Celebrating our Baptism

baptism_of_christ_by_tiffany (2)Luke stresses the contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus much more than the three other evangelists. Most strikingly, Luke does not specifically say that John himself baptized Jesus. Luke describes John’s ministry and then says Herod added to all his other crimes by putting John in prison. (Lk. 3: 19–20) Then Luke puts Jesus front and center by saying the he was baptized “when all the people were baptized.” (Lk. 3:21)

The Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in the “bodily form of a dove” and the voice from Heaven proclaiming Jesus to be God’s son, “the beloved,” (Lk. 3: 21–22) could not be a greater contrast to John’s closing words that the one who is “more powerful” was going to bring a winnowing fork to baptize by burning the chaff with “unquenchable fire.” John’s water baptism was a rite of purification and he expected the one who was coming to bring fire to do a more powerful job of purifying. But instead Jesus’ first act of preaching was to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk. 4: 16–19) Quite a different approach than John’s! Jesus was going for transformation, not purification.

We celebrate our own baptism on this day as we follow Jesus to the river Jordan, see the dove for ourselves and listen to the voice from Heaven proclaim us sons and daughters of God. Our baptism, too, is a call to spread God’s love and favor to others. We are used to living in a culture built on wrath and disfavor, where we bind and oppress captives rather than free them. The call of baptism is a constant call to leave this culture of wrath to journey towards a culture of love and the freeing of captives.

Isaiah’s prophecy of Israel’s return from exile gives us powerful images for our own return from exile through baptism. Isaiah grounds this call in creation, linking baptism with God’s calling us into being. The journey is arduous, as Jesus’ journey in the desert was an arduous testing by Satan. We will pass through waters and rivers but God will be with us and they will not overwhelm us. We will walk through fire but the flame will not consume us. (Is. 43: 2) As with the Flood from which Noah was delivered and the waters of the Red Sea through which the Israelites fled from Egypt, we can see the waters and the fire as images of the wrathful culture that is trying to pull us back. In his exuberance, Isaiah himself stumbles by suggesting that other nations are given in ransom for the freeing and gathering of Israel. Jesus’ baptism, on the other hand, is the first step of bearing the sins of all people so that he will be a ransom for everybody, Egypt, Ethiopia, and even Babylon, included.

Each of us receives a unique call to play our part in the baptismal journey. Can we hear the voice from Heaven declaring God’s love for us and moving us in the direction we are each to go to perform our part of the journey?

John the Baptist: A transitional Figure

220px-John_the_Baptist_Prokopiy_ChirinAlthough John burned with a conviction that God was going to do something new, he had only the models of past prophets to guide him in opening a way to the great new thing. He lived in the desert, wore a camel hair coat and ate wild locusts and honey in imitation of Elijah. Like the prophets of the past, he warned the brood of vipers of the wrath to come if people did not shape up and turn back to God. (Lk. 3: 7) Again like the prophets, he told soldiers not to oppress vulnerable people. Yet again like the prophets, he rebuked his ruler, Herod. And like so many of the prophets, he was put to death.

In John’s time, baptism was established as a custom for cleansing converts. John gave it a new twist by insisting that his fellow Jews needed to be converted as much as the Gentiles and so were in need of being baptized. This was a prophetic action to dramatize God’s word. Today we call it guerilla theater. The teaching dramatized in this novel way was traditional: the people should return to the Lord who will purify them of their sins.

John defined himself through the words of Isaiah by quoting Isaiah’s prophecy of a new pathway of the Lord. (Is. 40: 3) The pathway through the desert that Isaiah was prophesying was for the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem, a great new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time. In quoting these words, John was announcing that God was going to do yet another new thing, something God had never done before.

For John, this new thing was focused on a person who was to come. John believed that Jesus was this person when he came to the river. But John was confused about him, and not for the last time, when Jesus insisted on being baptized although John thought Jesus was the one person who didn’t need it.

When he was in prison by order of King Herod, John had doubts about Jesus and he sent two followers to ask Jesus if he was the one he was expecting. It seems odd that the healing miracles John’s disciples had just reported should cause doubts, but a ministry of healing was beyond the scope of John’s own ministry. Typically, Jesus did not answer the question, but pointed to his healings and said “ blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Lk. 7: 23) Given the fiery rhetoric of John’s own preaching, the sentiments of the Sermon on the Mount may also have been confusing to John.

John knew that his prophetic ministry was fading. In such a situation, most people fight back and try to regain the upper hand. René Girard suggests in The Scapegoat that John denounced Herod’s marriage not so much on legal grounds but because of the rivalrous action of taking his brother’s wife. This realization would have made John all the more cautious about rivalry on his own part and caused him to take Jesus’ admonition to avoid offense to heart, as offense is the spark that flames rivalry. John managed to renounce rivalrous behavior to the extent of saying that Jesus would increase while John would decrease. But did John know what he was renouncing rivalry for? Did John ever get an inkling that the greatest new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time was not returning the exiles to Jerusalem but raising up a person who accepted disgrace, torment and possibly death without retaliating in any way? On reflecting on Jesus’ insistence that he be baptized, did John finally realize that Jesus was taking on the sins of the people as did Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, which would make Jesus the “lamb of God?” Most Bible scholars think it unlikely that John arrived at these insights and they think the evangelists wrote them into the narrative to elucidate John’s place in relation to Jesus. Maybe. But John obviously thought long and hard about his own vocation in relation to Jesus and he was outspoken enough to cry out glimpses of insight he still did not understand.

In our time we may think we know what John was pointing to even when John didn’t, but we do well to ponder why, in her infinite wisdom, the Church gives us a liturgical year that begins with Advent where John the Baptist is prominent. Why have a season to look forward to what we know we are looking forward to? Maybe we are more in the dark about what it means for Jesus to be the Lamb of God than we think we are. Maybe we still don’t really know what great new thing God has done and what greater thing God will do. Maybe we have a lot more to look forward to than we know.

God So Loved the World

NicodemusRight after Jesus had turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple and driven out the sacrificial animals, Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin approaches Jesus by night. In the strange dialog that follows, we see Jesus reaching out to a member of the establishment that he has just challenged, but we also see this same establishment figure stammering as he tries to understand Jesus and fails. This is a time for stammering as it is a time of transition. Jesus has just ended the sacrificial age with his actions in the temple. The question is: What is the new age going to be?

Nicodemus is confounded when Jesus tells him that he cannot see the kingdom of God without being “born anew,” born “from above” by water and the Spirit. The water and the Spirit both suggest baptism. The Greek word baptizmo means to be overwhelmed and just as Jesus was overwhelmed by both water and Spirit in the river Jordan in the account in the synoptic Gospels. Jesus wishes for Nicodemus and all of us to be overwhelmed by both. In this dialogue, however, Nicodemus is overwhelmed with puzzlement and perhaps, so are we. Jesus then compounds Nicodemus’ puzzlement (and ours!) by suddenly shifting to Moses raising the bronze serpent in the wilderness, a mysterious event recorded in Numbers. The bronze serpent was raised during a social crisis driven by a plague. (Both the disease and the violence against Moses were contagious.) The phrase “lifted up” refers to Jesus being raised on the cross and then being raised from the dead. The bronze serpent, then, becomes an image of Jesus being raised on the cross to draw all people out of the society overwhelmed by violence into a new society as free of violence as Jesus is himself. It seems that being born “from above” entails being born from the raised up cross, which is the entry into a new way of living, what John calls “eternal life” several times in his Gospel. After all, St. Paul said that “we were buried therefore with him [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).

This is the context of the famous words that follow in John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:17) These words echo, in a different key, the acclamation of the voice from heaven after the sky opened up declaring that Jesus is God’s beloved son in whom God is well pleased. Baptism, then, initiates us into this love of the heavenly father. If God so loves the world, then God is not bringing a winnowing fork or a rod of iron as John the Baptist expected, but is bringing only himself, wounds from the cross and all, to lift all of us out of the world’s overwhelming violence to overwhelm us with his love.

John goes on to assure us that God did not send the Son into the world “to condemn the world, but that in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:18) These two verses should be strong enough to prevent us from thinking that the solemn verses that follow concerning condemnation take back even a smidgeon of the proclamation of God’s love. The judgment is not God’s judgment but the self-judgment of those who “loved darkness rather than light.” If God’s very Being is light and we don’t like it, what else can God do but keep on being the light until, hopefully, we learn to like it and then love it and so turn away from the darkness in our hearts and turn to the cross that gives us a new birth from above?

Banished Messiah

crucifix1Banished Messiah: Violence and Nonviolence in Matthew’s Story of Jesus by Robert R. Beck is an intriguing and stimulating take on Matthew’s Gospel. He structures the book on the structure of the Banished –Prince-Returns-to-Claim-his-Throne story motif. He outlines this motif in animated movies such as The Lion King to make the outline clear before proceeding to Matthew with ongoing comparisons with other classics such as The Odyssey and Hamlet.

The first stage of the story motif is usurpation which Herod has done very well, although ultimately the usurper is the Roman Empire. The royal claim made through the genealogy strikes me as being as anti-imperial as Luke’s song of the angels the night Christ was born. The exiled prince then grows up in obscurity.

The second stage is the imposter. Beck discusses the ambiguous situation of an exiled prince. As with the case of Odysseus, validating the real McCoy from a Pretender is not easy. In this section Beck discusses the struggles with the Pharisees from a post-colonial perspective. The strife between them has to do with how to resist the Empire. The Pharisees tried to broaden recent techniques—making the whole people a priesthood following ritual purity. Jesus went back deeper in the Jewish tradition for the renewal. More important, the Pharisees were complicit with the Empire, as their having coins with Caesar inscribed demonstrated. Jesus’ resistance to the Empire was total, even to the point of not carrying any money issued by the Empire.

The third stage is the Mentor. John the Baptist fulfills this role. Beck discusses the tensions the mentor’s role often has. John the Baptist does seem to have oriented Jesus to his mission and he baptized him, but Jesus broke with John over the question of violence and judgment, preferring healing to divine vengeance. Athena urges Odysseus to kill the suitors and the ghost of Hamlet’s father complains that he is in a sort of purgatory until his death is avenged—a rather screwy view of Purgatory as Shakespeare surely realized.

The final stage is the return and reckoning. Normally this takes place in two stages: cleansing and revenge. Here is where Matthew breaks off from the story motif, defying our expectations. (Think of how many meek and mild literature professors berate Hamlet for not getting the job done!) The entry into Jerusalem is the return. In Matthew, Jesus immediately goes to the temple and cleanses it. This is a non-violent, symbolic act. In a real cleansing, a lot of blood would have been flowing. Instead of revenge, we get the arrest of Jesus who tells Peter to put the sword away and gives himself up to the soldiers although he could have called on ten thousand legions of angels.

Beck brings in Girard at the end but he misreads him on the crucial point, saying that Jesus was a helpless victim while Girard argues for Jesus’ intentionality here as does Beck. It is Jesus’ renunciation of revenge, breaking the revenge story motif that reveals the truth of God. The commission to the disciples at the end of the Gospel is anti-imperial, a commission to create an entirely new style of human community than the power-structure of Empire.

Blueprint of the Kingdom

buddingTree1The blueprints for a building are a lot less exciting and interesting than the building itself. However, blueprints are useful for showing the fundamental shape and structure of the building at a glance. The readings for Epiphany 3A are more like a blueprint for the Kingdom of God than a tour of the Kingdom in its fleshed-out form.

In Mt. 4:17, Jesus says:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repenting does not mean to make a laundry list of our little sins and try to stop doing them. Repenting means to turn around, to switch our minds and our hearts, to see life in a new way. This is the fundamental thrust of the Kingdom. But what specs can we get from the blueprint?

The quote from Isaiah, especially the part about Zebulun and Naphtali may not seem exciting but they show some important shapes in the blueprint. These places in Galilee are Gentile territory, lands of the enemies of Israel, lands that were occupied by the Assyrians in their invasion of Israel. The darkness has to do with the power and might of military occupation and enmity between peoples. Isaiah’s saying that God broke the rod of the oppressor as on the day of Midian suggests that God’s Kingdom will free us from military force that inevitably creates darkness. Reconciliation with the Gentiles involves forgiveness for past wrongs, even past atrocities such as those committed by the Assyrians and then the Romans in Jesus’ day. Matthew notes that Jesus moved to this area of Galilee after Herod’s arrest of John the Baptist, another instance of Roman oppression. One might feel this is not applicable to most of us because most of us are not high government officials or military leaders. However, all of us live either in a country bursting with military might or in a country that is in some way, perhaps economically, occupied by another. That means we need to turn away from anything that contributes to the enmity this situation creates and start breaking the yokes we impose on each other.

In First Corinthians, Paul gives us another example of darkness that is very close to everyday life for all of us. The church is in conflict with its members using slogans such as: “I belong to Apollos!” “I belong to Cephas!” One could say that this is war on a small scale but the darkness is the same as that created by the Assyrians and the Romans. Paul suggests that the light of the kingdom which Jesus is bringing near is to be “united in the same mind and the same purpose,” which for Paul is the mind of Christ, whose cross is foolishness for those who are perishing in the darkness of violence but is the power of God for those being saved.

The “power of God” doesn’t look much like power as we usually understand it. It isn’t exactly a large-scale military invasion like D-Day. In fact, it is quite the opposite. But the cross is power in the sense of shedding light in the darkness which John says the darkness cannot overcome. The light reveals the darkness of the military might of the Assyrians, the Romans and all else who imitate them. The light also reveals the hatred of victims for their oppressors, however understandable, for what it is: a wall of enmity that perpetuates divisions between people. As I struggle with my almost constant anger at many politicians in this country for their misuse of power and the public trust, I have to repent of this anger minute by minute.

Where does this darkness come from? Isaiah and Matthew are not portraying darkness as part of the created order in the sense that night time is natural. This is not darkness that God made, or in fact had anything to do with. This is darkness as a human creation. It is human beings who organize armies to oppress people or who tear congregations apart with petty party politics. This sort of behavior is highly contagious. The more people build walls or fight, the more people feel the need to build walls and fight.

What does the Kingdom of God, founded on the foolishness of the cross look like? The blueprint we have in these readings doesn’t look like much, but then a crucified criminal in Roman times doesn’t look like much either. When we read just a bit further in Matthew, we enter the real-life rooms of the Kingdom outlined in the blueprint. We find many rooms, many mansions, all of which offer contagious possibilities such as being blessed for being poor or for being a peacemaker, or turning the other cheek or walking the extra mile, and then finding in these weaknesses the rock that supports the house of faith we are building against the storm of Rome and Assyria and the power brokers of our time.

Whose Axe? Whose Winnowing Fork?

220px-John_the_Baptist_Prokopiy_ChirinAfter centuries without a prophet, a wave of expectation flooded Judea and Galilee. A man dressed the way Elijah was dressed rode this wave and pushed it along with his boisterous preaching. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” What sort of kingdom did he expect? The call to repent tells us only that we must turn from the direction we are going and move into a different direction. Question the ways we live and look for a different direction.

Two astounding prophecies by Isaiah offer us intriguing, inspiring, but puzzling hints about what the Kingdom might be when he urged us to turn “swords into plowshares” and “spears into pruning hooks” so that we “study war no more” as the spiritual says and that “the wolf shall live with the lamb.” So, now we have all of creation at peace? Not quite. Isaiah tells us that the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” will “smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” Apparently taming lions and tigers and bears is easier than taming predatory humans. In calling the Pharisees and Sadducees, “that brood of vipers,” and asking who told them to flee the “wrath to come” while an ax was “laid at the trees” and his successor would have “a winnowing fork in his hand” suggests that they were not as tamable as predatory animals. The predatory lenders of today seem just as untamable. However, surely the kingdom of Heaven was not wrath of this sort, even if John, like the prophets before him, thought such wrath might clear the way for Heaven’s Kingdom.

As soon as he is baptized by John, Jesus cries out precisely the same words: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” By saying these same words, is he perhaps telling us that John the Baptist, of whom there is none greater born of woman, hasn’t quite set the right direction either. His baptism has taken him on a very different track: the Paschal Mystery. That may seem a bit anachronistic, but from the preaching the Sermon on the Mount on, Jesus takes the direction of absorbing violence rather than inflicting it. Not only does the Kingdom not consist of threshing out the bad guys with a winnowing fork and burning them, but such threshing doesn’t even pave the way to the kingdom. If anything, this violence only blocks the way for everybody as, in our righteous indignation against predatory lenders and their ilk, the axes and fires for burning chaff multiply. One might argue that Jesus himself had some choice words for the Sadducees and Pharisees. However, Jesus called them whitewashed tombs filled with people’s man’s bones. Jesus wasn’t chopping off their heads or burning them up; he was warning them about how dead they were. If Jesus isn’t a thunder deity carrying a battle axe, whose axe is laid to the tree?

In his lectionary commentary, Paul Nuechterlein provocatively suggests that the axe is wielded by us. It isn’t God but we who are chopping down trees all over the world. That is indeed what happened on Mount Calvary. Moreover, according to Isaiah, it is from the stump that new life emerged. So, whose wrath should we flee? Ours. What should we run to? How about the chopped stump from which the new Tree of Life is growing?

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (1)

lakeGray1“We were buried therefore with him [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  Rom. 6:4

If baptism is our initiation into Christ, our entry into the Paschal Mystery, then baptism is the underlying, ongoing dynamic of our lives in Christ. Dying and rising with Christ is something we need to do every day. The Greek word baptismo means to be overwhelmed, inundated. In baptism we are overwhelmed by and inundated with the Paschal Mystery. I will explore this mystery by looking at a few key scripture passages that give us variations on this one theme.

Jesus himself was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. For John, it was a baptism of repentance from the violent society of his time, to prepare for God’s winnowing fork in “the wrath to come.” But when Jesus comes, he does not bring a winnowing fork; he only brings himself and asks to be baptized. As he is baptized, the heavens open, the Spirit descends, and a voice from heaven says “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”

These words refer to two key verses in the Hebrew Bible that tell us what baptism is all about. These words ring out in Psalm 2, addressed to the king, the Messiah, who is being singled out from the nations that are raging together and rising up against the Lord and his anointed. The inundation of baptism draws Jesus out of the inundation of the nations raging with each other. In Jesus, we too are drawn out of this inundation in the sense of being freed from raging against everybody else. We are not freed from being the target of these raging nations when they unite against the one who has been freed from their wrath. These same words also refer to Isaiah 42:1, the first line of the first song of the Servant of Yahweh. Throughout these songs, we find that the servant has been called out of a violent society and becomes the victim of that society’s violence. Unlike the psalmist who threatens the raging nations with a rod of iron, the Servant does not retaliate in any way against the violence inflicted on him. In baptism, we too are overwhelmed by the Servant’s suffering but then we are overwhelmed by the Servant’s vindication by God.

John’s Gospel does not narrate the baptism of Jesus but, as in so many other instances, John shows us the underlying story in a different key. When Nicodemus approaches Jesus by night, Jesus tells him that one cannot see the kingdom of God without being “born anew,” born “from above” by water and the Holy Spirit. Jesus seems only to compound Nicodemus’ puzzlement (and ours!) by suddenly shifting to Moses raising the bronze serpent in the wilderness. However, the bronze serpent was raised during a social crisis in the form of a plague. (Both the disease and the violence against Moses were contagious.) The phrase “lifted up” refers to Jesus being raised on the cross and then being raised from the dead. The bronze serpent, then, becomes an image of Jesus being raised on the cross to draw all people out of the society overwhelmed by violence into a new society as free of the violence as Jesus is himself.

This is the context of the famous words that follow: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” If God so loves the world, then God is not bringing a winnowing fork or a rod of iron, but is bringing only himself, wounds from the cross and all, to lift all of us out of the world’s overwhelming violence to overwhelm us with his love.

See Part 2