With the turn of the year, a number of newly elected officials have taken their oaths of office around the country. My favorite moment was watching Governor Jerry Brown in my home state of California stumble over the part of the oath in which he was to say that he takes this obligation freely, without any mental reservation. After a laugh and a pause, Brown interjected: "Really! No mental reservation!"
Anyone entering on a leadership role in America today might well approach it with considerable mental reservation. We seem to be confused about the relationship between authority and accountability. Our culture seems to delight in choosing and then rejecting its leaders with great regularity. This happens in politics, business, the academy, and even the church. With the fickle likes of you and me, what leader wouldn’t be visited by a mental reservation or two?
Several years ago, Kathy and I were in England and I happened upon a book there by Adam Phillips called Equals. Adam Phillips is one of my cultural heroes--he’s a British psychiatrist who writes about philosophy. Unlike us, the English really do believe that different classes of people should be valued differently. Or at least they used to. But a major tenet of the American Revolution was a rejection of those ideas of class hierarchy. And it was the influence of Christianity that gave rise to the revolutionary idea that human beings are all of equal value.
A good deal of Adam Phillips’ book Equals deals with the paradoxical truth that human beings are both different and equal. As Phillips says,
That people are not identical, but that it is possible for them to be equal in certain ways, is one of our modern political hopes. Despite the vivid inequalities of wealth, prestige, history, talent and beauty there are certain cultural goods that can be shared by everybody. [Equals, xiii]
As anyone who has been through diversity training can tell you, we are all different. As any reader of the Declaration of Independence can affirm, we are all created equal. For this paradox to be, in Phillips’ words, “plausible and not merely inspiring” we need, as Christians and as a Americans, to do some hard work to figure out how we can all live together holding onto both those poles of difference and equality--not just as ideal affirmations but as dynamic facts of lived life.
We are not identical and we are equal. That understanding is central both to Christian and American values. When we emphasize equality, we tend to smooth over difference: all people are created equal, so they should all act, think, and behave alike. When we emphasize difference, we often tacitly accept disparities of status, opportunity, and power: as a straight, white male, it’s easy for me to accept the reality of your “other” gender, race, ethnic, sexual orientation difference—just as long as you realize that I am the model for the way human beings are supposed to be and let me be in charge. So how do we women and men, black and white, gay and straight, Asian, Latino, believer, atheist, Christian, Muslim, Jew—how do we both celebrate our difference and affirm our equality? And how do we do that in a way that is in Adam Phillips’ words, “plausible and not merely inspiring”?
As Christians we have a head start on this question, because as Adam Phillips rightly sees, our modern social affirmations of difference and equality stem from our culture’s theological inheritance:
It is the valuing of the individual despite his social status and not because of it, that both Christianity and democracy promote. It is as though people are deemed to be something-–to have something inside them–that is of equal value; and of a value greater than any worldly assessment can encompass. [Equals, 21]
It’s not that those worldly assessments don’t matter–-it’s that, for us Christians at least, those worldly assessments are not the final truth about us. One of the things that Adam Phillips has helped me see is the absolute centrality for us Christians of these dual affirmations of difference and equality. We are all different; therefore no one of us can claim to be normative. We are all equal; therefore none of us can claim to be superior. This is the central paradox of both Christian communities and of modern, democratic societies. None of us is normative, and all of us are equal. How do we live together—as Americans and as Christians—in the face of such seemingly contradictory affirmations?
Our answer, I believe can be found in today’s Gospel story of Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Jesus did not have to, but he chose to be baptized by John and to live as a baptized person, just like you and me. How might that event shape and guide our lives?
Last Thursday, January 6, was the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the visit of the three Magi to the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem. The word epiphany is a Greek one meaning “manifestation”. The season is about the epiphany, the manifestation of God’s glory throughout all creation. As the first visible expression of that manifestation, our calendar gives us this Sunday on which we remember the Baptism of our Lord. The Gospel for today seems to understand the tensions inherent in what had to be a very strange occurrence. Talk about equality and difference! For Jesus to submit to John the Baptist seemed, at least to John, almost unthinkable. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
At the beginning of his ministry we see Jesus submitting to an act of initiation, and in so doing he witnesses to his commitment both to equality and difference. He does not stand on a claim of superiority to John. He realizes that he and John have different roles in the salvation story. Yet he submits himself to the authority of one who, in his own words, does not deem himself worthy to untie Jesus’s sandals. By refusing to exempt himself from what others are undergoing, Jesus proclaims something about our fundamental human equality. Even John the Baptist has trouble with the idea of this uniquely egalitarian Messiah. The Jesus Movement is not going to be a hierarchically structured affair. It will be egalitarian and it will be radically open to all.
But it will not be a homogenized community. It will understand, accept, and bless the coexistence of different people with different gifts, natures, and even different understandings of God and God’s demands. In today’s reading from Acts, Peter declares, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” [Acts 10] From the beginning, the Jesus Movement was a community that gathered human beings irrespective of racial or ethnic origin. Different as we Christians may be, each one of us is—inherently and before God--equal.
The sign and symbol both of that equality and difference has always for Christians been the ritual of Baptism, a ritual washing offered freely to all. Since Christianity’s beginnings, this sacrament has had transformative implications not only for particular people but for the church and the world. So a word about baptismal equality, and a word about baptismal difference.
If the equality which we celebrate as Christians in Baptism is to be “plausible and not merely inspiring” it must be lived out in a mutual accountability to each other. In discussing psychiatry, Adam Phillips tells us it is not only a talking cure; it is a listening cure. “Being listened to can enable one to bear–and even enjoy–listening to oneself and others, which democracy itself depends upon.” [Equals, xii] In other words: it is being listend to, and not just talking, that makes therapy work. If Baptism proclaims the equality of each of us before God and on our own terms, the community into which we welcome those newly baptized must be a listening community. The church is often better at talking—as I’m doing right now--than it is at listening. But there are profound truths that each of us has to tell the other, and we can only be open to those truths if we commit ourselves to be listeners. We talk a lot in our culture about finding one’s voice. But in a Christian community, we must also value finding one’s ears. It is in listening to each other that we witness to the true mutuality offered to us in the community called together by God and bound together by Baptism. If all of us are finally equal before each other and God, then every voice in this place and in God’s world is worthy of being heard and attended to. One way for us to celebrate our equality both in the church and the society is to be people who listen.
And now a word about difference. Baptism confers a dignified equality on us all as Christian people, but to say that we are all equal is not to say that we are all the same. It is precisely our uniqueness as individual human beings that witnesses to God’s presence within us. Your particularity—the specifics of who you are and where you come from biologically, culturally, and historically—your particularity matters. In calling each of us to live the baptized life first modeled for us by Jesus, God is calling each of us to accept that who we are and where we come from are good and that there are as many ways to follow and represent God in the world as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand in the desert. That is why we are “named” in Baptism. Your name is a sign that you are deemed unique and precious in your own right. Your name is a sign that you are of ultimate worth and dignity.
In our celebration of this first manifestation of God’s glory, the baptism of Jesus, we come now to reaffirm our own Baptismal Covenant. In being baptized just as you and I have been, Jesus committed himself to a life of fundamental equality with his companions. In baptizing a Gentile—as he was about to do just after the speech we heard in today’s Epistle--Peter opened the way for the full range of God’s human community–including you and me–into the company that Jesus taught and healed and loved and fed.
This is the day we rejoice in the possibilities of the baptized life. We are all different. And we are all equal. Together we make up a body that lives out Jesus’s grace and blessing in the world. In our baptismal diversity and oneness, we are a model for that world of how God wants things to be. For grace to be that model, and for the ongoing presence of the One who empowers us to embrace both equality and difference, we proceed together in Baptism and Eucharist to pray and give thanks. Amen.