One way to talk about God is to say that “we are contained in an ethical cosmos. Choices have consequences.” The cosmos is not a machine for us to manipulate; we are a part of it, inside it, and subject to it. If we deny the parameters of our reality, it will cost us.
Christianity understands that the parameters of our human reality include justice. At its best, justice reflects the words of Jesus that we love our neighbours as ourselves. Other great prophets also proclaim that insight. To love my neighbour as myself is to confess that I have no right to material riches which are not also accessible to you. If you are poor, it is my duty to help you. As John the Baptist says in this week’s reading, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (see Luke 3:7-18)
This helping the poor is not occasional charity. Nor is it trickle down assistance. It means to actively assist you to live in the same material well-being and security in which I live, and to change societal structures to enable that. Neighbour (in the New Testament) means all people, not just Australians. So if the planet cannot bear all people living with my level of material well-being and security, then it is my god given calling to live with less. This cosmic parameter of justice is an underlying issue of the Paris Climate talks. It demands fundamental changes in the way the species lives and conceives of justice. It is why Marilynne Robinson can say about our choices that they
are not, in the overwhelming majority of cases, choices we make as individuals, though in the degree that we are all open to the suasions of fear and hatred, or of greed and oppression, we are guilty of the evils that follow from them. Then the recoil of divine justice is the effect of the very contempt for divine justice that implicates humankind in its own suffering.
Along with the call for repentance in the reading this week, we hear John the Baptist promising, perhaps even warning, that Jesus will baptise people not with water, but with holy spirit and fire. This baptism is intimately connected with John’s baptism, but almost incomprehensible for us westerners, who have forgotten what spirit is.
The Holy Spirit signifies the live reality of God which is beyond our definition; that wind (wind and spirit are the same word in the Greek text of the New Testament) which “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3) But we westerners are spiritually illiterate. All cultures recognise the ineffable aspects of Spirit, into which we materially grounded humans can enter only a little. But we, almost alone, have built our culture upon an increasing denial of spiritual reality over the past several hundred years. It has worked to the extent that our narrowing of the parameters of what we call “real” to the realm of the gross physical has born much material fruit. We have become brilliant engineers. We have sold ourselves to a narrative that promises fulfilment through material consumption. And we have become enslaved to it.
We have also realised it does not work. Not only are we destroying the planetary ecosystems. We are beset by deep longings for spiritual significance, emptiness which often makes us ill, and which all the material goods in the world seem unable to heal. Like Thoreau’s “mass of men” we “live lives of quiet desperation,” and “unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.” (Walden Chapter 1) We have begun to understand the injustices of his gendered language, but the desperation is unchanged, and even deeper.
We live with two seeming impossibilities:
that we can give up significant material and political privilege so that all may live— those who think this is easy betray how little they have tried it, and how little they understand the embedded injustice of international systems,
and that we might meaningfully engage with the spiritual reality for which we long, but which our culture denies, and sometimes even derides with the claim that we are only meat machines.
Christianity understands that John’s baptism of repentance— the imperative of justice— is a gateway to rediscovering Jesus’ baptism of spirit. Repentance of our material and political privilege allows us to discern again the underlying spiritual reality of the world. That is; material and political privilege always tends to blind us to spiritual reality. It replaces God. It becomes an idol. Indeed, as we say in the church newsletter this week, “The root of our spiritual illiteracy is a deep desire to control and secure the world for ourselves, without reliance upon God.” The newsletter continues
When we give away what we have, so that we only have God, we are threatened with the loss of that security and independence which we have created. Radical justice and compassion make us vulnerable, because in such a life, all we have is God. And are finally able to learn to listen.
There is something here far beyond a kind of mechanical karma where living badly leads to bad results, and living well rewards us. We use the word grace.
Even a small repentance graces us with an unwarranted return in our re-discernment of spirit. Insignificant generosities, compared to the huge injustices of the world, begin to gift us with new understanding and fulfilment in life which is quite out of proportion with our giving. The question is whether we will be satisfied with this experience, or whether we will seek out being baptised by it.
Baptism signifies being renewed. It has the connotation of being immersed, plunged deep below the surface. It is not satisfied with small changes but seeks total renewal. I wrote above of John warning of Jesus’ baptism. This is how Baptist minister Nathan Nettleton paraphrases John’s words:
When he gets started, it won’t be just water that he’ll be immersing you in. He’ll baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire … He’ll release an uncontrollable fire into the dry bushland of your lives, completely incinerating the rubbish and germinating the good seeds that lie in wait for that day.” (Luke 3:15-17 paraphrased by Rev. Nathan Nettleton)
We long for spiritual reality, something that moves and convinces us, and fills the emptiness. It only comes as a kind of wildfire. We never own it. It works on us. Do we want to meet spirit, or would we rather the faux spirituality of the gym and the day-spa and self-help books? Or good wine and fine cooking with excellent music? Taking John and Jesus seriously takes us far beyond these, and we do not decide the direction of the taking.