On Love and Caring

Sunday 12th January 2014
Year A, The Baptism of Christ (The First Sunday of Epiphany)
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Matthew 3:13-17

In spite of our many flaws, some of which we acknowledge, some of which we don't, we are, on the whole, individually and collectively, a very caring society. The NHS is one of the biggest organisations in the world, the benefits system, for all its weaknesses, has an all-encompassing ambition to prevent the worst from happening; we have emergency services that have been recently stretched during gales and floods; we have a vast civil society network including national organisations like Age UK and very local groups such as our own Pastoral Care Team. Yes, when there's a crisis, we can be sure that care will be rolled out, and if it fails to work there will be reform and a better attempt next time. We are used to caring and being cared for; it's what we think of as the ultimate activity of the good citizen, the good state, and the good Christian; to care is to be an imitator of Jesus.

Wrong! If we look at the text of the Gospels we will find, to our horror, that Jesus didn't actually do all that much caring and certainly didn't do all that much preaching about caring. His miracles were not primarily caring acts, they were declarations of the arrival of the God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven; and, yes, he talked about love but, surely, that's more than caring. We will find if we stop reading back our own socially acceptable tenets into the text that Jesus wasn't a social theorist with a knack of setting up service delivery networks.

Today's Gospel which describes the Baptism of Jesus is a small but iconic clue to what Jesus actually was and what we should be. Clearly, the Incarnate God as a human being, but without sin, was in no need of John's Baptism of repentance and forgiveness; he had nothing to repent of nor anything that needed forgiving. So why did Jesus go through with this ritual?

Let us ask the bigger questions: why did he go through the whole process of being born, of being tortured and killed, and rising from the dead? Couldn't it all have been much simpler with a grand vision of the divine? Of course it could; but grand visions of the divine don't tell us very much about ordinary human beings like us; and one of the main purposes of the life of Jesus was to show us how God wants us to set about our privileged but difficult task of loving 'him'.

The chief thing to notice in the life of Jesus is that his idea of love is the precise opposite of caring. We, who are all so accustomed to caring for this or that person, too easily overlook the fundamental dynamic of caring as a power dynamic; we are, on the whole, much better at caring than being cared for; we like the pleasure of giving much more than the duty or necessity of receiving; we think that to be socially active and concerned is what we are here for, and we are so convinced of this that we tend to be so taken up by our own virtue that we overlook the thought that there is any power dynamic at all; but to put that into perspective, we only have to ask ourselves how good are we at caring for those stronger than us rather than those who are weaker than us? Not very.

The central idea conveyed by the Baptism of Christ, by the passion and death of Jesus, is the idea that ultimate love lies not in doing but in being done to. The true lover leaves herself or himself totally open and vulnerable to the address and action of the beloved; the mighty and wonderful paradox of existence is that the most profound way of giving is to be unconditionally open to receiving; that 'explains' - although that is something of a cavalier use of the word - that explains why Jesus in God went on loving us even though humanity that he came to save crucified him; the true love of reception cannot be destroyed by ill treatment.

Now this is very hard to bear in an interventionist, caring culture, so let me be clear that I am not advocating the curtailment of care, I'm simply saying that, on its own, it isn't enough for the Christian even if it is enough for the social liberal. And, when we think about this, we know it, really. We know that caring for our beloved isn't enough, we also need to be open and vulnerable to otherness; we know that too much caring leads to power games; we know that unbalanced relationships which are all care and no vulnerability either disintegrate or become progressively resentful and sterile.

And so, a religious life that is bound up with caring and praying aloud and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ is never going to be enough: there needs to be more vulnerability, sufferance and silence.

Which leads to my final major point. The Christian church, thinking that it is gripped by a crisis, saying that we live in a 'post Christian world' which is, in my view, a terrible slander against the Holy Spirit, spends a lot of energy on what it calls "mission"; now whether this is to increase the numbers to make us feel better about the Christian enterprise is an important question but I think that, as a strategy, it will only meet with limited and shallow success because it isn't our mission, it's the mission of Jesus; and the mission of Jesus is to be with and in suffering. We too easily fall into judgmental and bossy religion which is what gives religion a bad name. Now I really don't mind giving religion a bad name but I don't want to give Jesus a bad name. We need to get the dynamic of Jesus right not least because that's the only way we will get the dynamic right with our fellow human beings.

We, being who we are, exercise power almost without thinking about it: we are the committee people; the problem solving people; the food bank donor people; the Christian Aid Week people; the letter to the paper people; and I'm not knocking any of that, we will no doubt do much good and, incidentally, derive proper satisfaction from doing good, but anybody with an inclination can do these things. What makes us who we are is the cultivation of a receptivity which is far more difficult than the passive. Sometimes we need to walk the walk; sometimes we need to talk the talk; but most often we need to make ourselves locations of unconditional space for the expression of the other. That is the meaning of the "Lamb of God" which John the Baptist saw as Jesus came to his effectively unnecessary but highly significant baptism.