On Entering Jesus’ Baptism

HolyWater1When we dip our fingers in a holy water stoup as a reminder of our baptism, how much do we really remember? Do we stop to think that the water is as explosive as the bread we receive at the Eucharist?

John baptizing people with water at the River Jordan seems idyllic if we overlook John’s warnings to flee the wrath to come and the axe poised to chop down the tree of our lives; all this to prepare the way for the one who comes to baptize with fire to burn away the chaff. The baptism of Jesus seems much gentler in that Jesus did not need to be cleansed of sins and vices like the rest of us and so didn’t need to be saved from a wrathful response from God. But this peaceful event becomes dramatic when a voice from Heaven declares Jesus to be God’s son with whom God is well pleased. Whatever Jesus is going to baptize people with, it won’t be fire burning up the chaff.

At the end of his life, the baptism with which Jesus is baptized turns out to be his suffering and death on a cross. This makes it clear that we did not need to be baptized to ward off the wrath of God, but to ward off human wrath. What we needed was to be delivered from the wrath in our own hearts that led us to join the persecutors of Jesus. This is what Paul was getting at in his epistles, when he wrote of baptism as a passage through the death of Jesus into Jesus’ resurrection. The passage of baptism, then, is a passage into death to our own wrath, then unto the flood of the wrath of other humans which was inflicted on Jesus, and ending in a new resurrected life without wrath.

The acclamation of Jesus’ heavenly Abba becomes all the more significant in retrospect as it gave Jesus the loving encouragement to go through his own baptism. When we follow Jesus in our baptism, we also begin with the encouragement of the voice from Heaven that we are beloved of God. Far from being driven to flee God’s wrath, we are invited by love to enter the cleansing water so as to participate in God’s affirming love, a love that will sustain us when we struggle with our own wrath and suffer the wrath of others.

That’s a lot to think about when we dip our fingers into a holy water stoup.

Learning How to Pray to Our Abba

HolyFamilybyGutierrezWhen Jesus’ disciples asked their master how they should pray, he taught them a prayer that has us learn by doing. We are taken aback by Luke’s shorter version of this prayer (Lk. 11: 2–4) since the liturgical use of Matthew’s version with an added doxology causes us to think it is the only form it has. We will find, however, that this shorter version has the main elements of the longer one.

The opening word, Abba, is startling. The English word “father” fails to capture the tone of the Aramaic word believed by scholars to be the one Jesus used here. Even those of us who know this word from preachers and scholars can easily forget the impact of addressing God so intimately, the way a small child addresses his or her father. It is easier to identify with Abraham who speaks deferentially to God when interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah. He seems very much afraid of pestering God too much, perhaps afraid God will rain fire and brimstone on him if he keeps at it. (Gen. 18: 20–32) Unfortunately, many people experience their earthly fathers in this way, and project such experiences on our heavenly Abba.

The petition: “Hallowed be your name,” asks that God vindicate God’s name as when God delivered the Israelites from Egypt. Such acts make God so awesome they make us forget that God is our Abba. But perhaps Jesus is teaching us that what we thought was such an awesome god is really as close, even closer, than a parent to a small child, a different kind of awesome. Miracles can be intimate.

“Your kingdom come” is a prayer for this awesomely intimate God to establish the kingship, the right ordering of human relationships, that Jesus has been preaching in his teaching ministry. Hallowing God’s name in this way and establishing God’s kingship both constitute God’s will being done on earth as in heaven.

“Give us today our daily bread” is a petition indicating that God’s kingship, God’s will, is that each person have reasonable and needed sustenance and nobody should go without. “Forgive us our sins” as we forgive those “indebted to us” makes forgiveness central to the right ordering of human relationships. The final petition: “And do not bring us to the time of trial” is a prayer that we not suffer the social disorder, turmoil and violence that comes of neither feeding each other nor forgiving one another. This time of trial, of course, is also the evil we pray to be delivered from. These petitions taught by Jesus teach us to pray that we treat people with the same intimacy that our Abba offers us.

Looking back at Abraham’s bargaining for Sodom and Gomorrah, we begin to suspect that it was human violence that destroyed the cities, and not God’s, since Jesus is making it clear that God’s kingship is not about destroying cities. It is worth noting that, although Abraham is afraid of asking too much of God, God shows no impatience with each request and perhaps would have been patient even with bargaining all the way down to zero.

Jesus’ model prayer raises questions about possible differences between our Abba’s intentions and our projections. Would we rather hoard sustenance rather than share it? Would we rather hold grudges than forgive? Jesus speaks to these questions in a pair of mini-parables that elaborate on the prayer he has just taught us. Do we think that our Abba is as grudging and stingy as a family that has gone to bed for the night and does not want to be inconvenienced by a neighbor’s emergency need for three loaves of bread? Would any of us give our own child a snake or a scorpion instead of a fish or an egg? The statistics on cruelty to children suggest that many people do just that. These mini-parables on prayer suggest that if we sincerely pray for God’s name to be hallowed and for God’s kingship to come, then we would willingly suffer inconvenience to give sustenance to a neighbor and would want all children to have fish and eggs rather than snakes or scorpions.

St. Paul admonishes us to be rooted and built up in Christ, (Col. 2: 7) the very person who taught us how to pray. The homely images of Jesus’ mini-parables give way to Paul’s cosmic imagery of “rulers and authorities” who run the world through the violence of withholding necessities and stoking vengeance. Paul says that Jesus has nailed all of this violence to the cross so that the intimacy of nurturing and forgiveness triumphs in Jesus. To be rooted in Christ is to give fish and eggs and forgiveness to one another. This is how the cosmos should operate.

Holding Back the Fire—Embracing the Beloved Community

GuestsoutsideWhen called by the prophet Elijah, (1 Kings 19: 19–21) Elisha asks to kiss his mother and father first. When he is rebuked for this demurral, he slaughters his oxen, breaks the yokes and burns them, and then follows Elijah. That is, he burns his bridges in making a clean break. Elisha makes this break, however, to join a brotherhood of prophets who have set up an alternate community to the violent and idolatrous kingdom of Ahab and Jezebel. Unfortunately, this community is also compromised by violence as Elijah calls fire down on his enemies (2 Kings 1: 10–12) and one of the prophets anoints Jehu to pull of a violent coup d’état. (2 Kings 9)

We see the same dynamics of making a clean break in the stories of Jesus calling his disciples. The earlier callings of Peter, Andrew, James, John and the others were successful as they left their boats and families and followed Jesus. But when Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem where he will be crucified, we have what appear to be three failed callings. (Lk. 9: 57-62) In each case, Jesus is stressing the homelessness and the break with the culture these people have known, just as Elijah was asking Elishah to do. They will have no place to lay their heads because, with Jesus, they will no longer have a place in the culture. The dead can bury the dead because the culture they would be leaving is dead. Like a farmer at the plow, they must look ahead, towards Jerusalem, not back the way they came.

We normally think the cultures we live in are pretty good. After all, they have nurtured us from infancy and we owe a lot to them. But the story preceding the failed callings shows up the problem with our cultures. The solidarity with our “own” people tends to put us at enmity with those who are “other.” The beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem takes him through Samaria, where a village there did not “receive” them. Whether or not they were actually rejected by the Samaritans is not clear, but the suggestion of James and John that they command fire to rain down on the Samaritans suggests they probably were. This quick escalation from rejection to total destruction is the trademark of human culture that builds up such enmity and violence. Jesus rebukes his disciples for suggesting such a thing. Interestingly, some manuscripts add a verse where Jesus says: “You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.” Even if this added verse is not authentic, Jesus’s rebuke already conveys that sentiment. Rejection and raining down fire is the culture of violence that the disciples and would-be disciples are commanded to turn away from.

Turning away from one’s own culture, in itself, is negative. As long as it is negative, it is fueled by alienation and resentment, which leads to the seething irrational anger of the Underground Man as Dostoevsky calls him. Cutting oneself off from everybody is also a violent act, one that can lead to senseless violence as it does with the Underground Man who eventually attacks another person out of sheer spite. I myself was mired in such alienation and resentment for some years when the problems with my own culture became evident through the Viet Nam War, racist practices and other social ills. This attitude felt like freedom until I was freed by God from the resentment and discovered it had really been a prison.

In Galatians 5, Paul illustrates the culture Jesus is calling us from, what he calls the “works of the flesh,” as “licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy” and much, much more. It is precisely envy, quarreling, strife and the like that makes human culture so violent that rejection from other humans leads to raining down fire in retaliation. No wonder some people turn away in disgust and resentment. But Jesus would have us turn away from the culture of death and violence, not to close in on ourselves in impotent fury, but to embrace humanity in a much deeper, much more inclusive way. Paul says that the fruits of the Spirit, the spirit that comes to save lives, not destroy them, are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. “ (Gal. 5: 22–23) Just a bit further on his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus illustrates the fruit of the Spirit with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10: 25–37) where the enemy the disciples would rain fire on is the one who shows compassion for an enemy who, in turn, is challenged to accept love from an enemy. Paul says this is crucifying the “flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5: 24) As Jesus shows at the end of the road to Jerusalem, kindness, generosity, gentleness and the like end up on the cross where the strife, jealousy and envy of the people is absorbed. Once we embrace this culture of love, what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the Beloved Community,” we embrace the culture we have renounced so as to bring it into the culture of the Spirit.

Pastoral Care and Ubuntu

goodShepherdThe Feast of Saints Peter and Paul celebrates the pastoral ministry of the Church initiated by two different personalities with some differences of opinion. Celebrating two formative pastors already points to pastoral ministry as one of relationships. Then there is the whole matter of shepherds, as we often call pastors, in relationship with their flocks.

Having just returned from a conference on the subject of Ubuntu, I am inclined to reflect on pastoral relationships in terms of this social vision. Forrest Harris, President of American Baptist College in Nashville, explained Ubuntu as giving full respect for the being of other people. Naomi Tutu imaged Ubuntu with the African practice of giving a bowl of food to the eldest child in an extended family. This child is expected to share the food with his or her siblings in such a way that all of them, especially the youngest, gets a full share. The oldest child is given to understand that taking more than a fair share may increase the food taken in, but it diminishes that same child even more than it diminishes the youngest who goes without. Ubuntu, then, is so simple that it seems like an insult to one’s intelligence. Even a five-year-old can understand it, which is the point, since the eldest child might be that age.

However, Ezekiel complains of a total breakdown of pastoral care and Ubuntu. The shepherds eat the fat and clothe themselves with wool. “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezek. 34: 4) As a result, the flock is scattered. There is no Ubuntu here. These non-shepherds may be fat, but they are more diminished in their humanity than the starved sheep. If Ubuntu is so easy as to insult the intelligence, why is it so hard for anybody in Israel to practice it? Indeed, Ezekiel exclaims that God has given up on Israel’s shepherds: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” (Ezek. 34: 15–16) As Psalm 23 says, God is our shepherd. Ezekiel adds that God is our only shepherd. In John 10 Jesus, fulfilling the words of Ezekiel, announces that he is the Good Shepherd who gathers the flock, protects the flock from bandits and robbers and lays down his life for his flock. This is Ubuntu to the max, but it is a one-person show.

But after Jesus had finished laying down his life for his sheep and then rising again, he gathered his disciples who had been scattered by the thieves and bandits. At the Lake of Galilee, he asked Peter three times: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (Jn. 21) Each time that Peter said he loved Jesus, Jesus told him to feed or tend his sheep. The Good Shepherd is telling Peter to be a good shepherd as he is a good shepherd, to participate in the shepherdness of Jesus.

Making Peter a shepherd was just the beginning of the proliferation of shepherds who would tend the flock of Christ, with Paul being the most prominent. But here we are at a point where the analogy between sheep and church congregations breaks down. Sheep never cease to be dependent on their shepherds, but with humans, it’s a different matter. A big part of Ubuntu is helping other people mature. The young child is given the bowl of food to distribute to the other siblings as an the opportunity to learn the responsibility of being a shepherd so he or she can pass that responsibility on to the next generation.

We are fed with so much wisdom in Paul’s epistles that we often fail to notice the final chapters that are filled with heart-filled greetings to his colleagues in ministry. But what these greetings show us is that Paul, having poured out his life like a drink offering, (2 Tim. 4: 6) has passed the bowl of responsibility to the people he ministered to so that we, today, can continue to pass the bowl of Ubuntu to others, making all of us shepherds of one another.

A God Who Does the Same Great New Thing

crossRedVeil1Right after dramatically recalling God’s deliverance of the Jews from the Red Sea, Isaiah proclaims that God is “about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is. 43: 19) By his time, the Red Sea deliverance was an old thing, something the Jews repeatedly recalled, especially at the celebration of Passover. But at the time of that deliverance, it was a new thing that had sprung forth. Delivering escaped slaves through turbulent waters just wasn’t in the play books of deities at the time. God had changed the play book and revealed the hitherto unknown truth that God is a God who delivers victims and outcasts from the rich and the powerful.

The new thing that Isaiah was proclaiming was another deliverance, this one from the Babylonian Exile. In this respect, the new thing that God was doing was a lot like the old thing: both were acts of deliverance from powerful and tyrannical rulers and both involved leading the people through a desert. One could say that God was actually doing the same old thing that God had done centuries earlier. During the ensuing centuries, the Jews repeatedly recalled the old deliverance, especially at times of crisis such as the Babylonian captivity, bringing the old act into the present in hopes for a repeat performance. Psalm 44, for example, recalls “the days of old” while complaining that the people had been “scattered among the nations” and had become “the derision and scorn of those around us.” Where are the deeds of old? The Psalmist asks. Isaiah replies that the deeds of old have returned, have become “a new thing,” a new act of deliverance. Isaiah affirms that God is a God who delivers victims and outcasts from the rich and the powerful. The old thing is a new thing.

In our time, we might be tempted to think that both of these new things are old things, But we need to keep bringing them into the present time, making them new by realizing that God is always making these deeds new. When we don’t, we backslide. One of the most egregious ways we backslide is by becoming the oppressors of the poor and vulnerable that the Egyptians and Babylonians were. That is what happened between the two great “new” things God did for the Jews. Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets denounced just such oppression. They were making clear that one of the principle ways of making the old things new and present is to imitate God by delivering “from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jer. 22: 3)

St. Paul proclaimed another great new thing accomplished by God: the death and resurrection of Jesus. In comparison with this, Paul declared everything else, most especially his accomplishments, as rubbish (to use a polite term). All Paul wanted was “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3: 10–3) This may seem to be a different thing, even a radically different thing than the earlier “new” things God had done. What is particularly new is that instead of delivering victims and outcasts by mighty acts, God in Jesus Christ died on the cross, thus becoming a victim. In doing this, God subverted the power of oppressors from within their system. Rather than inflict violence on them such as drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea or sending the Persians against Babylon, God in Jesus Christ died at the hands of his oppressors. It is out of this death that a new life was inaugurated by God when Jesus rose as the forgiving victim. There are times, not least in Romans 5, when Paul proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus in cosmic terms, but here in Philippians, he proclaims it in personal terms. The great new thing God had accomplished is inside of him. God’s solidarity with victims in Christ has completely overtaken everything else in Paul. Paul himself will prefer to be a victim rather than an oppressor or a mighty avenger who destroys armies. Christ Jesus has made Paul “his own.” (Phil. 3: 12)

A woman pouring ointment all over Jesus to prepare him for his upcoming burial (Jn. 12: 7) may seem an eccentric act but hardly a significant one, hardly a great new thing done by God. But up to that time, how often had any person done such an act of outpouring generosity, giving everything she had in doing it? This looks like God in Jesus Christ completely making this woman, Mary, his own just as much as God in Jesus Christ made Paul his own. This is indeed a great new thing accomplished by God. Will we ourselves be part of this great new thing?

 

See also: A Scandalous Woman as Extravagant as Jesus

On Being Called by God

AndrewPreaching1The narratives of the call of Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter bring to mind my own experiences of God’s call. In my case, it wasn’t quite like being attacked by a Cherubim in church, getting knocked down on the Road to Damascus or being told to throw out the fishing nets one more time and being overwhelmed by the catch.

I did quite a lot of fishing as a child for the simple reason that my father loved it and my family spent most summer vacations at a fishing lodge. I lost interest in fishing by the time I was a teenager but the contemplative aspect of fishing stayed with me as I became a monk. While praying the Divine Office and praying silently in the Abbey Church, I constantly sense God calling me out of my self-preoccupations and self-indulgence to the wider concerns of God.

I had the call of Isaiah memorized when I was a choirboy because I sang an overwrought anthem to that text, ending with the prophet’s quiet volunteering to be sent by God. Even then, I had intimations that I might be called to the ministry although I was put off by how much kneeling I would have to do. Even so, one Sunday when our whole family was too sick to go to church, I led the four of us in the Office of Morning Prayer. As for kneeling, liturgical renewal dealt with that.

During my late high school and college years, I was a self-styled religious rebel who didn’t like the way God ran the universe. Like Paul, I was quite vocal about saying what I thought to anyone who would listen and to others who would rather not. By hindsight, I realize that I was being called all that time until I listened sufficiently to get on the track that led me to St. Gregory’s Abbey. By then I had come to realize that God doesn’t try to run the universe but God has pointed out ways we can run it better than we’re doing it if only we would listen.

It is tempting to think that one is special if one senses a call from God, as if God would surely call a superior person such as myself. But Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter all felt differently when approached by God. In each case, the call convicted them and pulled them out of the way they were living to a radical change of attitude and activity. In my case, I had to realize that a seminary I went to after graduating from college was the wrong choice for me, one fueled by my rebellious attitude. Only then could I hear the call to a seminary much better suited for me.

In God’s mission charge to Isaiah, God tells him to tell the people: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.” (Is. 6: 9) Jesus uses these same words to characterize the response he got from his own preaching. Some way to be “ catching people.” (Lk. 5: 10) There are many ways one can understand what it means to be a person of unclean lips living “among a people of unclean lips.” (Is. 6: 5) René Girard writes of the human tendency to share desires so intensely that they become rivalrous. When that happens, we may have ears but we will not hear what other people are saying and we will not hear what God is saying to us. In my case, I had cast myself so deeply into rivalry with God that I drowned out the direction of my call for many years. Since the most vulnerable people in a society bear the brunt of the rivalry of the powerful, deafness to the cries of the poor go unheard with only prophets like Isaiah to defend them.

Paul received his call from the resurrected Christ who asked Paul why he was persecuting him in the act of persecuting his people. John’s Gospel has a variant of the story of the overwhelming catch of fish placed after the Resurrection which raises the intriguing question of whether or not Luke placed a resurrection narrative in an early chapter of his narrative. In any case, after deserting Jesus, the disciples did need to be called a second time by the resurrected Christ. Jesus was raised from the dead because first he was killed in an act of collective violence, the sort of persecution Girard argues is the result of a society allowing itself to be swamped in rivalry where we have ears but fail to hear.

Since God’s call to each of us entails preaching the Word and, much more important, witnessing to it in our ways of living, we are fundamentally spreading our repentance to others to open their ears as well. The hazard is that a sense of rivalry can enter through the back door if we treat our ministry of witnessing as a contest in which we try to “defeat” the other and win a “victory.” What we need to do is listen to ourselves in God, and listen to others as God listens to them, and use our listening skills, based on repentance, to help other people learn to listen.

For an introduction to the thought of René Girard, see Violence and the Kingdom of God  and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim.

Our Heavenly Father and Teacher

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyThe denunciations by prophets like Micah of the rulers “who abhor justice and pervert all equity” (Mic. 3:9) and Jesus’ denunciations of Pharisees in Matthew 23 tend to curl our mouths in a snide smile as we think about how much better we are than they. But while Jesus is still warming up for his fiery words to come, he slows down and says: “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” (Mt. 23: 9–10) When Jesus goes on with words of woe for the scribes and Pharisees, we are apt to conveniently shove these words aside, but, I think we should linger over them a bit before enjoying the scolding of “other” people.

That the false prophets and wayward rulers, the Pharisees and the scribes are not worthy of being called “Father” or “Teacher” or Leader” is understandable. The broader implication of not calling other people “father” is that we are all brothers and sisters. That is, Jesus is leveling the field among humans so that all of our relationships are fraternal, including relationships with people we usually think are “higher” or “lower” than we are, such as the relationship between parents and children and leaders and their followers. That is, we are all equal but we have a tendency to try to be more equal than others. And that is where we have problems.

Jesus scoffs at those who want the best places in the synagogues and banquets and who want to be greeted with fawning respect in the marketplace. We scoff at them too since mocking the foibles of our leaders and putting them down is everybody’s favorite blood sport. Which is to say that it is not just false prophets and ruthless leaders and scribes and Pharisees who do these things. We all do them. We all try to be a little more equal than other people in little and big ways. It is this desire to be more equal than others that causes us to lay heavy burdens on the shoulders of others and not “lift a finger to move them.” After all, putting a weight on another makes the person stoop, lowering that person. So why do anything to help the lowered person rise up?

The lectionary spares us the rest of Jesus’ harsh words as he dissects the ways we interpret law and morality to our own advantage and the disadvantage of others. Jesus reaches his climax with the charge that we persecute the prophets and so that “all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah” will be on our heads. (Mt. 23: 35) Jesus is warning us that the pushing and shoving to get the best seats at the banquet lead to the violence perpetrated against the prophets sent by God.

Forgotten in all this rivalry is Jesus’ teaching: “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Mt. 23: 11) This is quite the opposite of laying burdens on other people to make them bow down to us in public places. Jesus is also accepting the fact that some humans naturally take more responsibility for others and do act as leaders. Paul, for example, was called to preach the Good News of Jesus and naturally went on to help people organize their churches. But when preaching in Thessalonika, Paul took the burdens on himself and worked hard so as not to be a burden on others. And he dealt with the Thessalonians like “a father with his children” in trying to lead them in a way worthy of God’s kingdom and glory. (1 Thess. W: 11–12) That is, a leader has to make everyone else more important than oneself.

This is what Jesus did, even to dying on the cross. And this is why Jesus is our teacher and guide to his heavenly Abba.