Sunday, January 08, 2012

What Really Happened

Genesis 1:1-8 (NKJV)
Mark 1:4-11

“The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits and calls us to a recognition that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that life is capable of being. The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human. It issues the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully, and to have the courage to be our most complete selves.”  Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong

This quote came to mind as I was reading the lection for this week along with another book, “Jesus Wars” (Philip Jenkins), that explores the early history of the Church and the various councils by which the doctrines we know today came to be developed such as expressed in the Nicene Creed from the 4th century Council of Nicaea.  The book examines how religion in the 21st century has evolved from those early days, and continues to evolve even now. 

Comparing and contrasting the disputes that occurred during these early years - they were many and bloody! - I have concluded that we can no longer live responsibly as serious disciples of Christ in the blissful ignorance of believing any doctrine without a serious review of the Bible from which these doctrines are developed.  We must also not be reduced to searching the Bible for religious answers, to prove someone "wrong", or to justify our biblically questionable choices by taking a very small passage out of its appropriate context.  Rather we are to find what our Lord is calling us into.  In other words, we should be searching for "life answers".

The bishop’s article from which the quote came was part of a much broader article in which he explores several polls which reveal the general biblical ignorance especially among the faithful that is so pervasive in today’s Church.  We don’t often realize the difference between historical religion and what is actually “in the Bible”.  For instance, that Jesus is "fully human and fully God" may be suggested or implied with several passages of Scripture, but this did not actually become a full-fledged "doctrine" until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.  And we probably don't really want to know how many men were murdered or committed murder to make this doctrine possible - or to oppose it! 

When this confusion between "historical religion" and biblical knowledge occurs, then, we get caught up in doctrinal disputes that we mistakenly thought had been settled during the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.  We continue today to defend “right” practices and beliefs – called "dogma" and “orthodoxy” – and condemn those who don’t do or believe correctly.  Worse, in our relative ignorance of what is actually "in the Bible", we are inclined to make things up as we go, most generally to justify our personal choices; ironically all in the name of "grace". 

Because of these disputes, many have found themselves separated from the Church – alienated, perhaps – because even the Church can appear to be somewhat confused about the difference between what is “right” and what is “righteous”.  Among common practices and beliefs we are familiar with today, we seem confused between what is “mystical” and what we have come to believe to be, for lack of a better word, “magical”; which is to suggest that over the years we have found or developed personally satisfying beliefs that cannot be biblically justified and don’t really require anything on our part; that which Mahatma Gandhi condemned as "worship without sacrifice"; one of his "seven deadly sins".

We seem to understand that Jesus, as the “beloved Son of God”, did not need to be baptized for He had nothing from which to repent; and even though we are offered a vision of “the Spirit descending like a dove”, we also remember that the time for the Holy Spirit will not be until the Day of Pentecost – after the Ascension when Jesus is lifted up into Heaven.  So with all these mysteries seemingly settled, what we often derive from this passage is, quite simply, a “prescription” of baptism, just something we are supposed to do only because Jesus did it.  And you know something?  I don't think that's good enough.  Mark offers little else beyond what we are reading from this passage - that a baptism took place - but Matthew fills in a gap for us as to the purpose of what we are witnessing: the baptism of the Christ is being done to “fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15), Jesus’ words to John when John objected to baptizing the Lord. 

Surely what we are invited to be a part of goes much deeper than mere “instruction” for a rite of passage or initiation into the Church.  If this were so, I would like to believe we would be given more details as to exactly how it should properly be done.  To this day we are involved in disputes as to the proper timing of the baptism as well as the means.  We seem more "superstitious" about the whole practice than we are concerned about righteous!  If this “instruction” were to be taken literally, we might surmise that “proper” baptism cannot come except in a river of moving water (perhaps specifically the Jordan itself) at the age of 30 years.  We even argue about the amount of water required to wash away sin and whether sprinkling or pouring will do in place of immersion.  We are not told exactly how much water was involved nor is the baptism itself described in any useful detail.  We just know Jesus “came out” of the water likely the same way He went in: by foot.  Nothing is inferred or implied, but we have added details over the course of a couple thousand years.  In other words, we've made things up as we go along and called it "right" - but we've not really concerned ourselves with "righteousness".

I think, then, we are not left with our own devices more than we are invited to look deeper and find something much more “theological” than man-made; that which defines the relationship between YHWH and humanity.  It is not about what we are called to do – rather, it is much more about what we are called to be in this incredible moment when, according to Russell Rathbun (“Cosmic Crossing”), “there is a tear in the firmament that [once] separated the realm of God from the realm of humanity … a parting that will never be repaired … when God will continue to be among His people in a way He has not been before.”

This is HUGE!  If this is so, we are far beyond a simple biblical "ordinance" because, unlike the very detailed worship instructions in Exodus and Leviticus, we are witnessing an incredible and intentional connection between Heaven and Earth, a purposeful and intimate connection between YHWH and humanity!  Like the temple veil which had been torn asunder upon Jesus' death on the Cross, a definitive disconnect between the Divine and the secular has suddenly found its meaningful connection in such a way that life as we know it must never be the same again!  This is why our United Methodist tradition considers it "sacramental".

How is this accomplished?  I think the answer lies in the Voice which came from Heaven after the Baptism of the Christ: "You are My Son, the Beloved.  With You I am well pleased."  What is it about this moment in eternity that so pleased our Holy Father?  Was He pleased that Jesus had the will to present Himself for baptism?  Was He pleased only with the very "being" of Jesus being Jesus?  Was He legitimizing Jesus as Messiah, the divinely anointed One?  Or was He - and is He - pleased with what has taken place NOT in the water itself but rather in the dynamic fusion that has taken place between Himself and His beloved creation - you and me?  This, my dear friends, is worthy of a response - AND - a commitment to know more.

I think the Lord must surely be pleased that this "tear in the firmament" has finally taken place and that the Redemption Story now has Hands and Feet.  I think the Lord is well pleased that in Christ Jesus, the connection between the Holy and the unholy has finally diminished the gap that previously existed.  I think the Lord is well pleased that soon enough, the "diminished gap" will one day be finally and completely closed. It is that day of rejoicing when lost souls are found, and wayward souls are restored.  It is that glorious day when we will hear within ourselves that Blessed Voice which will affirm and justify even us; and through us, the unbelievers will say, "Christ the Lord is alive and well!"

But none of this will be accomplished in biblical ignorance.  None of this is possible without an active engagement with the Lord through His Word.  It is as John Wesley once expressed: "It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading; a reading people will always be a knowing people." 

It is the stark difference between what we "think" ... and what we "know" to be true.

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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