Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (3)

lakeGray1All of the biblical types of baptism that I have reviewed in the first two posts of this series stress the social nature of this sacrament. In the Paschal Mystery, we die to one way of relating (or misrelating) with people to live to a totally new way of relating to others. The traditional triad of renunciations of the world, the flesh, and the devil confirms this social element of baptism. The three are nearly synonymous but their varying shades of meaning are illuminating.

The New Testament word kosmos (world) has mainly negative connotations, especially in John’s Gospel where it means, not the material world as created by God, but the social world organized in opposition to God. In baptism, then, we renounce organizing ourselves socially around scapegoating and persecution. It is important to remember, though, that it was this very kosmos that God loved so much that God gave his only son so that this kosmos might not perish. As Jesus was overwhelmed by the kosmos in his death, we, too, may be overcome by it if we renounce it.

Flesh does not refer to the material aspect of our existence, but rather to the tendency live our embodied lives without reference to God. When we live in the flesh, our social lives are dominated by mimetic rivalry that consumes us. The contentions that Paul denounced in his first letter to the Corinthians was cited as an example of living by the flesh. If we renounce the flesh, we renounce this contentious way of relating and we allow our embodied lives to be guided by the Holy Spirit in whom there is no rivalry or resentment.

Renouncing the devil does not mean renouncing a wicked supernatural creature with horns and a pitchfork. The New Testament word skandalon refers to no such thing. Rather this word means a stumbling block, an obstacle. When we live according to the flesh, we allow other people to be stumbling blocks to our desires and we do the same to them. That is, our rivals become the organizing principles of our life rather than God. In scripture, the Satan is also the accuser, which is what rivals do. They accuse each other endlessly as opposed to praising God endlessly.

The renunciations as formulated in the 1976 Book of Common Prayer amount to much the same thing. Renouncing “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” may seem to imply supernatural forces. I do not rule out such angelic beings who, themselves, put themselves into mimetic rivalry with God, but the anthropological level is what is most important to us in renouncing skandalons in this life. The opposition of such stumbling blocks can seem so strong that they seem transcendent but are really an accumulation of human desires out of control. Renouncing “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” acknowledges the systemic evil of the kosmos which we must renounce and “the sinful desires that draw [us] from the love of God” point to our own responsibility to do what the fourth question asks of us, to “turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as [our] savior” and “put [our] whole trust in his grace and love.”

As noted in my last post, the new beginnings promised by the deliverances from the Flood and from the Red Sea were so daunting that, in both cases, those who were delivered returned to the old way of relating with each other and the same has happened with the Church. Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime sacrament in the sense of being an initiation, that is a beginning. A beginning is just that; it is not the middle and certainly is not the end. Baptism is a beginning that must be sustained day by day, hour by hour. St. Paul’s admonition to “take off” the old person and “put on” the new person are verbs used for taking clothing on and off. Living by the Spirit in baptism, then, is allowing Christ to clothe us rather than the rivals who are usually the ones who define us. Being renewed in Christ leads us into a quality of life that we don’t easily imagine. These new clothes seem much too big for us and we get lost in them. Can we allow Christ to stretch us to fit into the new clothes of the resurrected life?

See Baptism: Overwhelmed by the Love of Christ (1)

See Baptism: Overwhelmed by the Love of Christ (2)

Stumbling blocks in the Desert: the Temptations of Jesus

freshBread1When Jesus went out into the desert after his baptism, he became aware of the fundamental temptations he would have to fight throughout his life. James Alison helps us understand the social nature of these temptations by pointing out that “devil” (diabolous) means “divisive obstacle.” Such an obstacle requires two or more people to stumble over it. That is temptations are unavoidably social.

The social implications of the first temptation are spelled out in John 6 where Jesus feeds the multitude in the desert. The feeding is a sign of God’s willing of abundance (see Divinely Created Abundance) but bread, like any material good, exists in a social context.  The temptation presented here is to align bread with economic and political power. The people who have been fed fall into this temptation and try to seize Jesus and make him king (the glory of all the kingdoms of the word–see Ignominous Glory). Jesus had to resist the temptation, go off alone, and then return to preach about bread from heaven, bread that is a gift from God.

In the temptations, the devil taunts Jesus as being the “son of god.” Likewise, when Jesus casts demons out of people possessed by them, the demons call Jesus “the son of god.” Thinking back to the attempt to seize Jesus and make him king, Jesus’ ordering those he has healed to tell nobody makes a lot of sense. Jesus was focused on healing those who had need. The demons tried to politicize the healings to make them part of a thrust for social power. This dimension is particularly apparent in the name of the demon possessing the man of Gadara: Legion.

When Jesus predicts his imminent suffering and death, Peter is called a “satan” when he tries to dissuade Jesus from following that course. As with “devil,” the word “satan” means a stumbling block. Lacking support from his closest followers could only have multiplied Jesus’ difficulty in holding the course laid out by his heavenly father. How much better would it be to fling himself off the roof of the temple and force his heavenly father’s hand? The devil was right to quote the verses from Psalm 92. God would bear up the son of man, but not until the son of man had truly and deeply put himself into the unforced hands of the heavenly father by allowing himself to be handed over into the hands of angry sinful humans.

Like Jesus, we must be alert to where the stumbling blocks are in our relationships with other people and with God. Like Jesus, we must learn that the stumbling blocks are too heavy for human hands to lift and toss away. Like Jesus, we must turn to our heavenly father who is always waiting for us to ask him to toss the stumbling blocks away.