Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Copying the Christ

Scripture for the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany includes Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11

“Into what then were you baptized?”

Paul’s question just begs to be used by the preacher today.

But first, did you hear about the association of 3000 file-sharers in Sweden who successfully petitioned the Swedish government to be declared a religion? Every week, they encourage their members to gather to share music files, video files, whatever—they consider their files to be holy, and they consider copying to be a sacrament. Their 20-year-old leader announced last week the success of their petition, and the name of their religious movement: Koptimism.

Into what then were you baptized?

In fact, Christian baptism , to a large degree, encourages—even mandates—copying. The same words constitute the same covenant, each time the sacrament is administered. What has stood the test of time by demonstrating fidelity to the vision and teaching and Spirit of God in Jesus Christ remains the standard to which members of his body are held, not by the requirement of law but by grateful response to gift, by grace. Mystical expression is given to this central process of imitation in the question and answer in the baptism of a child: “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ? …I will, with God’s help.”

Into what then were you baptized? Paul needed to ask that question because God’s Spirit was causing the earliest Christian movement to evolve, and Paul would be among its catalysts and midwives. But into what would the Jesus movement develop? In the encounter we heard today, he had found in Ephesus a small house church of a dozen or so disciples of Jesus who apparently had first been disciples of John the Baptizer. Notice how quick they are to describe their baptismal experience as being John’s baptism.

Without demeaning that experience, Paul simply tells them that as strong a foundation as John’s baptism was, baptism in the name of Jesus Christ does more for people. That could sound arrogant, but the utter simplicity of Paul’s language suggests that he is dealing with facts on the ground.

Fact: the movement led by John the Baptizer preceded Jesus’s public ministry—more accurately, the Jesus movement overlapped the John the Baptizer movement and may be said to have come out of it. The Baptizer’s movement was so significant that it is where we first meet Jesus in the Gospels of Mark and John. While the opening salvo in Luke and Matthew is the dramatic birth at Bethlehem, what reveals Jesus as Son of God in Mark and John is his baptism by John the Baptist.

Fact: John’s baptism called people to repent of their greed, their me-first-ism, their brutality, their cynical going-along-with-the-crowd. John’s baptism called them to repentance and to ethical awakening, persuading them that the prophetic call to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God was the divine call to them, was within their reach, and to reach for this God-given power would save them and their society from its worst fate. John’s baptism was a wake-up call to confront a corrupt culture by daring to recognize and take best ethical choices.

Fact: John got specific about that. When he preached to the crowds, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!” they shouted back, “What should we do?” “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Act like family, especially with strangers; where there is need, meet it and meet in return the coming of the kingdom of God.

When tax collectors came to be baptized and asked John what they should do, he didn’t miss a beat: “Collect no more than what the law allows.” Soldiers likewise, when they were still wet from the Jordan, heard this challenge: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Wouldn’t you love to see God send John the Baptizer to Washington, to our members of Congress and then down to K Street for a chat with the lobbyists?

Fact: John knew his place, knew his role to be an agent of change. He was not the One, capital O, to be believed-in, trusted for all time as Savior and Messiah. John made it clear that this anointed One was coming, and John wasn’t worthy even to wash his feet. Which is a way of saying what Paul communicates to that little gang in Ephesus: What you hear first when you are baptized in Christ is not what you must do or must stop doing; first, you hear what God in Christ is doing for you, and that is giving you the very Spirit that unites the heart of God with the heart of Jesus, the very Spirit that makes Jesus who he is. Out of that incalculable gift flow all sorts of ethical promptings and passions, yet what is primarily happening in baptism is that God is giving God’s own self to people; and out of that inestimable gift flow spiritual gifts, spiritual powers, and these are what unite people to comprehend and practice not their own self-invented missions in life, but to imitate the great mission of God, to restore all people to unity with one another and with God.

Paul has a shorthand way of summing-up all that by asking, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” “We’ve never heard of that,” they replied. What lies behind Paul’s question is his confidence that his calling, his part in the mission of God, is to make sure that people aim high enough—and deep enough—in identifying who it is they are to emulate, and what it is they are to copy.

Into what then were you baptized? Into an association of file-sharers who say the same prayers and sing the same hymns and copy cultural customs that they consider to be holy?

If we’re tempted to think that Koptimism misses the mark of religion, let’s keep making sure that our association in the name of Christ aims higher and deeper. Let’s consider more critically the cultural copying we do in the name of being Episcopalians, and put to the test of God’s central mission our beautiful liturgy, our comfortable words, our familiar agendas and ways of doing things, saying things, accumulating things.

Because, in case we haven’t noticed, the world is not beating a path to our door. And, judged by how we’re inclined to spend our time and our money, the path the church beats towards the world is too often paved with good intentions, and our GPS too often programed to keep us on familiar pathways while the central mission of God mandates our embrace of unfamiliar ways to reach, say, twenty year olds.

Perhaps what persuaded the Swedish government to recognize their newest religion was the sharing. Maybe the Koptimists have it right, not about copying being a sacrament, but about sharing being the foundation of religious life. In our me-first world, sharing what is valuable is exactly what we all most need to emulate and excel in. Baptized into the life of Jesus Christ, we are called to share what we value more than files, more than second coats and surplus food. We are called to share the Holy Spirit, the faith that is in us, and the central mission of God.

The church that equips her people to do this sharing copies the Christ, and beats a broad path to the world.