Thursday, 9 January 2014

The heavens are opened

So. We arrive at the Baptism of Christ. We leave behind angels and dreams, shepherds and wise men, stable and census, and with the Baptism of Christ we arrive at history in the life of Jesus. We can be sure, I suggest, of two things: that John the Baptist existed; and that Jesus came and was baptized by him.

The existence and mission of the Baptist is attested not just by the gospels, but also by the Jewish historian Josephus. And Jesus’s baptism is recorded in the gospel according to Mark and that of Matthew; Luke briefly mentions it, and though John manages to get away without any explicit statement, he does relate the build-up and the aftermath.

In the accounts in Mark and Matthew, after his baptism Jesus sees the heavens open and the Spirit descend on him. In Luke the vision becomes an event seen by all; in the fourth gospel the Baptist himself has this vision as a witness to Jesus as Messiah.

Presumably Jesus had heard report of the Baptist and, perhaps with others, travelled out to see and hear him. And having seen and heard he was immersed in the water, just like many of the others who saw and heard. The synoptic gospels tell us this was a moment of great spiritual significance for Jesus. With the vision of the descent of the Spirit, perhaps it is at this point that Jesus decides to abandon his former life as a carpenter in Nazareth. Presumably he becomes a disciple of the Baptist, retreating into the wilderness for reflection and self-examination, and joining John in baptizing in the river Jordan.

And then John is arrested and is incarcerated in Herod’s prison and will soon meet his death at Herod’s whim. He was not the first person to fall victim to the wrath of a tyrant, and nor was he the last. A roll call of victims and prisoners of conscience would number in the tens of millions in the twentieth century alone. The list of current news stories at Amnesty International includes not just all the usual suspects — our own proud western democracies are not always beyond reproach either. The image at the top of this piece shows a detail of the ‘prisoners of conscience’ window at the east end of Salisbury Cathedral, where every day prayers are said for those held around the world. Let us too hold these people in our prayers and work for their freedom and the improvement of their lot. Let the oppressed go free.

Jesus meanwhile ‘withdraws’ (Matthew 4.12) to Galilee — very probably it was no longer safe for anyone linked to the Baptist to be in Herod’s territory. Luke tells us that Jesus’s first public act on his return to Galilee is to read in the synagogue at Nazareth:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

If this is historical, then is it too much to see it as an expectation by Jesus that in this year of the Lord’s favour the captive Baptist will be released — and that this is happening now? Not surprising that his message was not received favourably and he was driven out.

But with the arrest and decrease of the Baptist, it is time for Jesus to increase and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, the imminence of the kingdom of God. A kingdom based not on austerity or retreat to the wilderness but on justice for the oppressed and life in all its fullness. Here we are invited to sit and feast, accepted and welcomed into fellowship with the divine. In the subsequent ministry of Jesus baptism does not seem to be a prerequisite to ritual purity and to acceptance into the society of the ritually pure. Instead Jesus tells people their sins are already forgiven, and he accepts them without further ritual into society with him, sitting at table together and breaking bread.

Is it any wonder that it was these remarkable meals of Jesus that his followers continued — and that they continued to recognize his presence at the breaking of the bread? In this ritual we sit and eat at God’s table, and we break bread with our fellows, forgiving them the wrongs they have done us and receiving their forgiveness for the wrongs we have done them; and as we break bread together we recognize still the presence of Jesus, the incarnate Word.

And this begins with the baptism of Christ: the year of the Lord’s favour is now.

Simon Kershaw is one of the founders of Thinking Anglicans

Posted by Simon Kershaw on Thursday, 9 January 2014 at 5:00pm GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking
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A brilliant homily, Simon. So good, in fact, that I'm taking the liberty of putting it up, with due ascription, on my own blog-site at kiwianglo.

Kalo Epiphania!

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Thursday, 9 January 2014 at 8:19pm GMT

Thank you to Simon Kershaw for his beautifully written "The heavens are opened" I will use it as a private meditation as well because it is such a truly fine homily.

Posted by: Chris Smith on Thursday, 9 January 2014 at 9:29pm GMT

"The existence and mission of the Baptist is attested not just by the gospels, but also by the Jewish historian Josephus."

I was under the impression that the extant texts of Josephus are not to be trusted re *anything* related to Jesus? [OCICBW]

Posted by: JCF on Friday, 10 January 2014 at 4:27am GMT

Not only a thought provoking and stimulating homily but also a beautiful work of art in the form of a detail from the Salisbury cathedral stained glass window. See how it greatly enhances the blog! Let's have more visual images on the Thinking Anglicans website for they do say that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Posted by: Father David on Friday, 10 January 2014 at 9:30am GMT

Interesting. Does this amount to saying then that Jesus was wrong? The Baptist and he expected an imminent end to the known world (why the Romans, who'd be removed from oppressing, would have had reason to kill him as head of a small following) and they were wrong. Also, is not the acceptance of the ritually poor in fact linked to healing - they were healed and told to sin no more - and thus a belief in ill-health and demons. The piece here also suggests a practical view of 'resurrection', that is presence in the meal, which would have been the early Christians' ritual focus while they had decided Jesus was the one to return and were waiting for him to return. Which, of course, he didn't.

Posted by: Pluralist on Friday, 10 January 2014 at 4:57pm GMT

JCF: "I was under the impression that the extant texts of Josephus are not to be trusted re *anything* related to Jesus?" ...

I'm no scholar on any of this, and have to rely on reading scholarly accounts or accounts of their accounts, but I think there is a difference in what scholars think about the mentions of Jesus in Josephus and what they think about the 'John the Baptist' passage.

It's easy to do a web search which will find pages doubting the Baptist passage -- but it's even easier to find statements such as "almost all modern scholars consider this passage to be authentic in its entirety" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus#John_the_Baptist -- yes, not the most scholarly of references, but so far as I can see the statement does appear to be true. [Like you, OCICBW]

Posted by: Simon Kershaw on Friday, 10 January 2014 at 9:52pm GMT

Pluralist: 'Jesus was wrong' -- naturally. This isn't particularly revolutionary, is it? Jesus was fully human and not omniscient. So he wouldn't have known the result of the 4.30 at Newmarket next Wednesday, say, nor that infectious diseases can be caused by micro-organisms. So, no reason to be surprised if he got things wrong too. Of course, this particular scenario is speculation heaped on speculation (my own speculation that this quote might refer to the Baptist, on top of the assumption that Jesus did read this passage on his return from the Jordan).

Posted by: Simon Kershaw on Sunday, 12 January 2014 at 8:16pm GMT

Pluralist -- re the link between healing and forgiveness ... the gospels do portray this in some cases, but not in others. For example, he eats with tax gatherers who would have been ritually unclean. And some healings are not linked to demons. For example, the ten lepers in Luke 17 are just healed and told to show themselves to the priest, and there is no suggestion of any exorcism.

Posted by: Simon Kershaw on Sunday, 12 January 2014 at 8:21pm GMT

Pluralist comments on resurrection -- that is going further than I explicitly did. I was particularly thinking of eucharistic presence. The question of to what extent the eucharistic presence and the resurrection presence might be considered to overlap is an interesting one, but not one I was tackling!

But the key points I was suggesting were to trace a plausible historical narrative, and from that to draw out the message of the kingdom preached by Jesus (summarized here as 'freedom for the oppressed and life in all its fullness') and its applicability today, especially in the context of this continuing series of 'just thinking' posts which have been appearing on Thinking Anglicans since the blog began. http://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/archives/000282.html

Posted by: Simon Kershaw on Sunday, 12 January 2014 at 8:30pm GMT

Point taken on healing; point overlapped yes regarding resurrection and 'history' there - my view, if it matters, is resurrection is a legitimising matter for leadership and right belief (though it was variable then!) and it was just as important to have the ascension to tell early Christians why there were no more legitimate resurrection appearances (after all, people have been 'seeing Jesus' ever since and still do).

But it is odd, this, about the deity, the full God the Son, when the God the Son does not know future-wise what God the Father presumably knows, should you believe in it. In order to be 'fully human' the deity ends up not being 'fully God'.

Unitarians and Reformation Arians used to bang on about this for a few centuries but now it seems trinitarian to have a deity that is limited when human.

To be honest, classical Unitarianism is pretty dead these days, as in that preached by Joseph Priestley, which accepted Jesus as chosen, a miracle worker, as resurrected, but not even Arian in a Reformed sense never mind the original sense. But I can't understand this orthodoxy that you present that clearly cannot run with the fully man fully God tag. He was just a Jewish rabbi with some ethical reversals and a lot of supernatural beliefs, many of which are of a mindset and culture that we today simply cannot understand. Basically, you're all forms of Christian Unitarians but you won't admit it - your devotions cloud over what is undermined by modernity. (Discuss)

Posted by: Pluralist on Monday, 13 January 2014 at 1:58pm GMT

Thanks Pluralist.

There's a lot to be said for Chalcedonian orthodoxy on the nature of Christ. Fully human, fully divine; but one person, one mind. Within the constraints of a human brain and mind that must mean limited knowledge, limited capacity, with divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, etc) laid aside. Still the Word of God through whom the universe came into being, but uniquely focused in a particular human being, and working in that limited human life through human ways and human thoughts.

That's not Unitarian. It is trying to understand and make sense of and restate the classic Chalcedonian definition within our 21st-century knowledge and ways of thinking.

There's another, different, discussion to be had about just what can be understood by 'the Word of God through whom the universe came into being' etc. http://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/archives/002818.html -- which you commented on at the time too.

Posted by: Simon Kershaw on Monday, 13 January 2014 at 4:21pm GMT

I thought, oh leave it there. What's the point of saying, well, Chalcedonian via 21st century thinking (if such is possible) equals non-Chalcedonian nineteenth century thinking.

And then, rereading it, you have the fully man limited, fully God, 'through whom the universe came into being'.

How does that work then? So this, the word, Jesus Christ, sets the universe into being, and creates it (it's his job), through which, on a pale blue dot, an asteroid knocks out dinosaurs, little mammals succeed, human beings come about (evolution is chaotic, it is local, specific and unplanned) and then this second person of the trinity pays us a visit as fully man fully God.

Can I suggest that, actually, twenty first century thinking, or even later nineteenth, doesn't fit with the Chalcedonian, and it is in fact a form of nonsense to try and join the two together?

Posted by: Pluralist on Tuesday, 14 January 2014 at 7:40pm GMT

Pluralist -- did you actually read the text linked in my previous comment? From your reply I infer that you perhaps didn't.

Posted by: Simon Kershaw on Tuesday, 14 January 2014 at 11:12pm GMT

I admit, I read the comments without reading the piece. Apologies. I also looked at my own comment and didn't understand my own comment.

Well, now I have read the piece. I still don't get it. This is a sort of interpretive, subjective association of one kind of thought to another.

After Darwin's biology book came out, people started applying the idea to just about everything, including society and the cosmos. To update this, the cosmos, like biological evolution, is also a chaotic system, that is the chaos is local and specific, and unpredictable, and the systemic is only how what results inter-relates afterwards. This twenty first century thinking does not match the given doctrinal system you are defending creatively.

But your creative intention in the cosmos is pretty close to nineteenth and much twentieth century Unitarianism, who also took their inspiration from John's Gospel and similar, in their view (mistaken, if via chaos theory) that there was an intentional aspect in active creation pointed to by these Gospel accounts and the rest of the Bible.

All I'm saying is that the relative positions have shifted, and my nineteenth century forebears would have said 'Welcome to the Unitarians, friend' and your Trinitarians would have said, 'Well that ain't a sufficient account to fit in with the eternal revelation the Church discovered in 325 and 351 etc.' Your doctrinal standards have slipped.

Posted by: Pluralist on Wednesday, 15 January 2014 at 6:30am GMT

I wonder if 'Pluralist' has ever heard of the term 'kenosis'? This is generally associated with the self-limitation of the human Jesus on the occasion of his Incarnation: "Jesus chose" the limitation, because, as fully divine, he was able to. That renders the exercise of kenosis even more meaningful to us followers of Jesus.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Wednesday, 15 January 2014 at 8:08am GMT

Rather a smug comment by Ron Smith. Of course Adrian has heard of "kenosis," even without benefit of an expensive seminary education. *I've* heard the term, with a BA in English and 60 years in Anglican pews. Nevertheless, giving it a Greek label doesn't solve the practical and logical problems of a fully human person also being Almighty God. *When* did Jesus choose the limitation? Not in the flesh, and sperm-egg biology isn't open to pre-existence. How is Ron Smith so familiar with the event? Like most (all) of theology, it's reasoning and explication within a traditional narrative -- no connection to material world experience necessary. Theological discussion was assumed to be about Reality until Galileo, Newton, and Darwin showed that reality could be approached by evidence. Where's the evidence for theology? It's all arm-chair (monk's cell) speculation, based on traditions whose origins are lost. Useful for expressing values (how one lives is one's theology), but irrelevant to every-day concerns. People are still looking for beauty and community, but the church's story appeals to fewer and fewer.

Posted by: murdoch on Friday, 17 January 2014 at 1:40am GMT

"The message of the kingdom" seems to have got lost in the doctrinal nit picking, not for the first time in the history of the church. Is it because the Christian life as described in Simon's last 2 paragraphs is just too much of a challenge?

Posted by: Helen on Monday, 20 January 2014 at 11:51pm GMT
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