, and dumped them into place.
The baptismal covenant, which is such a prominent part of our baptismal liturgy, is also about foundations and what it means to be built up into Christ. Just as a house cannot stand true without a well-laid foundation, neither can our witness stand true without being grounded in the full mystery of Christ. In the past three columns, I explored the meaning of baptism. Now I ask you to consider with me how the baptismal covenant (pages 304-05 the Book of Common Prayer) supports and deepens that companionship, and grounds our apostolic action upon the One who is our rock.
Eight questions make up the covenant. The first five are about establishing the firm foundation upon which the remaining three depend. I stress this point because the last three, which are cast in terms of proclaiming, seeking, serving, loving, striving and respecting, are often focused upon at the expense of the first five. These five are then treated as a pro forma preamble, rather than the necessary rock upon which the rest of the house must be built if it is to withstand the storms and tempests that overtake us in the course of our lives, often without warning.
The first three questions ask if we believe in God's Trinitarian self-revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What does "believe" mean in this context? Does it mean believing something about God is true, or does it imply a risk-taking and trusting availability to the One whose ways are not our ways? I would say that believing involves the latter, though our development as persons of faith often begins with believing about before it grows into the intimacy of genuine companionship. Our response to the first three questions opens the way for the Holy Spirit to lead us more deeply into the mysterious depths of our baptismal identity: the mystery of "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27).
Growing up into Christ is not, however, a solo feat. It involves our connectedness to other members of Christ's risen body, in whom Christ is present in virtue of their baptism into his death and resurrection.
Christ is also present to us in what we call the "communion of saints," that vast fellowship of love and witness across the ages which renders all who have been marked as Christ's own as our companions along the way. As such, they serve as ministers of encouragement. Continuing in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, referred to in the fourth question, is therefore much more than an act of remembering. It is a call for active engagement not only with Scripture -- the apostles' teaching -- but with the enduring presence of all who have revealed some aspect of the truth as in Jesus in their lives.
Continuing in the breaking of bread and in the prayers, which we also assent to in the fourth question, points to the developmental and sustaining reality of worship, particularly the Eucharist, in which Christ encounters us and draws us into intimate union with himself -- expanding our hearts and enlarging our consciousness -- in order that he might manifest his reconciling and transforming love in and through us.
This brings me to the last of the foundational questions, repentance, or more broadly conversion: our readiness to have our hearts of stone refashioned into hearts of flesh over and over again. Repentance means facing our untruths and identifying our idols, and then yielding them up the liberating truth of Christ. Repentance means dying to our self-constructions and even to our own righteousness. It means inviting Christ to create Easter in us in whatever way he may wish to do so.
May we ponder these questions and all that they ask of us and seek to give us. And may the baptismal covenant ground us more deeply upon Christ who is the sure foundation, and who alone can render our apostolic action in the world fruitful and revelatory of his reconciling and transforming love.
The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA