It is difficult for me to find a path into this week’s readings. They seem patriarchal and colonising (God will give other countries as hostages to ransom you chosen privileged ones) and alienating. I can see the modern-day fundamentalists standing and cheering at this week’s images of powers that seem almost magical, charismatic male leaders and the chosenness and power of baptism. Because the readings can and have been read like this, it is very important to come back with a more liberative reading of a tradition we dare not ignore.
I myself was brought up with the idea of baptism as sacred but I remember my son at age five asking me what God’s attitude was to one of his friends who wasn’t bapitsed. I didn’t know what to say, but I couldn’t imagine that god throws out the unbaptised like rubbish, nor that we should desperately pray that they can be “saved” by a priest throwing water on them. I floundered.
“God is everywhere”, I told my son, “Every shower of rain is a baptism if you love the earth and love all people, every swim with friends is baptism, every bath or shower. We don’t know at which point a person goes under the water and comes out into God but it isn’t just for church people, God loves everyone.” It must be obvious where the flaws in my oversimplified answer are and I don’t offer it as an adult understanding of baptism, but simply a starting point. How do we take the recent epiphany on board as we return into more formalistic, ritualistic ideas of church? How do we broaden and deepen ideas of “church” and “sacrament” to be as large as the all catching, all nurturing grace of the real God (as opposed to some stiff church icon).
John in the gospel today is speaking with much better humility than the priests and leaders of our church usually manage. He offers a baptism in water, a symbol of repentance and a door into a greater and more mysterious reality. But John knows that he is not the Messiah and that his ritual of baptism is not the real or only baptism. John’s celebration of what we have later come to understand as “sacrament” is merely an entry point into something deeper and uncontrolled by him. He is not a gatekeeper for Christ who may also act on his own behalf.
Jesus also comes into the scene with humility. If we wish to find in here an individualistic and wholly independent model of faith we can be disappointed. Noone more so that Jesus could see beyong the limits of the church or could criticise the flaws of the church. And yet Jesus does not reject John’s baptism. Jesus finds within church, within his connections and following of imperfect people and their imperfect rituals a place of encounter with God and here God acts to seal and proclaim Jesus’ unique ministry. Maybe here is part of the answer why I so strongly feel called and tricked back into the church by a compassionate yet persistently nagging God. When we allow ourselves the pride of “giving up” on the church what good do we really achieve? Do we run off and start a dazzling ministry of our own? Generally no, in my atheist and anti-church phases I have turned to hedonism and escapism and individualism. Imperfect though our families are we cling to them in a difficult mixture of love, loyalty, duty and exasperation. The church also is one such family and we are called to transform it through struggle not to drop out and disengage.
Having said that, I feel that I have done the right thing by finding the most resisting and least oppressive pocket of the church that I can and hiding within that. Within the mainstream church I am supposed to act as if I have no vocation beyond the capacity to bear children (and not even that since my marriage ended)…the mainstream church is like a bushel placed over the light of many woman, to stop their vocation shining for the world. I regularly watch how one of my friends whose call is apparent to anyone comes up against the repressive and hurtfully silencing might of the church and I feel no envy for someone still battling that after all these years.
I would rather lurk on the margins and minister to people like me who are also marginal and somewhat bitter. I am at the point where it is easier for me to see sacrament in a three year old passing me a bowl of rice than in any ritual involving an ordained “father”. This Sunday is a challenge to people like me poised on the margins of the church like stray cats ready to fell back into the shadows beyond the margins. It is also a challenge to the church not to take the easy path of seeing this week’s readings as rubber-stamping the privilege and authority of the church elites but to be like John and avoid that narcissm and humbly refrain from even claiming to undo the strap of the sandal of the real reality.
The Christian life done properly is ALWAYS ministry. Will we ever see a church that looks at the priesthood of every single believer and says: “you are my daughter, my beloved; in you I am well pleased.” God asks us to accept and affirm them all, “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”