What is the minimum requirement to be an Anglican? We could ask an even more basic question: What is the minimum requirement to be a Christian? Is a baptismal certificate, a mere piece of paper, enough?
Before I became a priest, I spent many years at the University of Toronto. I was a doctoral student researching and writing a dissertation—but that didn’t give me a paycheque. So in the midst of it all, I ended up taking a day job with campus trades services and got active in the union. U of T has its own large department of trades workers, and my job was to maintain and service various tools and equipment for plumbers, electricians, carpenters and steamfitters. One day I was chatting with a coworker friend about religion. When he found out that I was in the discernment process leading to ordination, he said to me, “Oh, I’m an Anglican too—my mother used to be very active in the church.” A couple of weeks later I was out with this friend after work, and we walked by St. Stephen in-the-Fields, the church where my wife and I were married. It happened to be open, so I asked him if he wanted to step inside and take a quick look around. He seemed hesitant, but in we went. My friend looked lost and amazed and overwhelmed all at the same time. And then I figured out why. As we left the church, he turned to me and said, “That was pretty cool. I’ve never been in a church before. That was my first time ever.”
The irony of that incident is that my friend had no memory of ever being in a church, and yet he considered himself an Anglican. He’s not the only one like that. I’ve encountered many other people who’ve told me they’re Roman Catholic, but they haven’t set foot inside a church for decades. My friend considered himself an Anglican because of his family pedigree. His mother was an Anglican, and presumably her ancestors as well, so on that basis he considered himself an Anglican too. His Anglicanism was nothing more than a small identity badge that had been more or less passed on to him, even though he had no clue about what Anglicanism is or how Anglicans strive to live out their Christian faith.
In Jesus’ day there was a similar thing going on. There were those who took pride in being part of Israel simply by virtue of the fact that Abraham was their original ancestor. Whatever the extent of their faith identity, it was derived from ancestral pedigree. But in today’s Gospel, we encounter some harsh words from the prophet John the Baptist about this approach to faith: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Ancestral pedigree is not enough, says John the Baptist. In fact, he calls people out who are relying on just that; they’re deadly snakes. John insists that each of us must “bear fruits worthy of repentance” and not simply rely on the faith of those who’ve gone before us. Their faith must become our own faith.
What does it mean to “bear fruits worthy of repentance”? The people of Jesus’ day were asking John the Baptist this very question. And John had a pretty clear answer: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” I think this prophetic instruction, uttered so long ago, is a profound indictment on our current practices of consumption and the radical disparity arising from that. In 2014 the Living Planet Report released some disturbing stats: the whole globe, the ecosystem of which we’re a part, is operating with a deficit. According to the Report, “the regenerative capacity of 1.5 Earths” is needed “to provide the ecological services we currently use.” Human demands for food, water, property, transportation and overall energy consumption are totally unsustainable. In particular, the situation in Canada and the United States is even more alarming: if everyone in the world were to enjoy what so many strive for—a three-bedroom house (with ongoing mortgage payments), two vehicles, maybe even a small cottage, air conditioning throughout the whole summer, pets, eating dinner in a restaurant once a week, air travel to sunny destinations annually, throwing away single-use plastics almost daily, etc., etc.—we would need almost 4 Earths to sustain our lifestyle and demands of energy. Suffice it to say that the way we live—what so many view as an ordinary existence—is wreaking havoc on our planet. And it’s also impacting in a very negative way how we relate to one another. Our excesses distance us from those who have so little.
John the Baptist’s words hit close to home for us in the present moment. What he says compels us to do some serious self-examination, to take stock of our lives. How big is my closet? Do I need all those clothes? Do my spouse and I really need two cars? Or even one car? Do I need to board an airplane as often as I do? If I can afford to eat out with such regularity, could I not find a way to provide meals for those who are unable to satisfy their hunger? Each of us won’t answer these sorts of questions in the same way, but we can’t ignore them—not if we intend to receive today’s Gospel with any seriousness. We’re being challenged to “bear fruits worthy of repentance”—which I think means to reorient our everyday lives so that we’re living more simply and more attentively to the earth and to each other. That is one very important way to demonstrate our desire to follow the Way of Jesus.
In Jesus’ day when John the Baptist made his pronouncements, he was issuing a call to a counter-intuitive, counter-cultural way of life, and that remains so for us at the end of the year 2018. Inasmuch as John’s words are challenging and unsettling, they are not a call to a life of austerity and forfeiture, but rather to a life of joy. It is simplicity, not excess, that is congruent with joy. But that’s not what our instincts often tell us. We’re tempted on every side to seek security and stability in the accumulation of various investments, whether of property or possessions or relationships of power. St. Paul recognized this and knew it was a dead end. In today’s New Testament reading from the Letter to the Philippians, Paul writes that joy is found in God. The Good News is that this joy is free; it doesn’t cost us anything—except a desire to live freely, unencumbered by excess. It means giving up and giving away what we don’t need, putting our consumption in check. When we are committed to that, not on our own but all of us together, then joy will take hold of our lives because, as Paul tells us, the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds.
So what’s the minimum requirement to be a Christian? A desire to follow the Way of Jesus, the simple way, not the way of excess. None of us has it all figured out. We screw up, and we’re compromised by forces all around us. But that’s why we gather here together. To be reminded from Scripture of what’s at stake, to build each other up, to be nourished with simple yet wondrous things such as bread and wine, and then to journey together in this new life. That is our hope, our peace, and our joy.