What is Jesus doing?

I have a small humidifier for my guitar. I combine special crystals with distilled water in a small tube that I insert between the strings. This helps prevent the hardwood casing of the guitar from cracking and splitting. I need to keep filling the small tube with water at least once a week during the dry months of winter to preserve the wood.

At this time of year in Canada, especially under the influence of a continental climate, the air is dry. Very. But we don’t even notice or think about it. The only way I know it’s really dry when it’s so cold is my skin is itchy and my hands get cracked and rough. Also, a device at home tells me the humidity levels are quite low around 20-30%. Not only does our skin pay the price in dry conditions, our organs internally need hydration. So, we have to drink more water.

It’s hard to imagine, but we can actually be dehydrated in the winter. And these conditions are not overtly noticeable, really. Unless we pay attention to our skin or check the humidistat, it’s not apparent.

When we consider faith, or spirituality, we enter into a level of awareness similar to our awareness of water around us, or lack thereof. It’s not immediately nor easily perceptible where the water is or goes.

When we approach a problem or a challenge in life with the good intention of bringing our faith to bear on it, we must first uncover our way of thinking about it. Because how we think about it influences the choices we make.

Here are a couple ways of thinking that we are usually not aware of, in the choices and decisions we make. These are ways of thinking that the Gospel for today exposes.[1]

First, underneath all our words and actions often lurks the virus of dualism. ‘Dual’ means, two: Either/Or, This or That; This belongs and That doesn’t belong. This mental strategy exists just below the level of consciousness, and is ingrained in our western thinking especially since the Enlightenment and Reformation. This way of thinking has dominated our approach to faith, even though it was not the way of thinking of those who first scribed the biblical stories.

For example, John the Baptist in the Gospel story today says that he baptizes with water but the one coming after him will baptize with Spirit and fire.[2]We may comprehend this dualistically, suggesting that Jesus was not going to use water in his baptismal ministry. We then interpret this is as: In Christian baptism, water is irrelevant, unnecessary. After all, if Jesus, Son of God, won’t baptize with water, why should we? … and so on and so on.

You see how dualism creeps into our encounter with Scripture? It doesn’t help, then, that nowhere in the New Testament do we see Jesus performing anybaptisms, let alone with water, Spirit or fire.

When we get up in-the-head with these Gospel texts, we easily can get ourselves into a twisted, confused state. We start fighting amongst ourselves over right-thinking, doctrine and the efficacy of baptism. The church divides and we see in the history, especially after the Reformation, a proliferation of denominations. And how well has dividing-over-doctrine worked for us?

But, what if the solution lies in another way of thinking? It’s interesting that in our thinking that can go astray in this Gospel text, we do get some helpful cues to help us out of the quagmire of dualism:

“Repent!” is John the Baptist’s primary message which we see clearly in the other Gospels,[3]and earlier in the Gospel of Luke.[4]The Greek word, metanoia, translated as “repent”, literally means ‘to change your mind’. Then Saint Paul comes along and instructs, “Be transformed by a renewal of your mind.”[5]So, repentance does not start by changing bad habits, or feeling guilty for bad behaviour. Repentance is not fundamentally moralistic.

First, repentance means changing our way of thinking about a problem. Repentance means looking at a challenge in a completely different way from the way you’ve always thought about it. The message of repentance is about nurturing a healthy self-critique about your thought-process, and changing it. Once the mind is changed, hopefully the heart will soon follow.

So, from this text, what if it’s not either/or but both/and? What if water, fire and Spirit were all important aspects of our experience and expression of baptism in Christ? And nothing was being excluded from the mix?

Because from the story of creation in the book of Genesis, the Spirit hovers over the water and God speaks to create. So, in Baptism the ‘word’ and ‘water’ are vehicles of God to create something new in you.[6]

We don’t often think about our need for water, especially in a country like Canada where fresh drinking water abounds. After all, over 60% of our bodies are made up of water and most of this planet is covered by water. How can we take it for granted? How can we not see it?

Water, in its various states—frozen, liquid, gas—is integral to all of creation. It is pervasive. We cannot get away from it, or remove ourselves somehow from its all-encompassing reality. We cannot divide it out, easily. It cannot exist, apart from anything else in the natural world. Water connects all things. And we can only participate in its existence within and all around us. We belong to it; it belongs to us.

Often when the Baptism of our Lord comes up in the church calendar, we immediately think this story must primarily be about our baptism. Here is another way of thinking that we don’t usually uncover: a lifestyle that places the ultimate onus on us, individually.

So, this story gives us license, we presume, to make it all about us: our faith, our work, our sin, our need to somehow earn God’s favour by seeking out baptism or proving the worthiness of our faith. The upshot of this story of Jesus’ baptism must, therefore, mean we need to imitate Jesus as best as we can.

But what about asking another question? Instead of the popular question, “What would Jesus do?”, what about asking, “What is Jesus doing?”[7]

The first question—What would Jesus do?— assumes that the Savior is on the sidelines of our lives and that the burden of life and work is on our shoulders. When we seek to imitate Jesus’ life, we presume the Savior is not really saving but is setting impossibly high standards that we attempt to imitate by doing what we assume he would do if he were in our situation.

But to be clear, we do not imitate the Savior’s life; we participate in it. In first century context, this Gospel story has less to do with the nature of Jesus and more with his purpose.[8]

“What is Jesus doing?” is built on the conviction that he is alive, reigning, and at work in our lives. In other words, he is in our situation. And that changes everything, first about our thinking then also our mission. Instead of believing that the work of Christ is done-and-over and that now it is our turn to try to imitate his life and work, we take on the identity of being witnesses who watch and testify to his continued work of salvation that is unfolding before our eyes.

Obviously, Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, cross, and resurrection make up the decisive turning point in the great drama of salvation. But the Kingdom is still coming. And it doesn’t come through ourefforts at doing Christ’s work. It comes through the ongoing ministry of the ascended and reigning Son of God, who completes his own work through the Holy Spirit so that we may participate in what Jesus is doing.[9]

Not, what would Jesus do. Rather, what is Jesus doing.

So, Baptism gives us a physical assurance that our final destiny is no longer determined by the brokenness of our world and lives and twisted ways of thinking. Baptism gives us a physical assurance that our final destiny is the realm of God already breaking in all around us. Baptism is an invisible mark initiating us into a community that anticipates the fullness of God’s kingdom.[10]Baptism calls us to pay attention to what Jesus is doing all around us, like water.

God’s voice from heaven identifies Jesus as God’s son, in whom God is well pleased. The Baptism of our Lord is not what we are about, but about what God is up to in Jesus. If anything, this text calls us to choose how we will align ourselves with the purposes of God in Christ, in the world around us today.

To that end, when we love others, when we have mercy on others, when we show compassion, and affirm all people and creation—these are worthy strategies to align ourselves with what God is doing to make everything belong.

May the grace of God, like water, wash us and surround us in hope and in thanksgiving for all that belongs to God.

 

[1]Luke 3:15-17,21-22; Baptism of our Lord, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary

[2]Luke 3:16

[3]For example, see Matthew 3:1-2 and Mark 1:4

[4]Luke 3:8

[5]Romans 12:2

[6]Donald W. Johnson, Praying the Catechism  (Augsburg Fortress, 2008)

[7]M.Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Grand Rapids Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), p.59.

[8]Ronald J. Allen, “Commentary on Luke 3:15-17,21-22” in workpreacher.org for January 13, 2019

[9]Barnes,ibid.

[10]Ibid.

Part B

I don’t have many bad memories from my youth. But recurring is one from exam time in highschool. This memory brings back desperate feelings of failure, despair, and shame. The exam was for a history or English course. And it was only a one-pager!

I recall sitting down in the large gymnasium at the start of the exam period looking down at the simple Part A question, and thinking to myself: ‘I got this one in the bag!’ Instead of writing my answer down on that page underneath the question, I wrote down about five pages on extra sheets I asked from the exam moderator. Usually, I took the entire allotted time to write my exams. I remember, however, with this one I finished much earlier.

After checking over my in-depth and complete answer, feeling satisfied and even smug with my work, I signed off on it and left the room with a hop in my step. I felt confident that I had performed to my usual high level of competency in a subject matter that I liked.

You might imagine the horror I felt shortly thereafter when I learned from others why it was that I happened to finish so early.

“Martin,” a friend asked me, “What did you write for the Part B question?”

“Part B?!!”

“Yeah, on the second page.” 

Alas! The one-pager was double-sided. I didn’t think to turn the question sheet over to do Part B. I had only completed the first half — Part A — of the exam. I didn’t finish the entire test. I. Was. Doomed.

In the Gospel for today (John 6:51-58), Jesus uses carnal language that borders on the cannabalistic. “Eat my flesh. Drink my blood.” What are we to make of this arresting, vivid, corporeal language?

Well, the Pharisees have an answer. But theirs is the usual mind-tripping, logical finagling. They take everything literally! “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they ask. This style of intellectual, rational mind-gaming is reminiscent of when earlier Jesus spoke of being born again — and again the Pharisee Nicodemus gets trapped in his head: “How can a man go back a second time into his mother’s womb and be born again?” (John 3:1-4).

The Gospel of John and especially this text (6:51-58) evokes images of ingesting, chewing, and gulping — and relates this to our relationship in Christ Jesus. Language like this pervades the Gospel, right from its inaugural, tone setting words: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14).

The Word is not just a doctrine or idea. The Word is not just a mental picture that we frame with rational explanations, logical arguments and eloquent words about Jesus. That is only Part A.

There’s a Part B that needs to be completed in order to get at the fullness of truth of Jesus relating to us and the world God creates. When we talk of Christian theology and even Christian discipleship, we must go beyond saying: “Let’s follow Jesus” or merely have conversations about Jesus, or think about Jesus, or construct nice ideas about Jesus. 

We must learn to confess that Jesus not only wants our thoughts, Jesus wants all of me/us — every aspect of our lives including our bodies, our exercise, our diets, our play, our work, our relationships. Jesus wants more than our Sunday mornings. He wants Friday night and Wednesday morning as well. A local church had this message on their front-lawn sign last week: “Jesus doesn’t want weekend visits; he wants full custody.” 

Worship is only Part A. Part B is when we walk out that door when worship is over. If our prayers and songs and statements of faith during worship on Sunday morning — as glorious and uplifting and inspiring as they may be — do not translate into meaningful, concrete action consistent with our faith Monday through Saturday, then our worship is really, in the words of Saint Paul, “a noisy gong or clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthian 13:1). The Psalmist confesses to God: For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17)

“People often daydream, and even share their fantasies, about what they would do if they won the lottery. Still, most people choose to keep their money in their wallet. In response, lotteries south of the border run commercials reminding us, ‘You can’t win if you don’t play.’ In a sense, Jesus is saying something very similar: ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’ (v.56). In these verses, Jesus demands more than intellectual assent, more than fantasies of eternal life. Jesus asks for high-stakes, all-in participation, here and now.” (Sundays and Seasons, Augsburg Fortress, 2014, p.261) Jesus wants all of me. Part A and Part B.

I still passed the course, both because I did well during the term on assignments and such; and, because I passed the exam with a 50% score. Even though I messed up and had my blinders on, even though I did not complete the expectations of the exam, I could count on the grace of the instructor.

You see, I did not get a perfect score on Part A. Close, but not perfect. I should have therefore failed the exam. But the instructor knew me. Knew me well. And she knew I deserved to pass the grade. Despite my mistake, I still got credit for the course.

Where there is suffering in the real world. Where there is blood spilled and bodies broken. Perhaps it did take the Christian movement some centuries to work through their natural repulsion against the unadorned cross — an instrument of torture and death — to finally embrace the Cross as the central symbol of our faith. Because there is an important point to it.

That is where Christ is, in our lives and in the world. And it is there that we must go to find Jesus in the faces of those bloodied by war, by displacement, by injustice and violence — in whatever kind. It is there that we must go to witness by our giving and our own brokeness the truth and hope of the Gospel. It is there that we must go. The life stronger than death that God gives to the world in Jesus Christ always comes to us “in the flesh” and blood sufferings of the present time. It is there we must turn the page, and go.

Part B.
Lord, you have searched me out; O Lord, you have known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting places, and are acquainted with all my ways. Indeed, there is not a word on my lips but, O Lord, know it altogether. You encompass me, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast. (Psalm 139:1-10)

  

Amen.