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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before January 10, 2016

Luke 3:15-22

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

What I Am Learning:

Yesterday a member of St. Philip's asked a very good question: What's the difference between a cult and a religion?

I answered that a genuine religion proposes a system of meaning that encourages the dignity of all people, and supports the power and calling of each person as a part of the whole. Religions tend to see power as "power with others."

Cults or authoritarian forms of religion, on the other hand, tend to use fear of retribution, fear of the other, and propose that the power really belongs to a leader and that the role of followers is to give the leader their power. Authoritarian forms of religion tend to see power as "power over others."

The passage this weeks shows a contrast between these two. We see Herod using his "power over others" to put John in prison and try to stop a renewal movement among the People of Israel that John was leading.

John on the other hand was baptizing people, giving them a fresh start and a renewed vision for how to love God and how to love their neighbor as themselves. He was trying to call people back to their authentic power, and their power with others to bring about change in Roman Occupied Palestine.

But then the passage becomes, possibly, a bit confusing. The passage focuses on Jesus who when he was baptized and was praying, had "the Holy Spirit descend upon him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice comes from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

This could sound like an authoritarian form of religion, as it focuses the reader of the text on Jesus' identity and unique calling. We could easily be confused and assume that the passage is about Jesus having all the power and the rest of us only contributing our power to his.

We could only read it this way if we didn't know the background of the quotes.

The text does say something about Jesus' identity and his unique calling. But it also says that his identity and unique calling were intended to clarify everyone's power and evoke everyone's calling.

As I have said before, the quote from the "voice from heaven" is a mashup of two passages in the Hebrew Scripture:  Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42.

Psalm 2 is a coronation Psalm in which the community prays that the king will be an ideal and faithful child of God, among all the other children of God. In the Psalm, God calls the new king "my son" as the king was being anointed with oil. This implied both status but also responsibility. If you are the king then you would need to respect the dignity of all the other children of God in the kingdom.

The use of this Psalm by "the voice" makes the claim that Jesus is the Messiah or "anointed one" - he is the rightful king of Israel who has come to renew Israel.

The second half of the quote comes from Isaiah 42. This is one of the suffering servant songs in Isaiah. Isaiah proposes that the way to get out of Babylon is to engage in nonviolent resistance to the Babylonian system and to suffer as the result of this. This strategy, while not risk free, has the possibility of changing the hearts of the Babylonians who might begin to recognize the human dignity of the People of Israel. Instead of trying to get power over the Babylonians, the suffering servant would try for partnership, for power with them.

The use of this suffering servant song makes the claim that Jesus would be a messiah of partnership, of power with others instead of power over them.

In Jesus we see a God who in Jesus helps us to see who we are, to see the potential in each one of us and the potential of our collective action. In Jesus we see a God who respects our dignity, who seeks to empower our unique callings, who tries to draw us together to form the "beloved community."

If the story stopped with Jesus being baptized, the Holy Spirit alighting on him, and the voice from heaven speaking about him, then it would be only about Jesus' power and unique identity. But it doesn't stop there. Jesus' baptism became a new beginning for his people, and for us who find our life in his life.

This story today draws our attention to the day of Pentecost in which the Holy Spirit comes to each of the disciples and to our baptism in which the Holy Spirit alights on each of us daily.

While some try to use Jesus' story as the basis for their authoritarian religion, their cult of personality, their power over others or the giving of power to another, this is not what Luke is encouraging. Luke's people had seen enough of this in Herod.

So the question is: who are you and how are you called to live out love for God and neighbor?

This is the question that Jesus is asking us. He can't wait to see what we will do. We trust that his power flows through all our lives.