Jan 11, 2015
Prayer: Our God, guide us as we move into a new century with its problems and challenges. Help us to find the Way for our time and place, that Christ might be revealed in who we are and what we do. Amen.
The story and figure of Jesus continues to set the stage for a new age and a new world, as it has for 2000 years. It is a world healed of its pain and the harm humans inflict upon it and upon themselves. We cannot get around the need for a healed world. We all feel and know this, regardless of our belief systems. In our story, Jesus is the One who comes to heal our pain. But how do we tell and understand the story in our own language?
Jaroslav Pelikan, once a Missouri Synod professor of great scholarship and learning and later a convert to the Greek Orthodox Church, wrote many learned books and is worth serious reading. He wrote one book, though, that speaks to me. It was, “Jesus Through the Centuries,” and there is a fully illustrated and expensive version of that text that is quite beautiful. But it is also available more cheaply without the marvelous artwork. In it he shows the many ways Christ has been portrayed and understood in different historical eras. This kind of re-interpretation has been going on for a very long time. The interpretation of the meaning of Christ begins in earnest with Paul, whose writing we now consider scripture. It is clear that my theology professor at PLTS in Berkeley had it right when he defined Christian theology as “the story of Jesus and its significance.” We have been at that project from the beginning.
Jesus’ baptism is the earliest starting point for Jesus’ ministry and his identity, taking Mark as the earliest written gospel, and right off the bat we have this contrast between Jesus and John. Jesus was most likely a disciple of John and spent time in John the Baptizer’s community. But Jesus broke with John to go his own way.
John the Baptizer is preaching a message demanding personal change in order to prepare for a new world that is yet to come, the new age of the reign of God. His rhetoric has the old prophetic scowl in it: God will not be mocked, turn your lives around, crawl out of the pit, straighten up and fly right. He is interested in laying down the law and demanding change. John’s is actually most often our preferred message, but it is not the message of Jesus.
Jesus comes, rather, as a compassionate healer, someone in deep communion with God, someone who not only has God’s ear but God’s personal favor and delight. This is a love relationship. Jesus, though, also has a strong prophetic orientation. There is nothing meek or mild about him in the gospels. He is a challenging presence. He takes people on. But he loves. He forgives. He heals the sick rather than judges them. He confronts power, for sure, and this is what ends his life. But he does not hate and he is clearly non-violent. He is the victim of violence, which he transcends through divine love.
All of this brings us to this moment, the place where we live in this time and place. We are following the pattern of our history and are reassessing this story of Jesus in our time. I really struggle personally with what kind of Christian faith we need going forward in such a complex, information rich world so full of miraculous inventions and amazing accomplishments, including technologically advanced violence and sophisticated criminality. What is the church to be now? We cannot continue as if it were 1950 or 1960 or whatever decade you prefer. It’s not even enough to continue as if it were 2001. My personal struggle with this has led me to be strongly interfaith in orientation, committed to an inclusive Christology that allows for other faiths and perspectives and takes seriously Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies, and I am convinced that spiritual practice and a contemplative-based ethic rooted in Christ and Christ-centered community is the way forward. We are joined with others who believe in non-violence and peace in the world. We care for the vulnerable, as Jesus did, and we work so that people are less vulnerable. This is salvation: healing for the world, and that includes us. The church provides a structure to do all of this.
What else could Jesus’ baptism mean? It isn’t just for him. It’s for us. When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ, as Paul states so clearly. We identify with him with our very lives. We take his life into our own every time we take communion. We become like him in the world. We grow into his image. We become transformed, and the world follows. That is the journey, nothing less.
Jesus is the new human being and, by extension with his Spirit within us, so are we when we act in his name and follow his way. That message is what we need now. It is a Christian faith that seeks to be a blessing to a world in deep pain. It is to be Christ. It is the Word made flesh, not the Word made exceedingly verbal. This is the path. Amen.