Two weeks ago I began talking about the incarnation; about Jesus as an icon (not an idol) through whom we can look into the wonder of excessive, extravagant, and extraordinary love. This love is what we Christians call god. It comes as an unconditional, and therefore unexpected, gift. It comes weak and vulnerable, like Mary and her illegitimate baby. It comes in those who are weak and vulnerable today. It comes in our weakness and our vulnerabilities. It comes in the in-between as we share food, reach out to others, and offer hope in acts of kindness. It comes every time we think or act counter to the strong currents and persistent of me-first, my group/culture/gender first, and my religion first. For love doesn’t do ‘me-first’. Love doesn’t do domination or fear. Love has room for all. And, as shorthand, we call this mega-truth about god: Christmas.
Advent of course was modelled on the northern hemisphere and its winter solstice. Into that dark time of year Christians prayed for hope, and lit candles. Advent was also modelled on a response to crisis, when the darkness of oppression had seemingly snuffed out all hope. It was a response to the darkness of a lived miserable existence.
These Advent themes are reflected in the hymns like On Jordan’s Banks and Hark! A Herald Voice is Calling, which are an attempt at conflating the messages John and Jesus (as if their message was the same!) and positing the idea that the crises of darkness and oppression would be solved by a rescuing saviour from the heavens who would bring freedom for those in the mire and vengeance upon those who put them there. There’s not much about extravagant love and room for all in those hymns.
John the Baptist came out of the desert like an apparition – a wild man clothed in camel hair. He travelled the length of the Jordan River preaching a simple and dire message: The end was near. The Kingdom of God was at hand. And woe to those Jews who assumed their descent from Abraham (read: their genes) would save them from judgement.
Yet he was very popular. People flocked to see him. When they got to the Jordan they stripped off their outer garments and swam over to the Eastern shore where he would baptise them. Then they would swim back to the Western shore – as their ancestors had done a thousand years before – back to the land promised by God. In this way, the baptized became the new nation of Israel: repentant, redeemed, and ready for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
They returned home to form ‘sleeper cells’ and await the arrival of the axe-wielding messianic forester who would slash and burn the wicked (their enemies) and establish a new world order, the Kingdom of God, a realm of equality and justice. This was how John and his followers understood the messiah – one who was an apocalyptic warrior/leader. John’s theology and practice, not surprisingly, drew the attention of the political/military authorities.
For the early Jesus movement (I’m talking about the 40s and 50s) any acceptance of the basic facts of John’s interaction with Jesus would have been a tacit admission that John was, at least at first, a superior figure. If John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, as the Gospel of Mark claims, then Jesus’ acceptance of it indicated a need to be cleansed of his sins by John. If John’s baptism was an initiation rite, as the historian Josephus suggests, then clearly Jesus was being admitted into John’s movement as just another one of his disciples. This was precisely the claim made by John’s follower’s, who, long after both men had been executed, refused to be absorbed into the Jesus movement because they argued that their master, John, was greater than Jesus. After all, who baptized whom?
John the Baptist’s historical importance and his role in launching Jesus’ ministry created a difficult dilemma for the gospel writers. John was popular, well-respected, and acknowledged as a priest and prophet. His fame was too great to ignore, his baptism of Jesus too well known to conceal. The story had to be told. But it also had to be massaged and made safe. So the two men’s roles were reversed: Jesus had to be superior, John inferior. Hence the steady regression of John the Baptist’s character from the first gospel, Mark – wherein he is presented as a prophet and mentor to Jesus – to the last gospel, John, in which the Baptist seems to serve no purpose at all except to acknowledge Jesus’ divinity.
But the problem was not just who was superior or inferior to whom. Nor was it that one was overtly political and one was not – for in the end, regardless of the quantity of theological gloss applied, both were executed by the authorities as political threats. But the primary difference concerns their conception of the Kingdom of God. For though Jesus was at one stage a disciple of John’s, I think it is clear that he deviated from John’s apocalyptic vision. The Jesus Seminar, for example, would say that the admonition to ‘love your enemies’ in Matthew 5:44 is somewhere close to the heart of the teachings of the historical Jesus, and a long way from John the Baptiser.[i]
There are some very good people who in very difficult circumstances decide to encourage others to or take up arms themselves. Nelson Mandala was one. There are some very good people who believe that the most viable pathway to a resolution – often after non-violent solutions have been tried over many years – is armed conflict. And there are people, including Christians, who believe that God endorses such a pathway. John the Baptist was one.
Our canonical gospels show respect for John the Baptist, even some respect for his theology, but they don’t disguise that his vision and message was different from that of Jesus. You can’t love your enemies and then kill them!
The Kingdom of God for Jesus was something already present, not something coming in the future. It was not something to prepare for by fasting and penance. Rather it was something to be celebrated here and now.
The Kingdom of God for Jesus embraced everyone – Jew, gentile, slave, free, male, female… It also embraced Romans, tax collectors, and landlords. All could belong if they could tolerate all who came along. The human race was a family.
In this vision of Jesus’ everyone had equal and immediate access to God, anywhere and anytime. The brokerage system, having to go through priests and temples to get admission to and favours from God, was obsolete. God alone would judge who was righteous and unrighteous, not religious leaders and religious systems.
One of the marks of Jesus’ vision was loss. If you strived for privilege, if you put trust in your genealogy (culture, class), if you trusted in the power of the sword (or axe), if you thought money or piety would grant you access… then you were in for a nasty surprise. Jesus was a homeless, itinerant preacher who had no business plan, marketing strategy, or career ambitions. He was hopelessly/hopefully idealistic
Jesus had nothing to say about himself, other than he had no permanent address, and no respect on his home patch. He did not ask his disciples to convert the world and establish a religion. Unlike John the Baptist he did not believe the world was going to end in the near future. Jesus did not even call on people to repent, and he did not practice baptism.
Another mark of Jesus’s vision, a result of embracing everyone, was that it was full of unclean people. The boundary markers that Judaism had (and indeed as every religion has!) that distinguished between the believers and unbelievers, the faithful and unfaithful, Jesus disregarded. He told parables that deliberately flouted those boundaries and destabilised those markers. His concept of love was that there was room for everyone; which meant we could break bread with the foulest, vilest individuals. The clean and unclean mixed. Sacredness as it had long been understood was under threat by this vision. For Jesus it was this hospitable boundary-breaking love that was the new sacred.
For Jesus the Kingdom of God was not a royal or political kingdom such as the Israelites had under David and Solomon. God’s realm was not an apocalyptic creation with an external saviour. God’s domain was not something at the end of time when the bad would be punished, the good rewarded, and the saviour would rule. Rather the domain of God was a set of relationships between people, and between people and God, based on mutuality and compassion. These relationships were political, social, and spiritual.
I’m using here the word ‘domain’, for kingdom presupposes a king and there wasn’t one in Jesus’ vision. Instead this was a domain of nuisances and nobodies, a domain of reversals and surprises, a domain of unconditional excessive love. This unconditional excessive gift of love we often call grace.
The third mark of Jesus’ vision was of cooperation not contest. The first being last and the last first was not creating a new race/contest, but upending hierarchical understandings of privilege and power in order that humans work together like brothers and sisters. Cooperation is the currency and language of sustainable life-giving human community.
Jesus was not directly critical of John the Baptist and the sources of John’s theology – namely the apocalyptic visions of Ezekiel and Daniel. Jesus just developed and exhibited an alternate reality. The parable of the Good Samaritan is one example. He elevates to fame a despised half-breed, a social and religious other, the Samaritan. For the suffering, those who identify with the man in the ditch, help does come – and it comes whether the man in the ditch is a believer or unbeliever, righteous or not. That is a miracle in itself. That it comes from a surprising and unexpected source, the Samaritan, is more amazing still. This is the essence of god’s realm: unconditional grace.
In Jesus’ vision there is no super saviour descending with a sword, there is only the tainted Samaritan. There are no streets of gold and subsidiary thrones for male apostles; there is only unexpected help for those in the ditch of life. There is no slashing and burning of bad guys, wailing and gnashing of teeth, while the good guys feast up large. There is only the risk of breaking bread and breaking boundaries of race, religion, gender, and power. This is what the transformative love of god looks like; this strength of weakness, this irrationality of grace, this wonder of the advent of the Kingdom of God, this mega-truth that we call and celebrate as Christmas.
[i] Note Reza Aslan in Zealot would disagree with me. The most thorough critique of Aslan I’ve found (from a Progressive viewpoint) is https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/zealot-dr-aslans-violent-i...