Saturday, October 21, 2006

I and Thou (Pentecost 20B)

The great Jewish scholar of the early 20th century, Martin Buber, writes that human beings have got two main ways of relating to our environment.  The first way, he says, is when we focus on what a thing or a person can do, how it works, how to make it behave the way we want it to behave - and he calls that an ‘I and It’ way of relating.  We’ve all had the experience of being treated as an ‘it’ sometimes.  For example anybody who’s been in hospital can vouch for what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the diagnostic process where you’re poked and prodded, examined and measured and X-Rayed – of course at times that’s just what we need because we trust the doctors to think about us as a system that’s either functioning well or showing signs of malfunction – this objective sort of relationship is what Buber calls ‘I and It’ – unfortunately we also tend to treat people this way when we want something from them, when we treat them as a problem to be solved or an obstacle or even as a resource – when we relate like this we don’t really open ourselves up to a complete and trusting relationship with the other person – instead we stay objective and we treat the other person as an object.  That’s not so good.

The other way of relating to our environment Buber calls ‘I and Thou’, and the difference is that here we take a risk, in this sort of relationship we just want the other person to be themselves, and we just want to show ourselves to the other person as we really are – no pre-conditions, no hidden agendas because there’s really only one reason for relating to somebody like this, and that is because you want them to grow, you want them to reach their full potential, to experience joy – you want the other person’s life to open up just as much as it possibly can – and when two people relate to each other like that then both of them are strengthened, both of them grow in confidence, communicating without words, just being with each other and for each other.

The reality of course is that most of us go back and forth between the two ways of relating a lot of the time, even with people we love, sometimes having ‘I and thou’ moments, other times dropping back into the ‘I and it’ mode –

But the point Buber really wants to make is this – that it’s in the ‘I and thou’ relationships we have with human beings that we come face to face with God.  This is a typically Jewish way of seeing the world, refusing to draw a strict dividing line between matter and spirit, for example, or between human and divine.  The Jewish way of thinking about God is that there is a connection between the holiness of God and the holiness of human beings, when human beings love mercy and justice, when we love each other and seek the best for each other then God becomes visible and takes on flesh in our world.  Like Christian theologians, Jewish thinkers emphasise that God is first and foremost a God of incarnation, a God who seeks to be known in and through the relationships that human beings have with one another.  Which means Christian spirituality is also incarnational, learning to be open and vulnerable with one another, learning to see the face of God in the likely and even the unlikeable faces of everyday life.  We experience the compassion of God when we receive the rare gift of compassion from a stranger, we make God’s compassion visible and real in our world when we show compassion to one of God’s children.  Sounds almost too simple, doesn’t it?

We read today from the epistle to the Hebrews, that strange, very Jewish book of the New Testament that doesn’t get read much in church, hidden up the back of the New Testament where most of us don’t often go.  One of the most striking things about Hebrews is that the writer is really interested in Jesus – unlike Paul who doesn’t say a word about Jesus before the crucifixion and who seems not even to know any of the stories about Jesus’ earthly life – for the writer of Hebrews, as we read today, there are some really important things he wants to say about Jesus the man.

Now for me personally, as a priest, this letter makes compelling reading.  What does it actually mean to be a priest?  What does it mean to be part of the priesthood that we read about in 1 Peter, which is the priesthood of all the baptised?  And Hebrews tells us – two very important qualifications to be a high priest or for that matter, any sort of priest at all.  I’ll get to the first one in a minute but the second qualification is this – you’ve got to be chosen by God.  You don’t get to be a priest because it seemed like a really good job or because it turns out you’ve got the right qualifications.  This whole bit about Melchizedek, you know, Hebrews just loves Melchizedek, that odd character from Genesis who’s both a Canaanite king and a priest – I guess this is a bit the same as how ship’s captains are also qualified to marry people, the ancient pagan understanding of kingship was that the king was also a priest.  So Hebrews is making the point that Jesus didn’t have to be a Levite, he didn’t have to go to priest school because being a priest is about God’s initiative, not human initiative. 

But the first qualification to be a priest is this, that you have to be one of the people.  That’s actually really important, and I find it very, very reassuring.  You’ve got to be human to be a priest, you’re not a priest in spite of your humanness but because of it.  If you can’t make mistakes you can’t understand people who do.  If you can’t recognise your own unholiness, if you can’t recognise and confess your own sinfulness, then you’re not going to be much good to regular flawed human beings.  There’s one of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church, those stuffy old clauses invented by the Reformers, that’s my personal favourite, and for the sake of this one I’m prepared to take them on as a job lot – number 25 - and it’s called, ‘On the unworthiness of the ministers, which hinders not the effect of the sacrament’.  Just as well, really.  Now Hebrews is working up to the point that Jesus is the great high priest, so the writer doesn’t really want to suggest that Jesus is a sinner but he does want to emphasise that being a human being was just as much of a struggle for Jesus as it is for you and for me, and that, I think, is a point worth making.

This is where all three of our readings today connect, because in the gospel reading Jesus refers to his own death as a baptism, and in the Suffering Servant poem of Isaiah we read how God’s will and God’s compassion for the people is revealed through the Servant’s obedient suffering.  The underlying theme of Mark’s gospel is that it’s in Jesus that we can really understand what that means, that Jesus fulfils the Servant prophecy and that the obedient suffering of Jesus somehow shows God’s compassion and God’s care for human beings.  It’s the underlying paradox of faith that theologians wrestle with – how does Jesus’ holy suffering help?  And the writer of Hebrews has got a unique take on that, because he says that Jesus, who cries out to God in the face of death – this verse sounds a whole lot like Mark’s description of Gethsemene where Jesus prays in anguish to be relieved of this dreadful ordeal and yet chooses to trust in the goodness of God’s purposes for him – Hebrews reminds us that on the other side of that suffering was life, and dares to suggest that in this suffering Jesus himself is being perfected.  That Jesus has to struggle towards some completion that can only be accomplished on the other side of death.  According to Hebrews, Jesus’ suffering is part of Jesus becoming who Jesus had to be, the completion of Jesus’ high priestly preparation because it enables him to fully identify with the suffering of human beings.

Jesus is our great high priest not only because he is chosen by God to be God’s Son, but because he dares to offer himself without reservation to what it means to be human, because he knows and embraces the full range of human joy and human suffering.  It comes back to what Martin Buber calls ‘I and thou’, or God’s relational mode of being.  In Jesus, God becomes fully available to us, vulnerable to the point of sharing the depths of human suffering, and the whole point of doing that, the writer of Hebrews wants to suggest, is so that, in Jesus, God can be fully in relationship with us.

The challenge is that it doesn’t stop there.  I guess we all cringe a bit at the lack of understanding when James and John want the top jobs, but the point is that they do share Jesus’ costly baptism, and so do we.  This high priestly mode of being is not just God’s way of impressing us, but God’s way of inviting us into a new way of being ourselves.  Be available.  Be vulnerable.  Be in love.