The Baptism of the Lord
Freeze the frame, theologian James Alison instructs, on the moment in Acts 10 when the Holy Spirit falls on the surprised gentiles and on the even more astounded circumcised believers. What looks to be a scene from a pentecostal or charismatic rally is, on closer inspection, a “cultural earthquake of immeasurably greater proportions” (Quotes and wording are taken from Alison’s On Being Liked, esp. pp. vii – xvii, and Faith Beyond Resentment).
First, the trance of things vile, repugnant, unclean; animals strictly and expressly forbidden by the purity code. Peter’s visceral response showed that he had been formed by what he had inherited and had always believed to be God’s Law.
Then, the “inwardly perplexed” journey to Caesarea and the entrance into Cornelius’ household. Even to get to this point, Alison says, “Peter had to undergo a stomach-churning disorientation of losing the sense of goodness and holiness which came from being separate.”
Then Peter began to speak. Until then he had assumed that the good news of Jesus was a completely Jewish story. Now he tells the same story to gentiles… and all heaven breaks loose.
Freeze that frame, Alison says. So many astonishing things are happening. As a God-fearer, Cornelius knew the distinction between the ‘pure’ and the ‘impure.’ Amazingly, he and his household are not confronted with their impurity; neither are they told what they must do to be among the pure.
In a very short space of time in Luke’s storytelling we have gone from something like ‘You are not part of our narrative’ through ‘You can be part of our narrative, but only on our terms,’ to ‘Heavens, we are part of the same narrative, which isn’t the one either of us quite thought it was and it isn’t on the terms set by either of us.’
The gentiles are overwhelmed by God and brought “inside” God’s favor and delight. “The moment this sinks in,” Alison observes, “it radically relativizes the purity law.”
All the while Peter and the other believers are “wondering what on earth has hit [them], while all [their] nerve ends are jangling with little voices saying ‘No, no, stop them, clamp down, this can’t be happening, this is all wrong.’”
The Holy Spirit is creating a new and impossible story in the midst of religious and cultural fixity by enabling both the previously ‘impure’ and the previously ‘pure’ to work out a new story, together. It is not that the previously impure are seeking approval. They are not. They just find themselves on the inside of the story, starting to work out what it means. The ‘authority’ on the ‘pure’ side finds his world being deconstructed in what must have been a very muddling and painful way before recognizing that that deconstruction and the pain was a good thing, come from God, and not a loss of face, or of argument, or of principle.
Allison asks us to stay in that frozen frame as we consider his own “incursion into impossibility”:
It is theoretically impossible for there to be a Christian story told by a gay man or a lesbian woman that is anything other than a somewhat penitential account told by someone who agrees to be a semi-impure half-outsider.
Yet as a gay man, he claims to find himself in the same impossible space as those in Acts 10, proclaiming “the earth-shaking mercy behind God become incarnate and dwelling among us.” He acknowledges the scandal of his claim and the difficulty it causes.
The new story is able to be told by those for whom the old story is over, while at first the new story is simply incomprehensible to those who are valiantly struggling to make sense of the world within the old story.
Nevertheless, he invites us to create, and rest in, that apparently impossible space with our own lives.
For many, Alison’s invitation is as unwelcomed as a troubling trance or a perplexing journey to a strange and uncomfortable place. We quickly make our way to the spaces formed by long-reached conclusions and hopelessly intractable polarities.
Patterns of understanding inevitably default to the ‘conservative-liberal-progressive-traditional-more evolved-more faithful’ land of labels. Any movement away from fiercely held positions is to abandon the faith once for all delivered to the saints revealed in the plain and obvious reading of Scripture; yet one more crumbling before the ever-relentless zeitgeist, yet one more wimpy surrender to a trendy inclusivity which often seems to be little more than a lazy marketing strategy in a religious buyers market.
Like Alison says, “theoretically impossible.”
After that watershed day in Caesarea, the narrative in Acts follows Simon Peter’s return to Jerusalem to deal with the controversies stirred up by his blatant violation of the purity code (i.e. Scripture) and the renegade service of baptism. But what about Cornelius? What happened to him? I can’t help but wonder if in James Alison I’m hearing the voice of Cornelius and his household.
So many things are compelling about Alison’s witness. He speaks from the place of brokenness, from that space which has been “historically, socially and theologically the place of the unspeakable, the unacceptable, the abominable… a place littered with murder, with suicide, and with lies.” Imagine coming to the hard-earned basic conviction that there is “a regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition” only to be consistently categorized as a defective heterosexual who is gravely self-deceived.
Yet the predominant tone of Alison’s witness is one of almost playful amazement over how the Holy Spirit has fallen in impossible places, documenting with piercing insight his process of freedom from resentment. Keenly mindful of stepping into the very frightening space of calling “the current teachings of the Vatican congregations” into question, he delights in the sense of having been brought to the center of things without being the center.
Alison readily confesses that in his claim, practice precedes theory, that, as in Acts 10, “the narrative scrambles behind to catch up with the reality, because our Lord goes out before us.” (He reminds us that it was not until the 7th century that Christians dropped the kosher culture).
Meanwhile, as one without authority, he continues to read Scripture and teach theology (deeply informed by the insights of Rene Girard) in a way that Stanley Hauerwas describes as “almost frighteningly profound,” and to ask questions like “If the only victory that counts is the victory of our Lord, which looks to all the world like a defeat, how do we inhabit our Lord’s place of victory, ‘ignoring the shame’?”
It’s a matter of baptism, like those at Caesarea; of coming to
…the sense of having at last been able to grasp something of what Jesus’ promise of eternal life was about, and of baptism as undergoing death in advance, so as no longer needing to live with death as something in the foreground.
James Alison invites us to read Acts 10 as “words which dare us into being as the shared creation of an unimagined adventure born in the rupture of impossibility.” As one who is so institutionally protected as to be able to avoid Caesarea, I think we would do well to accept his invitation – jangling nerve ends and all.