Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (2)

lakeGray1Two dramatic events from the Hebrew Bible have been interpreted as prefiguring baptism are the Flood and the deliverance at the Red Sea. Both are deliverances from highly dysfunctional societies.

Genesis 6 portrays human society as consumed with violence. No wonder if everybody was like Lamech and inflicting seventy-seven-fold vengeance on anybody whom he thought had wronged him. In his second epistle, believed by many scholars to be a baptismal homily, Peter says that the deliverance of Noah and his family corresponds to baptism which saves us now through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 3:21) René Girard has suggested that a flood is an apt image for a society overwhelmed with retaliatory violence. In such a scenario, a man who tried not to be a part of this violence would be an obvious choice of a victim to unite the fragmented society. The Christological interpretation in Peter’s epistle suggests by being baptized into Christ’s death, we are brought out of society consumed with violence and given the chance to begin life anew, the chance that Noah and his family had after the flood waters receded. It is worth noting that when referring to Jesus descending into hell (Sheol), Peter does not say Jesus just brought out righteous people like Abraham but that he preached to the very people who had brought humankind to the boiling point while Noah was building his ark.

St. Paul says that we all “passed through the sea and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea.” (1 Cor. 10:2) Once again we have an overwhelming flood. Moreover, we have a story of a people delivered from a violent and oppressive society. In his book Jesus: the forgiving Victim, James Alison suggests that the Jews were expelled after being blamed for the plagues scourging the country. If the Jews were expelled, why would the Egyptians runs after them to bring them back? Perhaps they realized they would implode without the victims who were deemed responsible for their turmoil. This is what seems to have happened with the Gerasenes when their demoniac was cured by Jesus. One could take the tug-of-war between Moses and Pharaoh as indicating this same tension. (See Dispossessing a Town Possessed) Being overwhelmed by the waters is, again, an apt image of a society succumbing to its own violence once the scapegoats are gone.

Unfortunately, neither new chance at a new life went well. Noah’s drunkenness and rivalry among the brothers that made Ham a scapegoat set humanity on a course where the curse laid on him was used to justify slavery and lynching. The people delivered at the Red Sea suffered from chronic social unrest, leading to Moses raising the bronze serpent in the desert to stop the plague of violence. Likewise, the church continues to fall back into the same rivalry and persecution. Most lynchers, unfortunately, were Christians. A tendency to see baptism as deliverance from personal sin surely reinforces such backsliding. Baptism is not a magical deliverance from personal sin but is a constant invitation to be reborn into the new social life of God’s kingdom centered on the forgiving victim who, like the bronze serpent, was raised up to draw all people to himself.

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (3)

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (1)

The First Supper

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyBy the time Jesus gathered with his disciples for what is called “the last supper,” not only had the social tensions in Jerusalem reached a point where all parties agreed that Jesus must be put to death, but the tensions among Jesus’ disciples had formed against him as well. The disciples’ fighting over who was the greatest, their incomprehension of his predictions that he would be put to death and their collective disapproval of the woman who anointed Jesus with oil all led to this point. In their current collective frame of mind and heart, there was a real possibility that all of them would either join the crowd in crying for crucifixion, or would band together after his death as a tightknit rebellious group united by resentment over the death of their leader, thus thwarting the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim. Jesus had one last chance to do something that would keep his life and intentions alive for his disciples. He did two things.

The first thing Jesus did was wash the feet of his disciples. The act was so simple that anybody could do it, even a child. If the disciples follow this simple command, they will not have time to harbor resentment over their master’s death and plot vengeance for the deed. Instead, this simple act that embodies love and concern for others will cause that love and concern to grow within their hearts and drive out resentment and a desire for revenge. If more and more people imitate each other in imitating Jesus in this action, then the entire social order of the day will crumble around the communal life that emerges through this simple action.

The second thing Jesus did was tell them to eat bread that was his body and drink wine that was his blood in remembrance of him. Jesus was not just telling the disciples that he was about to die for them. That would be comprehensible, if unsettling. Rather, Jesus was telling them that his very life was being given to them. Jesus was not giving himself as a corpse in the hope that the world might become a better place if enough people felt bad about killing him. Jesus was giving himself as a living being. Only when Jesus disciples broke bread and passed the cup of wine in memory of Jesus would they begin to realize the extent to which the living Jesus was giving them his life, life that he possessed in abundance in spite of the fact that he had been nailed to a cross and left to hang there until dead.

This is why Jesus was hosting the first supper of a new beginning for us all.

For comments on Passover see Eucharist (1)