The morning after New Year’s Day we went into Marks and Spencer’s, looking for post-holiday bargains. They had a new display stand in the food hall. It was yellow, filled with chocolate eggs and bore the legend 'Easter - 8 April' !
We may blame commerce for the rush from Christmas to Easter, but some of you may have heard Giles Fraser in the week before Christmas blame the Roman Emperor Constantine. Giles Fraser argued that what Jesus actually said and did was potentially embarrassing to an emperor. All that stuff about loving your enemies wouldn’t go down that well with the army, and the idea of rich people giving away their wealth would really upset the Senate. You couldn’t get to be a senator unless you were enormously wealthy. (A bit like America really). So Constantine put all the focus on festivals marking the birth and death of Jesus and left us with no celebrations of his actual ministry. You can see the effect in the hymnbook we’re using today. The thinnest section is the one on the ministry of Jesus; there are more than twice as many in the section on Advent and Christmas.
Be that as it may, for the next three months the lectionary follows the ministry of Jesus. And it starts today with the event that marks its beginning, Jesus’ baptism.
It’s an event that’s full of symbolism. The compilers of the lectionary, by setting this story alongside the Genesis story of creation, have made a connection that was probably in Mark’s own mind. At the heart of his story is the symbol of water, with the Spirit of God hovering over the water, just as happened according to Genesis at the outset of creation. Water carries lots of symbolic meanings, but the key one here is that water stands for chaos. As we read in Genesis, “in the beginning” the waters of chaos covered the formless earth. In Genesis, creation is not creating something out of nothing but bringing order out of chaos.
God does it by categorising. Like someone sorting the pile of papers on their desk, God divides sea from land, night from day, species from species, animals from humans, man from woman. Order out of chaos.
So when Luke describes Jesus going down into the waters while the Spirit of God descends from above, he is telling us that this is the beginning of a new creation. Jesus is bringing a new kind of order out of a different kind of chaos.
The state of my filing system suggests that a more normal human characteristic is the creation of chaos out of order. But maybe we’re not so different from Jesus, because I think that in many ways what we call order he called chaos, and what we call chaos he saw as the necessary condition for a new kind of order.
We live in an incredibly ordered society. In Edinburgh this week, when the gales were demolishing trees and ripping the roofs off houses, part of the stone parapet in a building in my son’s street crashed into the street. Within minutes the police had the road closed. Within 24 hours scaffolding was being erected to make the building safe. That we complain of the chaos when train services are disrupted or riots break out in our cities shows that we take order for granted.
Yet it is the very order of our society that locks in so much injustice. When the McPherson report uncovered institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police, it was the structured processes of the institution that locked it in. Today the rotten system that makes some ludicrously rich while others live in poverty is locked in by the ordered systems and rules of our world. From the human perspective this is an ordered world, but in God’s view it is chaotic, because the divisions are in the wrong places. We create divisions between people – rich and poor, citizens and immigrants, white and black, young and old – that make no sense to God. In God’s categories there are just people. God divides between good and evil. We divide between legal and illegal – very definitely not the same thing. A lot of evil exploitation is perfectly legal.
Take the teaching of Jesus seriously, however, and order seems likely to dissolve into chaos. What would happen if we really did give anything anyone asked of us? Or if we sold all we had and gave to the poor? Or if we regarded wicked thoughts as seriously as wicked deeds? Or if we paid everyone the same, no matter how much work they had done? Or if we allowed strangers to carry out improper gestures, like the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears? Or if we wrote off everyone’s debts or forgave everyone whatever they had done or turned the other cheek when assaulted by bullies? Or refused to make judgments about other people? Business would collapse, the economy would go into even greater recession, the political system would flail around helplessly and the law courts would throw in the towel. Jesus’ teachings and stories and actions seem designed to make ordinary, organised life impossible. A million preachers down the ages have sought ever more sophisticated ways to explain that Jesus didn’t really mean what he appeared to say. It’s no surprise if Constantine wanted to play these teachings down.
But I think Jesus intends to unsettle us. Jesus is an artist, a creative artist. He is continually finding ways to make us ask what sort of a society, what sort of people, what sort of a God we accept as normal. Forget rules, he says, what about humanity? Forget fairness, what about generosity? Forget power, what about human worth? Forget justice, what about mutual respect? The chaos of challenged values, questioned assumptions – parables that knock the feet from under you – that’s all part of Jesus way of preparing us for a new creation.
It’s significant that Jesus went right down into the waters, plunged up to his armpits in the symbolic chaos. This was a Baptist-style baptism, a proper dunking, not a trickle of water on the forehead! Jesus didn’t stand outside our improperly ordered world and criticise it, he immersed himself in it and changed it from within, not without. He lived the alternative, and the ordered world couldn’t cope. It was sensible people trying to make sensible structures work who killed him.
The danger of pointing that out is that it can make Jesus a much-honoured irrelevance, because we know our lives are going to be much more circumspect. But if we are going to be Christian, we must live constantly in dialogue with how Jesus lived. In fact, though, very few of us are called to live in total imitation of Christ. Some of our hymns mislead us here. God is not looking for a world people by clones of Jesus. Jesus was fully who Jesus was meant to be. Our task is to be who we are meant to be. And for most of us that includes playing roles within this wrongly-ordered world that involve living in the tension between the radical values of Jesus and the assumptions on which daily life is built. Like Jesus we are called to be up to our armpits in this world, but we each have our own witness to fulfil there. We are not all called to let it crucify us.
Some Christian thinkers have tried to deal with that tension by describing us as living in two kingdoms at once: a spiritual kingdom governed by God’s rules and an earthly kingdom governed by secular rules. All we have to do is work out whose rules apply when. But that’s too easy. It allows all that locked in injustice to go unchallenged. It’s the kind of thinking that allowed Luther to side with those who crushed the Peasants Revolt – and developed a theological climate that eventually made it possible for the German Christian movement to support Hitler.
Followers of Jesus are asked to take a much more difficult route, where we hold true to values we cannot always apply and participate in institutions and lifestyles even while resisting the subtle messages they embody.
We work for money, but never accept that money is the goal of our work. Whatever work we do, our goal must be people’s welfare.
We consume goods, but never accept that consumption is self-justifying. Whatever we consume, the goal must always be the generous creation of shared joy.
As managers or trustees or parents we make judgments about people, but never regard ourselves as better than them. Whatever assessment we make, our goal must always be our mutual growth in maturity.
We own wealth – not a lot of it, but compared with most people in this world quite a lot – but never regard it as ours to do what we like with. As those trusted with it, our goal must always be to use it creatively.
We enter conflict and competition, but never accept that winning is enough. Whatever the battle, our goal must always be the good of all involved, including the opponent.
And along the way we make mistake after mistake. That’s why we return over and again to these stories and teachings of Jesus. We’re at our most dangerous, however, when we think we’re getting it right. When we stop noticing the compromises we are making. When we start thinking our attitudes are fully Christ-like. When we don’t feel uneasy about our role in this world. That’s when we must return to these stories and teachings of Jesus, for we need them to puncture our satisfaction and offer us a different way of seeing the world, a new creation, that shows up this present human world for the shoddy, disordered place it really is.
So let’s be uneasy together as we follow the footsteps of Jesus in the weeks between Epiphany and Good Friday. As we walk the tightrope between the world’s order and God’s order, we can be thankful that we have a God who helps us keep our balance.
copyright 2012 © David Goodbourn
unauthorised use or reproduction prohibited
new page 8 January 2012