The Elves that put together the Revised Common Lectionary divided Matthew 3 into two different sections. The first is read on the second Sunday of Advent; the second is read on the first Sunday after the Epiphany. But look at what might happen if Chapter 3 is allowed to keep its integrity, following on after the Holy Family returned from Egypt.
We meet John the Baptist, wearing clothes made of camel hair, eating locusts and wild honey. Everyone streamed out of the villages to hear him harangue them, and be baptized in the Jordan River so that they could be purified; their sins could be washed away. The Baptist is the forerunner, the herald, the one shouting in the wilderness, “Make the way of the Lord ready; make his paths straight. Heaven’s imperial rule is closing in!” Among those flocking to the riverside to be cleansed are many of Matthew’s favorite scumbags,: the Pharisees and Sadducees. John rips into them: “You spawn of Satan! Who warned you to flee from the impending doom? [Like, I certainly didn’t!] Well, then, start producing fruit suitable for a change of heart, and don’t even think of saying to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ Let me tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham right out of these rocks. The axe is aimed at the root of the trees. So every tree not producing choice fruit gets cut down and tossed into the fire.”
But he doesn’t decline to baptize them. He says, “I baptize you with water to signal a change of heart, but someone [is coming who will] baptize you with holy spirit and fire. His pitchfork is in his hand, and . . . the chaff he’ll burn in a fire that can’t be put out.” Then he sees the Anointed Jesus has come to him along with the crowds – perhaps mixed in with the Pharisees – and he is astounded. “I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?” And God’s spirit comes down on Jesus and the Voice from the skies says, “This is my favored son – I fully approve of him.”
So much for the established leaders of the Jewish faith.
There is an ongoing argument about whether or not Jesus continued John’s apocalyptic style. But that argument is beside the point – especially if we consider that what John and Jesus were talking about was not feeling sorry for petty sin – like lying to your grandma about whether you cleaned your room; or even lying to your wife about your girl friend. Luke 3:7-17 is clear that John’s message (like Jesus’ message) was about justice. (Depending on the circumstances, cheating on your spouse may or may not be a justice issue.) John gives us a heavy dose of judgment for not turning our lives around (Jesus’ message of non-violent grace is no less powerful). But – jumping to the 21st century – the consequences for not living in covenant with God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion are getting more dire by the minute, starting with the effects of global warming, and the ravaging of the social safety net by government-sanctioned collaborators with the wealthy. The ax may well be aimed at the root of the trees.
The Elves pair Romans 15:4-13 with the first portion of Matthew 3. Using the NRSV translation, the traditional view about saving the gentiles from sin, and therefore the “universality” of the message of Jesus, certainly reflects the usual interpretation of John the Baptist’s rantings. But the Scholars Version of The Authentic Letters of Paul provides a way out of the box of orthodoxy:
Keep in mind that whatever was written in earlier times was written to educate us so that through perseverance and through the encouragement of the scriptures, we might hold on to the hope [for the salvation of the nations]. (*Brackets in the original; emphasis mine.*) May the God who enables us to persevere and encourages us enable you to agree with one another by thinking in the same way as the Anointed Jesus did, so that with one unanimous voice you may praise the greatness of the God and benefactor of our lord Jesus the Anointed. . . . I maintain that the Anointed became the servant of the Jewish people to demonstrate God’s veracity in confirmation of God’s promise to your ancestors . . . May God, the source of our hope, fill you with such joy and peace through your complete confidence in God . . . (Romans 15:4-13, SV pp. 242-243).
The “salvation of the nations” means the liberation of everyone, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, from injustice. To think in the same way as the Anointed Jesus did is to accept all people into the community of distributive justice-compassion. “Sin” in the Scholars translation means “the corrupting seduction of power.” Further, to “demonstrate God’s veracity” as Jesus did, means to trust absolutely in the justice of God. “True relationship with God who will not give up on the condemned is accessible to everyone by trust alone” p. 207.
This interpretation is very different from the dogmatic Christian hegemony that has plagued the Planet since the 4th century. Traditional Christian thought regarding the universality of the Judeo-Christian tradition takes two tracks. One is to insist that everyone who does not believe in the one true God, or who does not believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead to save them from Hell and sin (as it is traditionally defined), will immediately realize the error of their ways, once the “good news” is revealed to them. The other track is more sinister. That is the notion that the entire universe was created in a fallen state, and no life form can be saved unless Jesus is accepted as Lord. What this has done to life forms perceived as not having souls is the stuff of Christian terrorism against women, children, animals, and the environment.
Twenty-first century exiles from that kind of religion would include all beings in the Universe, known and unknown, in the realm of God, where, as Neytiri explains in the film Avatar, “Eywa does not take sides; she protects the balance of life.” The work for beings who can make conscious choices is the radical abandonment of self-interest.
The second half of Matthew 3 is read on the first Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany. Every Sunday School child knows the scene: as Jesus comes up from the Jordan, the skies open, the dove descends, and Charleton Heston’s voice thunders from the clouds: “This is my son the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased!” For some arcane reason known only to the Elves, this scene is paired with Luke’s episode in Acts 10:34-43, where Peter reiterates the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Perhaps the purpose is to underline Matthew’s purpose in overthrowing the Jewish story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. The New Testament scripture that might serve to illuminate the meaning for Christians of Jesus’ baptism by John is really Romans 6:4-14, which is never considered by the followers of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Maybe the reason is that both the King James Version and the NRSV leave us scratching our heads over how baptism can be a symbol of death. Who wants to deal with Paul at his most obtuse? “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death . . . For whoever has died is freed from sin.” The only hope is death, and those who have been baptized will wake up in heaven. Nothing could be more irrelevant to responsible life on Planet Earth in the 21st century.
The Westar Scholars who worked for years on the authentic letters of Paul shine a light into the darkness of orthodox belief:
How can we who have “died” to the seductive power of corruption continue to live as if we were still in its grasp? Or do you not grasp the fact that all of us who were immersed in baptism as a way of identifying with the Anointed Jesus were symbolically immersed into his death? [Emphasis mine.]
What that means is that we were buried with him when we were symbolically immersed into his death so that, just as the Anointed was raised from the dead by the power and splendor of God, we also might live a new kind of life. If we have truly identified with him in a death like his, then we will certainly be united with him in rising to a new kind of life like his. This we know: the old version of the human condition has been crucified with him, so that the life that was corruptible might be brought to an end and that we might no longer be in bondage to the seductive power of corruption. Now the one who has died [with the Anointed] has been freed from the seductive power of corruption. And if we really died with the Anointed, we are confident that we will also live with him, since we know that, because the Anointed has been raised from the dead, he is not going to die again; death no longer has any power over him. When he died he died to the lure of corrupting power once and for all, but the life he lived he lives to God. In the same way you must think of yourselves as if you were dead to the appeal of corrupting power, but as alive to God in solidarity with the Anointed Jesus.
Don’t allow the seductive power of corruption to reign over your earthly life inducing you to submit to worldly desires. Don’t put any part of your body at the disposal of that power as an instrument for doing wrong, but put yourselves at God’s disposal as people who have been brought to life from the dead and present your bodies to God as instruments for doing right. Romans 6:4-14, Scholars Version.
These paragraphs must not be read with the old understanding. Jesus died. Jesus has been seriously dead for about 2,000 years now. The idea that he was raised from the dead does not mean a resuscitated corpse that walks the earth today like a zombie. Paul did not mean that either. What Paul meant was that God raised Jesus from the realm of the dead, where God does not exist, into God’s presence. The metaphor may be problematic for 21st century realists; however the point is that when we are baptized into Jesus’ Way, we die to the normal ways that human beings relate to one another. We die to retributive injustice, and rise into radical fairness.
Baptism in most Christian churches has become the welcoming of a new baby into the community. Beautiful ceremonies for “child dedication” have been devised, that express the hope, the possibility, the potential for transformation, in the tiny new life, and in the lives of those in charge of that new life. We certainly invest a great deal of longing for transformation in the commemoration of the birth of Jesus every year. We should not stop doing these things.
But look at the symbolism in Matthew’s story. When Jesus appears along with the rest of the people, John recognizes his specialness. Why would the son of God need baptism? But Jesus says, “we are doing what is fitting and right.” Even the holiest and most devout of community members participate in the Baptist’s call for repentance. The writer of Matthew’s gospel would probably not go so far as to read into his scene the human condition: Everyone is in need of purification. No one can maintain that radical covenantal life all the time, not even the Anointed one himself. As the gospels tell us and Paul warns, the seductive power of corruption – the “normalcy of civilization,” as John Dominic Crossan puts it – surrounds us and can define us if we do not keep watch.
Baptism then becomes a two-fold process. It is a sacrament first of welcome into the world, and a celebration of potential. Second, baptism is a rite of passage into responsible life: a sacrament for initiation into the great work of distributive justice-compassion, sought and accepted by those willing to dedicate themselves to that work.