Text Study for Luke 4:14-21 (Part Three)

In our daily devotion this morning, the writer suggests that every Christian congregation has a “Red Sea” in its baptismal font. The waters in the font are described as ebbing and flowing just as the waters did in the first Red Sea. The baptized pass through the waters from bondage to freedom, from sin to forgiveness, from death to life, the author notes.

The writer continues by noting that Christ is the new Moses who leads the baptized through those waters and on to the table of the Lord. At this table we are fed for our journeys through the wilderness of this life. The writer urges readers to think of the font as our personal Red Sea and to give thanks for the gifts we receive through that baptismal covenant.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

On the one hand, I fully support this theology of baptism, both in terms of the Christian scriptural witness and in terms of my own confessional tradition. I have said and taught and preached precisely the same kinds of things about the imagery and impact of baptism. I treasure the “Flood Prayer” offered in some baptismal services (which came from Martin Luther) and its evocation of all things watery in both Testaments.

On the other hand, this treatment of the Red Sea as a trope or type for Christian baptism begins to smell to me like unconscious replacement theology or even unconscious supersessionism. The actual Red Sea story recedes into the background and becomes a prop used for the purpose of explicating and illustrating Christian theology.

I’m not attributing any intentions to the writer of this devotion. Let’s focus, instead, on the numerous times that I have expressed baptismal theology in precisely the same way. I have not intended to diminish or discount the Hebrew history of enslavement and escape in order to bolster my rhetorical toolbox for talking about baptism. But that may well be the outcome of such language. And I have learned to trust outcomes far more than intentions for the purpose of truth.

I need to digress for a moment. It’s not relevant whether the Exodus account happened precisely as reported, or at all, for that matter. I mean, it’s not relevant to my wondering about my Christian expropriation of the Exodus texts for my homiletical and pedagogical purposes. The Exodus story matters to the faith, life, and identity of a people just as it is. That story is not “incomplete” until it is fulfilled in Christ’s death and resurrection or in the rite of Christian baptism. It is a tradition with its own integrity, not a trope for my convenience.

This may sound like making a mountain out of a molehill, but I don’t think it is. The Exodus story matters to a faith community on its own. If I treat that story as a prop or a foil for my own purposes, then I am treating the Jewish faith community as invisible, unimportant, or even non-existent. To disconnect the Red Sea, for example, from the community to whom the story means the most is to treat that community as a thing – a resource for my use on the basis of Christian privilege.

Perhaps I can make my point in a different way. I hope that I wouldn’t use the Middle Passage experience of captured Black people as a way to illustrate the passage from death to life in baptism. To do so would be to make that horror into a rhetorical prop. It would be to render non-existent the millions who paid for the Transatlantic enslavement system with their freedom and/or their lives. To use that historical reality as an “illustration” of anything else is offensive on its face.

These days there are many loose comparisons between the Holocaust and some instance of contemporary discomfort. This comparison, too, is offensive on its face. There is nothing – nothing! – “like the Holocaust.” Saying that there is something in my privileged life that is “like” the Holocaust, or the Middle Passage, or Wounded Knee, or living under Jim Crow simply means that I have spoken the sufferers out of existence and turned them into homiletical paper dolls for my playtime.

There is something arrogantly dismissive – I now see about my own usage and rhetoric – in saying we have a “Red Sea” in every font. The Exodus story is an account of enslavement and liberation, of suffering and redemption, with its own integrity. Whether it is the story of a few dozen people or two and a half million makes little difference to the point.

Drawing out connections between the Exodus and other parts of the Scriptures cannot be the same as deploying a clever, shorthand trope. It’s equivalent to saying that I know what it means to suffer discrimination because I was one time the only white person in an all-Black setting. I don’t know what suffering discrimination means. And if I claim to know, then I have reduced centuries of oppression and suffering to a brief moment of personal discomfort amidst the sea of privilege in which I as a White person swim.

So, how do we speak of the relationship between Christian theology and Jewish realities without using the Old Testament stories as either props or foils? This matters for our text because Jesus takes a text from the Tanakh and makes it do work in his contemporary setting. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your ears” (Luke 4:21b, my translation).

The prophet did not write these words in the original setting to describe the person and work of the Messiah. These words were directed toward those who were either returning or returned from the Exile. The “me” in Luke 4:18 is not Jesus in the original setting. It is the prophet. What do we do with this appropriation and application of a text – whether by Jesus or by us?

We might say that this is why Jesus gets the big money, after all. We Christians see him as Lord, Messiah, Son of God. We describe him as the Word made flesh and tabernacling among us. Thus, the Word can deal with the words of Scripture however he chooses. And when he does so, it has the authority of the Word for us. Even if Jesus misquotes and/or collates Old Testament texts (as he does to a degree here), that’s not a big deal. If anyone can get the sense of the text and has the freedom to improvise a bit, it ought to be Jesus.

I don’t care much for that argument on theological grounds because of its Docetic potential. If Jesus gets to deal with Scriptures “from above,” then perhaps he’s not a fully enfleshed Word. This is the Docetic move that western Christians make too often. Whenever Jesus does something that should be interrogated or even critiqued, we play the Divinity card and get him off the hook. But if Jesus can get a pass on his hermeneutics, then how do we know that he is “truly human” in any other dimension of his person and work? Docetism denies the Gospel in the end.

But even if we grant the crypto-Docetic move for Jesus, that doesn’t let us off the hook as interpreters after Jesus and of the New Testament witness to him. It’s just too easy to take the real human experiences in the Old Testament texts and turn those into cute figures we can use on our sermonic flannelgraphs. Oh, if that reference is too dated for you, then I’d say we can’t just quote tweet Old Testament texts to suit our purposes as if there was no reality behind them.

What’s the point here? We need to wrestle with how to take Jesus’ application of the prophetic verses and make that application appropriately relevant to our own situation. That’s going to become even more pressing next week when we Christian preachers will be tempted to have the Nazareth folks stand in for all “recalcitrant Jews” in the last two millennia (whether we say that out loud or even think it consciously is beside the point).

Jesus acknowledges the truth of Isaiah’s words in describing what God is always about. Isaiah acknowledged the truth of the Exodus account in using it to interpret the Exile and return. We can acknowledge the grace of God in both the Exodus and the Exile as we describe our own baptismal journeys. But we must be careful to do so without erasing or prostituting those stories merely for our own purposes.

I’m harping on this because the Lukan account leans toward replacement theology and supersessionism. We have to find ways in our preaching to acknowledge that reality, to wrestle with it, and to find ways to work around it. If we can do that, we might be able to think about our own sorts of “replacement theologies,” where we treat others as props in our own life dramas.

How, in our preaching and teaching, for example, do we fail to acknowledge that we White people have intentionally sought to remove and replace Native Americans from the land in the last three hundred years? How, in our preaching and teaching, do we fail to acknowledge that our desires for racial reconciliation are often thin masks for the project of erasing any love for Blackness? How, in our preaching and teaching, do we reinforce the idolatry of White American exceptionalism which requires all human experience to be filtered through our White Christian American screens?

Nobody said that ethical preaching is easy…

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