John the Baptist would never get ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. I mean, just imagine John the Baptist as your pastor. He had a gnarly untrimmed beard and he hadn’t had a haircut in years. He would refuse to wear vestments. His clothes were dirty and torn. He didn’t wear shoes. He looked more like a homeless person than he did a priest. I’m very confident that by today’s standards, John the Baptist couldn’t get a job as pastor at any church, Episcopal of otherwise. He wasn’t interested in church growth. It’s pretty obvious he didn’t care if people gave money to the church or not. And he was critical of most everyone around him, the government, religious leaders, and even those who wanted to be his followers.
When people showed up at the Jordan River, did he put out his hand and say, “Welcome to the Jordan River Episcopal Church?” No. He yelled at them. “You snakes! Why did you come out here?”
When John the Baptist preached, his message was often hard to understand. “The ax is at the root of the tree.” What could that mean? He was saying that we need to change our way of thinking. The tree John is talking about is the Tree of Life referred to in Genesis. In biblical mythology, the Tree of Life had two components; the first, the tree you could see above ground, which was mirrored by the second, the tree you couldn’t see because it was below ground. John was saying this Tree of Life you now see, our current way of thinking, is going to be cut down. What will then grow in its place is the tree below ground, which will be the new Tree of Life. And this new Tree of Life will be a cross.
On this cross will be a man, a unique man, a new Adam. This new Adam will be the Messiah. He will tell us that we will see him when he is raised up on this new Tree of Life, the cross, just like when Moses raised up the serpent on his staff. This Messiah will be the image of both innocence and evil. This new Adam will look like the old Adam. But, the new Adam will tell us that we need to take up our own cross. And that no matter how innocent we think are—we must crucify the serpent that lives within each of us on our own cross. How do we do that? Pray like the Messiah prayed. Like Jesus, the Messiah, the new Adam, taught us to pray. Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Then Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” This type of prayer brings God graced humility into our life.
When I heard about the shooting in San Bernardino, I was stunned. Then when I heard that it happened at a center for people with development disabilities, I got angry. All I could think of was what if that happened at the center that supports my sister. What if her beloved caregivers had been shot? Now, when I look at the faces of the fourteen people who were killed, all I can see is the faces of the two women who take care of my sister on a daily basis. My anger came right to the surface. At that moment, I realized I could kill.
What do I do with this anger? I own it. I say—that’s me. I could kill. By owning the fact that I could be just as violent as the two people who killed fourteen people in San Bernardino, I see myself for who I am. I put my sin of anger on the cross and I crucify it. And then I can pray, “Father forgive the terrorists for they know not what they do. Father, forgive me of my willingness to kill, as I forgive those who sin against me.
When any kind of injustice, any act that does not show love to another human being, is done—I must search in myself to find that sin in my own life. Then place that sin in my life on the cross and crucify it.
John the Baptist was teaching the people that came out to the Jordan River to be baptized into a new way of thinking. That way of thinking would be to think like the man Jesus, who was raised up on the new Tree of Life.
We must think like Jesus. As Saint Paul said, we must put on the mind of Christ, humble ourselves, empty ourselves, and be willing to crucify the things in our life that prevent us from being the love of Christ into this world.
What stops us from crucifying our own sins? We’re afraid. We’re afraid of terror—the terror created within us when we recognize we are no different than the two people that killed fourteen other people in San Bernardino. Fear and terror bring death—physical death a death of the soul. Only forgiveness will heal the fear of death and terror.
The ax is at the root of the Tree of Life. Are we ready for a new way of thinking? Can we pray, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Can we pray “Father, forgive me my sins, as I forgive those who sin against me.” Only forgive can bring healing.
I know this all sounds weird. But if we seriously pray for forgiveness, for others and for our selves, it will change everything. It will change what we eat, what we buy, how we think, how we treat people, and how we vote.