Sunday, January 7, 2018

Baptized into the Resistance

Of all the things we know about Jesus, one of the things about which we can be most certain, is that he was baptized by John.  Accounts of Jesus’ baptism are provided by three independent witnesses in nine separate canonical and extracanonical texts, including the earliest stratum of textual materials about Jesus.[1]   While these accounts differ in important ways, they all agree that John baptized Jesus. 

John’s activity as a prophet in the wilderness who baptized people in the Jordan River is well documented in the Christian Gospels, as well as by the Jewish historian, Josephus.  John preached an apocalyptic message of repentance for the forgiveness of sin and preparation for the new age that God was about to inaugurate.  In John’s time, apocalyptic was the popular language of political dissent among Jews who opposed the Roman occupation of Israel.  John’s message and ritual action were aimed at developing and supporting a subversive resistance movement.

John’s movement was subversive in three ways.  Perhaps most obvious to us, is John’s call for repentance and individual moral renewal.  To accept John’s baptism was an act of resistance to ego, requiring the humility to admit one’s failure to follow God’s way and the willingness to submit to God’s will. Going out into the wilderness, undergoing baptism in the Jordan River, and re-entering the Promised Land was a ritual act of political resistance to Roman rule as well.  One by one, those who were baptized recommitted themselves to the sovereignty of God, rather than that of the Emperor, with the expectation that God would soon intervene to overthrow the Roman occupation.  Finally, it was a ritual act of resistance to the authority of the Temple system and its priesthood; think of it as resistance to religious orthodoxy.  Note that repentance was being mediated by baptism in the wilderness, rather than by the offering of sacrifices in Jerusalem, and it was free.  John subverted the Temple’s monopoly on access to God.[2]

John and Jesus lived during a tumultuous time in which Jewish resistance to Rome was endemic.  Prophets and messiahs, protestors and bandits, regularly disrupted Roman rule and challenged the complicity of Jewish elites.  Roman legions stationed in Syria had to march south to quell violent Jewish rebellions in Galilee and in Judea.   It is no wonder that Herod Antipas had John arrested and executed.  As Josephus tells us in his Jewish Antiquities,

When others too joined the crowds about [John], because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed.  Eloquence that has so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did.  Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and see his mistake.[3] 

John’s baptism constituted a subversive of ego, of empire, and of orthodoxy, creating a powerful resistance movement.  The combination of prophet and crowds, desert and Jordan, was too much for Herod.  Later, Pilate would come to the same conclusion with respect to Jesus.  

Mark’s Gospel is unapologetic about the continuity between John and Jesus.  Jesus was baptized by John into the resistance.   In Mark’s account, Jesus’ baptism is a profound epiphany in which the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit comes soaring into him.  The boundaries between heaven and earth, divine and human, are transgressed.  What Jesus previously perceived as divided is now perceived as a single integral, non-dual reality.  He is claimed as God’s beloved, given a new identity, and becomes transparent to God’s power.  He is born again.

Creation and new creation, birth and rebirth, are represented by the Spirit or wind blowing over Jesus, descending like a dove.  Attentive listeners will hear echoes of the first creation story in Genesis, as well as the new beginning after the flood, when Noah released the dove to discover that life had begun anew.  The resistance into which Jesus is baptized is the resistance to the powers of this world that oppose and obstruct God’s creative, life-giving, renewing energy.   It is resistance to all that seeks to divide us from God, from one another, and from the natural world of which we are apart and that sustains life, in favor of a unitive vision of reality as intrinsically and profoundly interconnected.  It is resistance to all that diminishes and destroys the dignity of the creatures of God, affirmed as good, as beloved. 

Mark’s narrative moves quickly from baptism and epiphany, to vision quest in the desert, where Jesus undergoes a process of purification.  He must detox from the impulses of self-centered ego, unjust empire, and deadening orthodoxy that he has internalized.  The first revolution is internal.  It is only after he has engaged in this process that Jesus emerges from the wilderness – from the margins of society, the space beyond imperial domination – and engages his public ministry of resisting evil and empowering a liberation movement.   Baptism initiates a process of ongoing de-creation and re-creation, of letting go and becoming open to the energy of God working through us. 

Jesus’ baptism blew his mind.  It exploded his narrow, dual consciousness and opened his inner eye to a nondual awareness, transcending his small mind to embrace Big Mind.  When John is arrested, Jesus continues the resistance movement, but takes it in a different direction.  Jesus goes beyond John’s message and activity, to preach a message of God’s immanent and imminent kingdom, here and now; not then and there.  We need only repent, cross over from our small mind to an expanded consciousness, to realize this.  We don’t have to wait for God to act in the future.  God is waiting for us to act now to realize God’s kingdom, God’s gracious will for the fulfillment of creation, through us.  Jesus enacts this reality in the gathering of an alternative community of unconditional hospitality and healing. God is not our violent revolution.  We are God’s nonviolent revolution. 

In Mark’s Gospel, the heavens are torn apart when Jesus is baptized.  They are torn apart again, when Jesus is crucified: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.  And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”[4]  Our friend, Josephus, informs us that the outer veil of the temple, separating the outer court of the Gentiles from the inner court, where only Jews were allowed, was an 80 foot-high curtain.  It was, he says, a

Babylonian tapestry, with embroidery of blue and fine linen, of scarlet also and purple, wrought with marvelous skill.  Nor was this mixture without its mythic meaning: it typified the universe . . . Portrayed on this tapestry was a panorama of the entire heavens.[5] 

Mark understands Jesus’ death in terms of his baptism, as a mind-blowing explosion of God’s power into the world, expanding our consciousness and empowering us to resist evil.  The crucifixion is not the end, but rather the beginning of God’s subversion of the violence and injustice of the world through Jesus and through us.  For we, too, have been baptized into the resistance, and the same Spirit that informed Jesus’ vision and animated his ministry, blows through us. 

Michael Coffey gently invites us to embrace the resistance to ego, to empire, and to orthodoxy, in his poem, Melt.

When all fine things melt away,
platinum and books and Chagall oils and jazz
and even memory becomes
another drop in the liquid cosmos
there will be, as in the beginning,
light, an emanating presence permeating darkness,
absorbing all disparate thoughts and persons
into one, and this one you may call Christ,
the story of all that lives, dies, and is renewed.
And when you are one with flowing truth
and love has enveloped you and accepted
you into its infinite pool
where will your beliefs be then?
What utterances of your small mind
and self-satisfied tongue will survive?
What contrivances of the god you
once held firmly in your breast pocket
next to your fountain pen
will you cling to then?
For which inflated mylar balloon of yourself
will you still hold the string?
None!  You will gladly, freely,
lovingly let each one flow like water
through your fingers and you will be satisfied
to be a part of what you once
wished to have mere distant, controlling knowledge.
So why, if this same fluid universe
has baptized you already into your belovedness
and puddled you up with everything and everyone
have you not yet let go and melted
you fine thing.

[1] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 234-36. 
[2] See Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance: Building A Beloved Community of Resistance (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015).
[3] Quoted in Crossan, p. 230-31. 
[4] Mark 15:37-38. 
[5] Quoted in David Ulansey, “The Heavenly Veil Torn: Mark’s Cosmic Inclusion,” Journal of Biblical Literature (110:1, Spring 1991), p. 124-125.

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