I’ve been thinking about Christianity and how it seems to be serving two masters. I will suggest that modern Christianity in its institutionalized form actually follows John the Baptist in practice while claiming to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Many people are not going to see the problem with that. But I hope to show that the difference between John the Baptist and Jesus Christ is significant and that by blending the practices and teachings of both John and Jesus we are actually of a divided mind and trying to serve two masters at once. Just like Jesus’ arrival on the existential scene brought an end, or completion, to the Old Testament he also brought an end to what John the Baptist taught and practiced. I’ve struggled and labored to find the right words for this post since 7/20. I am not attacking Christianity, because it is the spiritual tradition I identify with most. But I have more questions about it than previously. In fact, The older I get the more I question why I believe what I believe. I’m not even sure this article is complete as I think of new aspects to this subject. This is only a blog post, not a book (even though I think I could write a book on this). I wanted to post it anyway to possibly stimulate discussion and see what other ideas are out there. So if you’re not interested in this subject you can just skip over the rest of this article. For fundamentalists, conservatives, and evangelicals who read this – you may be offended by some of what I say. It is not my intention to offend but I only wish to stimulate thought and self-examination.
A WORD ABOUT BAPTISM
This post is not about baptism but because it is the practice most associated with John the Baptist I will make a brief statement about it. I think too much emphasis is placed on baptism today. How many people have been baptized more than once? Is it necessary to be baptized at all? Too many churches use baptism as an act of membership. It is part of the team uniform for being a member. Therefore like many others, I have been baptized more than once because at different times in my life I’ve been a member of different churches in different Christian denominations. Now this is utterly ridiculous. Is not the Jesus of one denomination the same as Jesus of another? Why so much emphasis on baptism? Should it continue?
I will suggest that the practice of baptism as it is now used needs to stop. If someone wants to be baptized they should have the freedom to approach someone and request it. But it should not be part of some institutional agenda to help measure who is part of the team. Baptism should not be a requirement – suggested, spoken or unspoken. It should only be discussed in the context of a historical practice. Placing such importance on baptism is the way of John the Baptist not Jesus Christ.
PREPARING THE WAY OR LIVING THE WAY
In Christendom it seems that there are those who see themselves as preparers and those who are practitioner’s. The preparers are those who evangelize in the hope of getting everyone on their side before Jesus Christ returns. they are actively involved in missions around the world. They want to be on the winning team. And they set up institutions to ensure their success. While the practitioner’s really don’t give a damn about being on the team – they are more concerned with living what Christ actually taught; seeing and living the kingdom here and now; loving one’s enemies, giving freely to those who ask without placing conditions on the giving, looking after those who are defined by their culture as disadvantaged, treating people as equals, and seeing ALL people as being created in the image of God regardless of their race, politics, sexual orientation, country of origin, and religion. Looking after the planet with the same environmental concern that one has for a garden, etc. I get so fed up and irritated with all the sports metaphors and this concept of “team” that preachers, teachers and churches constantly rely on. They have missed the point. Being a part of the kingdom of heaven is not some team sport!
A TALE OF TWO KINGDOMS?
Now I wonder why anyone would want to be a preparer. It seems that I grew up for most of my life being taught and thinking about the second coming of Christ. I wonder if because we know the end of the story we are at a disadvantage. Isn’t the second coming more of an epilogue; a final period at the end of the story? I guess I’m wondering, what is there to prepare for? Whose job is it to prepare? Is the kingdom to come more important than the kingdom of heaven that is already here? But most importantly should we even bother? Why do we think it is our responsibility to go out and evangelize others in preparation for the second coming?
Is the second coming of Christ more important than the first? John the Baptist preached a new kingdom to come with a benevolent ruler that would baptize with fire. What is this “second coming” all about? I can’t help but think that it will be less of a deal than what people have taught for centuries. Revelation 21:1 says that it is merely a replacement of the old heaven and earth with new ones. Another way to read that is that it will be a replacement of the old ideas of heaven and earth with new ones that will significantly impact how life is lived on this planet. Two significant characteristics that separate the old from the new is that the new will be incorruptible and also there will be no temple (churches, synagogues, mosques, etc). These are BOLD changes from the world we currently live in. But let’s not get side tracked. Because again, because that’s the “end” of the story. But it is important to be aware of this in light of the discussion about who we are following. John the Baptist did NOT preach this vision of the end. He preached that there was a change coming. He wanted people to be aware and knowledgeable about this change. Jesus taught that the change is here! You are forgiven. Start living now as if the new heaven and earth have already arrived. LIVING THESE CHANGES NOW IS THE PREPARATION for the second coming.
I love the parable Jesus told of the 10 virgins were watching and waiting for the bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-13).
(my modernized version) 10 women were waiting for their man for a late-night party. 5 had flashlights and 5 didn’t. As it got dark the ones who were prepared got out their flashlights and were just hanging-out, waiting and watching having a good old time like women do. The ones without flashlights got nervous, were afraid of the dark and decided to go buy some flashlights quickly before the man hosting the party arrived. While they were gone the man they were waiting for arrived. The five women with flashlights went inside for the party and the door was locked. The five who weren’t prepared and left to get some flashlights came back knocking on the door and crying, “it’s not fair, let us in”. And the man simply said, “go away, I don’t know you.”
My understanding of this story is; “Sure, watch and pray – but all the watching and praying isn’t going to make a bit a difference if we’re not prepared by living NOW in the manner that Christ taught.” In other words, preparation doesn’t mean paving the way as John the Baptist did. True preparation is living and BEING the way.
WHAT JOHN AND JESUS SAID ABOUT EACH OTHER
John the Baptist announced the coming of Christ. That was his message and function. He was the one shouting “prepare the way”. That was his job. And it seems that Christianity has fallen into that trap. The trap of preparation, as if that was the end of the story. In doing so they are equating the second coming with the first arrival of Jesus on the world scene. But is that correct? By focusing on the second coming of Christ are we jumping over and ignoring the teachings and presence of his first arrival? Are they just cool stories? I wonder if the need to prepare actually ended with Christ’s arrival. It turns out that there is some precedent for this question. Even after Jesus arrived and was baptized by John people were debating. And how did these key players respond to the debate? First let’s look at why Jesus was baptized and the result of that baptism. Jesus requested, yes, he asked to be baptized by John (Matt 3:13) Why? Because it was “proper…to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” With the baptism of Jesus the focus shifted from the preparation message of John to the acceptance message of Jesus. In the baptism John’s message was both completed and ended. Now it would have also been proper for John to stop preaching at this point but like most institutions he felt the “need” (it was a worthy cause) to continue perpetuating the message of preparation and was eventually imprisoned. John watched Jesus closely and he even questioned him at one point. (Matthew 11:2-6) “When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’ Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor….'” And then Jesus does something remarkable he addresses the change in message from John’s to his own. He does this in a simple statement in Matthew 11:11 & 12 “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” And here is the BIG change, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” Do you see the change in message? It officially changed from future to present. John is not “top dog” in the kingdom. Its the “Everyman” who is “top dog”. Why? John the Baptist preached about the future, Jesus preached the power of NOW as people are now LAYING HOLD OF THE KINGDOM. Again preparation is not about paving a way to the second coming of Christ. It’s living these changes in the ever-present NOW. All four of the traditional Gospels record this.
Another amazing incident that is very telling is recorded in the Gospel of John (3:22-36). Jesus and John are both baptizing in the same area. John’s disciples were very concerned and went to him and asked John, “Rabbi that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan – the one you testified about – well, he is baptizing , and everyone is going to him.” Can you see the concern and jealousy start to develop? But John, who I suspect knew that his message had become obsolete said (vs 28), “You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him….'(vs 30) He must become greater; I must become less.” So John surrenders his message of preparation. So why do we get stuck on this idea?
Jesus Christ message was, “the Kingdom of God/Heaven is within you”. His purpose and function was to live that message so that people would understand their day-to-day lives with a new and enlightened perspective. And many did and still do.
So if the Kingdom is here and so very near that it is within us what are we preparing the way for? Why does anything need to be prepared. The preparation was done and completed more than 2,000 years ago. Jesus was (body) and is (spirit) here. It seems to me that if we are focused on preparation we are following the wrong master. Like Jesus we should focus on BEING. It’s not about the institution it’s about the individual.
FORGIVENESS AS COMMODITY OR FORGIVENESS AS GIFT
Of course we cannot discuss the differences between John the Baptist and Jesus without touching on the subject of forgiveness. Baptism for forgiveness of sins was one of John’s modus operandi. John’s mission, as spoken by his father, was to give people knowledge of forgiveness. John did that by saying you can be forgiven and adopted a practice called baptism. It was a sort of spiritual economic exchange. You can be forgiven if you are baptized. Baptism became the ritual and focus of the message. It became institutionalized and became the model for all sorts of “rules of the game” by which people were expected to follow. It was the way to prepare/pave the way for the coming of the Christ. But we must also look at John’s description of baptism which suggests that with Christ there will be a change. He said, “I baptize with water but there is one coming after me who will baptize with fire” We have here the comparison of the material world of men and institutions compared with the spiritual/metaphysical world. John knew the difference. He knew a change would come and I think he would be disheartened if he still saw people preaching baptism by water for forgiveness of sins today – If he saw how baptism is being used as an “outward sign” of being in the club. In fact I think he might be more than a little irritated.
When Jesus was baptized by John it was the equivalent of John handing the torch to Jesus to carry on. Which Jesus started to do because Jesus also started baptizing. And the gospels only record Jesus baptizing other in the earliest part of his ministry. At some point he abandoned it. Why? Because it became irrelevant. The message changed. Jesus changed the message. There was no more bargain, forgiveness was not something to be purchased with baptism being used as coinage. It was now a gift. When Jesus talked of forgiveness it was simply YOU ARE FORGIVEN. There’s no “you must do this…” or “that” to be forgiven. You just are forgiven. Period. You are no longer a slave to your past. You can redirect your destiny with a fresh start. People may try to use the past as a weapon against you (the media has perfected this – ask any politician) but as long as you know you are forgiven their weapons are of no good. For Jesus’ grace, mercy, and forgiveness was a gift. It was not some commodity to be traded. To continue to follow John is to say, “I will be forgiven” but to follow Jesus is to say, “I AM forgiven.”
People need to embrace the gift and pass it on because that is where real changes will start to happen. As long as the gift is used as a bargaining tool it will never be effective and produce lasting change. Remember you are forgiven. To the believers I say, let John the Baptist go – embrace Jesus. As long as the gift is used as a commodity to prepare the way it will never be effective. It’s time for a change. One master, one message. To teachers, preachers, churches, and other religious institutions. I think it’s time to re-tool. It’s to to re-evaluate what message your actions are sending. Do your actions and policies promote a paving of the way for the second coming or do they actually promote the more radical idea of acceptance and living in the kingdom of heaven that is here now within each of us? Do you teach your people that they are part of the kingdom already or are you still inviting them to come get ready for the coming kingdom? Do you teach your people to see the kingdom of heaven in others or do you promote exclusivity and separation from others who may not fit YOUR criteria of religious belief? And like the story above of the 10 women; If you want to be part of some exclusive spiritual “club med” where your team, your church, your religion is the definition of rightness then you are watching and waiting without a flashlight. if you follow John the Baptist’s methods and practices you may want to buy a flashlight before it gets dark. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. It’s not. You will fail as I have failed. But we must pick ourselves up and learn from these lessons and allow them to change us and help us grow toward perfection. Perfection is the new spiritual “singularity”. It is possible and it is near.
If you are one of the few that have made to the end of this post, whether you are Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist or any other belief or non-belief tradition; know that there is only one message: YOU ARE FORGIVEN! Accept it and enjoy. You have a blank slate to fill, a new book to write, a new picture to make, a new movie, music or art to create. A new life to live. Go ahead, say it out loud, “I am forgiven.” And view everyone around you as forgiven and live accordingly. If you are reading this, if you are alive and on this planet, in this place and time in all of existence, then you are already a part of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is already within you. As Richard Rohr wrote on his blog – UNPACKING PARADOXES in a post on forgiveness,
“To help people ACCEPT THAT THEY ARE RADICALLY ACCEPTED is the only real task of Christianity.”
When we accept that we are unconditionally accepted and when we in turn unconditionally accept others we have taken our first steps on the road to perfection.
Enjoy this song by Sanctus Real – FORGIVEN
“Forgiveness is the cash you need – All other kinds of silver really just buys strange things – Everything has music – Everything has genes of God inside – But learn from those courageous addicted lovers of glands and opium and gold – Look, they cannot jump high or laugh long when they are whirling – And the moon and the stars become sad , when their tender light is used for night wars – Forgiveness is part of the treasure you need to craft your falcon wings – and return – to your true realm of divine freedom” ~ Hafiz(Hafez of Shiraz)