Baptism – the Christian’s Constitution
One wonders why churches need to have by-laws and nations need constitutions, until this week.
Amendments and corrections to ancestral documents can illustrate both the wisdom of experience and the folly of human institutions. When we deify humans or our institutions with perfection and divine nature or authority, we are asking for trouble. Older wisdom, embodied in all three monotheistic religions, keeps reminding us to refute idolatry in all its seductive forms. This is particularly of concern when we worship the state or we work to unravel what unifies us all, as divinely created, (with imagined and engineered national, racial or gender superiorities). I believe these older theological shared truths to be particularly helpful to concerned Americans and all people of faith, right now. When Islam declares Allah is ONE, Jewish law demands God’s holiness is not replaced by any man-made images that usurp divine power, (including religion) and Christianity embodies Jesus the Christ as the one who transcends all man- made barriers and invites humanity to become one global family -we are all saying the same thing, in different ways.
The human tendency and illusion that we are in fact, God or have a direct line to God’s will and intentions, has always been the beginning of a fall. The Genesis story describes the process of separation and naming what was once ONE alongside our desire to be God or forget our place as creature and created. This belief is a keystone to monotheism’s understanding of human nature.
The Bible is full of references of smart and good people forgetting their place in the world and imagining they are God-like or sent as God’s Messiah to save the world. From King David and all the Jewish heroes, every one of them is deeply flawed, yet are somehow agents of human salvation. Even their mistakes can help to right a wrong. The journey to wholeness is not a straight line. People and leaders make mistakes and have poor judgement. The prophetic tradition has always spoken truth to power and calling people back to that primary relationship of Creator God to human creature. We get back in balance through repentance and thinking differently, and like the magi in the Christmas story, discern to find our way home by another way. On this cusp of Epiphany and the celebration of the adult baptism of Jesus, the church invites its members to think differently about ourselves and to enter the waters of baptism and be reborn with Christ.
Desecration of what?
As images of Americans breaking into the Capitol building yesterday flood the media, Congress was able to find a path out of a constitutional crisis and refer to past experiences and to the American Constitution itself. In a crisis, we need these kinds of tools to ground us and redirect us down difficult paths. The Senate and House of Representatives, even under siege, was able to revert to this courageous direction and follow the law and wisdom of the ancestors. There have been times in our church life that our constitution, bylaws and prayer books have helped us find the courage and language to move in a direction that we need to discern and act upon. Democracy, like peace, is something we cannot take for granted and we must constantly work at it. Democracy too can be idolized and can be weaponized as the German experience played out a century ago, while millions perished.
While listening to the debates last night, I was personally extremely uncomfortable with the language from many elected representatives of the deification of democracy and the Capitol building. The use of word and phrases like, “desecration” and “temple to democracy” that had been somehow violated, stirred up images of sacred space that is usually reserved for holy places and divinely associated attribution. In those powerful speeches, American exceptionalism met a kind of secular deification of the state that I found disturbing.
Our Patron Saint, Paul would never have wrapped himself in any flag or swore allegiance to any state where its leader tried to claim divinity. The Roman State tried numerous times to subjugate the Jewish people and their theology and kept failing because of the central belief in God’s omnipotence and human folly. Placing a statue of the Emperor in the Temple caused rebellion. Asking Christians to eat meat that had been offered to the glory of the Emperor and State brought about the first civil disobedience campaign when Christians refused to share meals with their neighbors because they could not in conscience allow the state to have claim that is shared in divinity. When Paul talks about Jesus as the savior of the world, Jesus is Lord and Jesus is the Son of God, these were all deliberate attacks on the deification of the Roman State, embodied in the role of the Emperor. He was executed for his political and religious blasphemy. He was a threat to the narrative that the state demands our total obedience and loyalty and not to worship the Emperor and the State was treasonable. Jews, as citizens of the Roman Empire were always caught in this theological/political dilemma and were given permission not to serve in the armed forces of the day, simply because their loyalties were questionable. The same ambivalence applied to early Christians who were discouraged from serving the state through military service and all this changed as the state and Christianity became synonymous. White Christian privilege and our often-tragic alliances with state nationalism, has been something the church has been unable to shake off, right up to our present day. Jesus, the Warrior Messiah who will come again with his angels and armies to force the world into goodness is still a popular imagined longing of many believers in the world today even though the Christian Gospels proclaim a different narrative.
The nature of the Messiah
The resurrection narratives in the Gospels deliberately keep the scarred hands of the Christ in the forefront of the Christian story, because even the people closest to Jesus imagined the Messiah to be something entirely different. The disciples also imagined a warrior-like Messiah sent to bring about political change through violence against the Roman forces of occupation in Judea. “The Messiah must suffer” Jesus keeps on repeating for 2,000 years and many of us Christians are still looking for the Messiah in all the wrong places. When we deify a person or political document or institution, we are already on the road to perdition. Our crisis is not only political, but it is at its core, theological.
This coming Sunday, the church universal will reflect upon the baptism of Jesus as the beginning of his adult ministry. The call to repentance (think differently) begun by John the Baptist, is still a voice in the wilderness of competing gods and loyalties. Baptism has been used and misused over the years and our current prayer book liturgy is a helpful “Christian constitution” that we revert to in times of joy and confusion. It invites us to think about our renunciation of all that keeps us from the love of God and to seek justice and peace in the world, respecting the dignity of EVERY human being. Even people we disagree with and do not like. Mother Theresa might claim “they are Jesus in a distressing disguise”.
The Christian is a citizen of another kingdom and our loyalty to that divine realm trumps all earthy loyalties, including state and even family and tribe. It is an audacious vision, even greater and older than the American experiment. Which vision and constitution do we ultimately trust? How we find our way forward, as a Congress, a divided nation and unstable world will depend on what and who we put our trust in. The baptismal covenant is a serious attempt to give our ship a keel to guide us through the tempests of human experience, both personal and collective. I know no better time to dust off our prayer books and read some of those promises and prayers for each other, the nation and the world.
Rev. Canon Albert J. Ogle